Ailing Chargers Defense Waiting for Derwin James, Adrian Phillips to Return
With a game against the Kansas City Chiefs fast approaching, the Los Angeles Chargers' ability to slow down reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes takes centerstage. Though injuries have hit each level of the defense, the absence of Derwin James and Adrian Phillips looms large over the unit.
James has yet to play in a game this season after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his right foot during training camp. The Chargers placed James on injured reserve shortly after final cuts to provide him the opportunity to return later this year, but his exact status remains unclear. The injury forced the All-Pro safety into a walking boot for several months, and though James became eligible to return off IR in Week 9, he only recently began working off to the side during practices.
The Chargers have played without Adrian Phillips for nearly as long. Phillips joined James on IR in mid-September after fractured his forearm during a Week 2 loss to the Detroit Lions. Phillips' absence left the defense without his reliable tackling and smarts and forced the secondary into a steady diet of undrafted rookie Roderic Teamer and journeyman Jaylen Watkins at strong safety with Rayshawn Jenkins taking the reins in centerfield.
Though far from the only injuries to hit the Chargers this year, the combination of losing James and Phillips has contributed to the issues affecting the defense. Los Angeles has struggled all year to slow opposing passing games, allowing 7.3 yards per throw, the 10th highest mark in the NFL. Opposing quarterbacks have a combined rating of 100.5, eighth highest in the league. The unit ranks 21st against the pass by DVOA, and that placement would look worse if not for an uncharacteristic performance against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago.
With the Chargers' playoff hopes dangling by a thread, the defense cannot continue to perform as it has most of the season, a difficult task without either James or Phillips.
Fortunately for Los Angeles, the two impact safeties appear close to making comebacks. The team designated Phillips to return off IR on Thursday, starting a 21-day clock in which he can rejoin the 53-man roster. Though Phillips appears unlikely to play Monday against the Chiefs, he seems well on track for the Chargers' next game on Dec. 1 against the Denver Broncos.
"He's very experienced for us, and always brings a sense of calm as far as trust because you know where he's going to be and how he's going to play," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley says of Philips. "When he's capable of playing, it'll be good."
Meanwhile, James has ramped up his rehab. He performed agility work to the side of practice multiple days this week, his most extensive public work since his foot injury. Though he remains on IR, the Chargers can activate James at any time. With the bye arriving next week, it would not come as a surprise to see James back on the field when the team reconvenes to prepare for the Broncos.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH