Chargers Offense Braces for "Sacksonville"
Jason B. Hirschhorn
COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The Chargers have struggled offensively this season, no doubt contributed to the team's 4-8 record. If the unit hopes to reverse that trend Sunday, it must find a way to overcome a frightening group of pass rushers.
Meet "Sacksonville," the Jacksonville Jaguars' star-studded defensive front headlined by Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Josh Allen. The trio has terrorized quarterbacks all season and presents a unique challenge to a battered and bruised Los Angeles offense.
"Their front three -- they have [Yannick Ngakoue], [Josh Allen], and Calais Campbell. Those three guys are a load," Chargers offensive coordinator Shane Steichen says. "We have to be prepared for them and have a plan for those guys. They get after the passer. We have to be ready to roll for those guys."
Though the Chargers offense enters Week 14 with the ninth best pressure rate in the league (23.6%), quarterback Philip Rivers has absorbed more sacks of late. In his last four outings, defenses have taken down Rivers 12 times, the most over any four-game stretch this season. That includes three sacks last Sunday against a Denver Broncos defense operating without both Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Whether because of injuries to the offensive line or tentative play from Rivers, Los Angeles appears increasingly susceptible to the pass rush.
And few defenses feature as much pass-rushing talent as Jacksonville's. Campbell, the 12-year veteran and former first-team All-Pro, serves as the leader of the unit. In Ngakoue, the Jaguars have one of the premier young edge rushers, one capable of taking over games. Allen joined the group earlier this year as the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL draft and has taken little time to leave his mark. Among rookies, he leads all rookies in sacks (nine) and quarterback hits (18) while trailing only Nick Bosa and Maxx Crosby in tackles for loss (10).
"It's been fun to see just the growth in some of the younger guys," Campbell says. "Josh has been growing before my eyes, just seeing his development and how good he's becoming. He's still just scratching the surface. Seeing Yannick's development and just seeing the way he approaches the game, it's been good to watch."
Though not limited to just the trio of Campbell, Ngakoue, and Allen, the Jaguars' pass rush can terrorize offenses in a number of ways. Defensive coordinator Todd Walsh treats the defensive front as positionally fluid, shifting players around like chess pieces depending on the matchup. None move around more than Campbell, whose unusual build (6-foot-8, 300 pounds) allows him to dominate as both a strong and weakside edge defender as well as an interior rusher. Walsh's variable fronts and blitzing forces opposing offenses to adjust on the fly almost every down.
Mobile signal-callers like Lamar Jackson can negate some of Jacksonville's pass-rushing threat by extending plays. Rivers, however, rarely ventures outside the pocket. When he doesn't get rid of the ball quickly, he opens himself up to punishment.
"The NFL has definitely gotten a lot more quarterbacks that are elusive," Campbell says. "It's kind of the way the game is going. You got to have guys that can scramble around I think that's to combat the athletic pass rushers. Rivers is still a smart guy. He knows how to get rid of the ball and not take hits for the most part. But just knowing that you don't have to chase around the guy for 10 seconds trying to get him down is definitely a good feeling."
Still, the Chargers have ways of slow down the Jaguars defense. Play-action can freeze linebackers and create easier passing windows for the quarterback. Screens and quick passes can also negate the effects of a dominant pass rush, and Los Angeles specializes in both.
However, most of those tactics work best when playing in a close game or working with a lead. If the Chargers find themselves down by a sizable margin -- an all-too-common occurrence this season -- then Rivers will have to sit back in the pocket and try to attack the defense vertically. That approach plays right into the Jaguars' hands.
"It's important to pressure the quarterback in this league," Campbell says. "The game is four quarters and you have to be able to stop the run and put pressure on the quarterback to win. But when we do it, we do it well. We're a tough team to beat. We always say you have to earn the right to rush the passer, and then when you, you make them pay. You make them feel you. We have a very talented group of guys who can take turns making plays."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH