During a surprisingly successful season for the San Diego Chargers, one of the things that did not go well was the overall play of the defense. The Chargers ranked 23rd in the league in yards allowed this season, but only 11th in points allowed. That doesn’t tell the whole story, as Football Outsiders’ DVOA, evaluating efficiency on a play-by-play basis had San Diego 32nd in defensive efficiency, 31st against both the run and the pass. The Chargers ended the season ranked third in overall offensive efficiency, second in pass efficiency and 12th for rushing. Way back in October I wrote about teams since 2007 to rank in the top three of offensive DVOA and the bottom three of defensive DVOA in the same season. The 2013 Chargers became the third team since 2007 to accomplish that feat. Two of the three previous teams fired their defensive coordinator, with one of those teams turning over the entire coaching staff. San Diego broke that trend on Tuesday, announcing they were re-signing defensive coordinator, John Pagano.
Pagano has been a coach with the Chargers since 2005, starting as a linebackers coach under Marty Schottenheimer. When Scottenheimer was let go, Norv Turner kept Pagano as the linebackers coach on his staff. In 2012, Pagano was promoted to defensive coordinator and after Turner was fired following the 2012 season, new head coach Mike McCoy kept Pagano on staff as his defensive coordinator.
The performance in 2012 should be what Chargers fans and the organization look at when assessing Pagano’s ability as a defensive coordinator. The 2011 Chargers ranked 29th in defensive DVOA, a season after ranking seventh. With a very similar group of players, Pagano led San Diego to a raking of 18th. As Turner and general manager A.J. Smith were fired after the season, many underperforming players were also forced to part ways with the organization, including both starting cornerbacks. While neither Antoine Cason or Quentin Jammer were very good — San Diego fans likely noticed Keenan Allen’s explosion against Denver in the Divisional Round came once he became Jammer’s responsibility —it’s a tough task for any defensive coordinator to start a season with two new starting corners. For the majority of the season, Derek Cox and Shareece Wright were not very good and the addition of Richard Marshall after he was released by the Miami Dolphins did not help. Throughout the season, Wright started to improve and towards the end of the season started to close up the black hole the secondary was at the start of 2013. Wright has one year remaining on his contract and Cox still has three more years and a quickly escalating salary. With no roster movement, the Chargers could have stability in the secondary from year to year, but there is likely moves to be made.
San Diego also suffered significant injuries on the defensive side of the ball early in the season. Linebacker Melvin Ingram played in only the final four games of the season, after suffering a knee injury in training camp. Ingram, a former first-round pick, was supposed to be a focal point of the defense and the pass rush. Another pass rusher, Dwight Freeney was lost for the season after only four games. Without the two starting outside linebackers, the Chargers struggled to get a pass rush all season. Both should be back to full strength at the start of next season, which is almost like adding two free agent linebackers without taking on additional salary.
The defensive line was disappointing this season, with Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes not having the dominant impact many expected they would have against opposing offensive lines. Again, a big part of that is the lack of pass rush from the outside. In a 3-4 defense, the defensive ends are not as responsible to get to the passer like a 4-3 defensive end. Without a credible threat from the linebacker position, offensive lines had no problem this season deciding to double team either Liuget or Reyes, which also opened up holes for opposing rushing attacks.
Because of all the injuries, the Chargers also had to rely on young inexperienced players like Manti Te’o, Lawrence Guy, Tourek Williams and Bront Bird. These players were able to gain value by seeing extended time on the field and were able to start to develop even quicker than expected, leaving the Chargers with reliable depth for next season.
There’s not many ways to ague San Diego’s defense wasn’t awful this season, but with many injured players returning and young players continuing to develop, there’s plenty to be optimistic about for next season. John Pagano had a rough time in 2013, but he wasn’t given favorable circumstances to succeed. The Chargers believe the best way to improve is to give most of these same players another year under Pagano and not a training camp worth of learning a new defensive scheme. As reluctant as Chargers fans could instinctively be, it’s time to trust the decisions made by the people in charge of the organization.
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