Did the Chargers give us a glimpse at the future of NFL defenses?
Linebackers are getting phased out, but the Chargers’ zero-linebacker game plan was daring and maybe even profound. On the first play from scrimmage Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson pulled back a handoff on a read option and took off himself. Defensive end Joey Bosa nearly ran down the rookie, but when Jackson avoided him, safety Derwin James was there to finish the job for a 1-yard loss. It proved to be a precursor for most of the game. The Ravens struggled to find chunk plays against a defense that tried something unique: getting rid of linebackers altogether. The Chargers relied on four defensive linemen and seven defensive backs for all but one defensive play in the game. The result was a secondary that didn’t give Jackson many options to throw to, and that did a good job of chasing down the elusive quarterback when he tried to run. It was a perfect plan for stopping a unique Baltimore offense, but it was more than that. It may have also been a peek into the future of football. Why ditching linebackers worked against the Ravens The simplest advantage that defensive backs have over linebackers is speed. The advantage for linebackers is size and strength. Typically, having more cornerbacks on the field is a strategy for defending the pass. But the Chargers did it against the Ravens’ run-heavy attack due to the rare speed of Jackson. “Lamar’s fast, he’s real fast,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said after the game. “We thought getting more speed guys in there — we didn’t know if that was going to work — but we wanted to take a look at it. We felt like today, it worked fine. They could run him down a little bit, or at least catch him. With the linebackers in there, the bigger guys, that didn’t work out so well the first time.” That first time was the Chargers’ 22-10 loss to the Ravens in Week 16. Jackson only ran for 39 yards in that game, but the danger he presented with the read option allowed running back Gus Edwards to get 92 rushing yards on 14 attempts. In the postseason rematch, Edwards was held to 23 yards on eight attempts. A player often responsible for reading Jackson’s option plays was Derwin James. The rookie safety played near the line of scrimmage throughout the game, and — thanks to his 4.4 speed — wasn’t intimidated by the athleticism of the Ravens’ quarterback. Here is James on Sunday forcing Jackson to hand the ball off to Kenneth Dixon, while still staying close enough to contribute on the tackle: A slower player like a linebacker would presumably need to stay wider to have a shot at containing Jackson. And if that player was too wide — even by a yard — that would create space for Dixon or Edwards to gash the Chargers. “We needed some fast guys, right? We needed guys who could run sideline to sideline and still help in the passing game if they got fooled,” Chargers safety Rayshawn Jenkins told MMQB. “Not saying our linebackers couldn’t do it, but let’s be honest, DBs are faster than linebackers.” Maybe the Ravens would’ve been wise to counter the Chargers’ DB-heavy defense with a power rushing attack that attempted to bulldoze ahead. With the Los Angeles defense taking away the pass and Jackson’s rushing ability, the Chargers’ vulnerability would seemingly be an offense that blasts up the middle. But early turnovers put the Ravens in a hole and the chance to slowly grind away at the Chargers became less of an option as the game went on. The plan worked because the Chargers have the perfect personnel Now before we laud the Chargers as the geniuses who figured out the Ravens’ rushing attack, it should be noted that it’s not a game plan many teams could follow. For one, the Chargers have James — a 6’2, 215-pound safety who can cover, tackle, and blitz. He was named a first-team All-Pro as a rookie, and was a huge part of stopping Jackson. Los Angeles also has six other defensive backs who can be trusted to never come off the field. Cornerbacks Michael Davis and Casey Hayward were on the field for all 62 defensive snaps. As were James and fellow safety Jahleel Addae. Safeties Adrian Phillips and Rayshawn Jenkins, and cornerback Desmond King were on the field for 61 each. It’s a wildly innovative approach thought up by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to help the Chargers get a win and move on to the Divisional Round. But the whole thing works because those players are good. James and King earned “elite” grades from Pro Football Focus this season, Hayward was “high quality,” Phillips and Davis were “above average,” and Addae was “average.” Los Angeles was also nudged toward the game plan by injuries suffered by its linebackers. Denzel Perryman and Kyzir White are done for the year with knee injuries, and Jatavis Brown was ruled out with an ankle injury. Don’t expect a linebacker-free Chargers defense vs. the Patriots The quarterback of the Ravens and the quarterback of the Chargers’ next opponent couldn’t be more opposite. Jackson is an inexperienced rookie who has used his legs to make up for the fact that he’s still behind the learning curve as a developing passer. He finished the regular season with 695 rushing yards, despite not taking over as the starter until Week 11. Tom Brady is Tom Brady. He’s a 14-time Pro Bowler, a five-time Super Bowl winner, the owner of a ridiculous amount of postseason records, and arguably the best to ever play the position. What he’s not is a runner. Brady rushed for 35 yards in the 2018 season, and needed nearly two decades to get to 1,000 career rushing yards. “Well, that’s a different offense,” Lynn said when asked if he’d keep linebackers out of the lineup again. “That’s a different style. So we’ll look at New England and decide what personnel to use.” But New England’s opposite offensive approach doesn’t necessarily mean the Chargers have to flip things. Having an overload of defensive backs on the field could be the best way to shut down the greatest playoff quarterback of all time. The concern would be that the Patriots will try to punch the Chargers in the mouth the way that the Ravens probably should have. Flummoxing John Harbaugh is one thing, but try doing that to Bill Belichick. New England was No. 3 in the NFL in rushing attempts in 2018 — two spots behind the Ravens, who led the league. Running backs Sony Michel and James White each averaged 4.5 rushing yards per attempt. To combat that, the Chargers could decide that it’s better to have 250-pound linebacker Kyle Emanuel or 235-pound linebacker Hayes Pullard in the middle of their defense instead of a safety. But at this point, it’s clear that you shouldn’t expect to see three, or even two, linebackers on the field often when the Chargers are on defense. That might even be something we see more of in the NFL going forward. Did the Chargers show us the future of football? 2018 was a revolution for offense in the NFL. The 1,371 touchdowns scored in the regular season were 33 more than any other year in NFL history, and quarterbacks had a higher collective completion percentage and passer rating than ever before. To counter more spread out and pass-heavy offenses, NFL teams have begun to phase out slower linebackers. A couple teams ahead of that curve were the Cardinals and Rams, who moved safeties Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron close to the line of scrimmage in “moneybacker” roles a few seasons ago. If the NFL continues its progression toward the air raid schemes of college football, the Chargers’ no-linebacker plan could be the perfect way to challenge offenses. But those days are still off on the horizon — especially with teams like the Seahawks and Cowboys still finding success leaning on the run. Linebackers are disappearing, but they’re not gone yet. The Chargers showed that an NFL team doesn’t necessarily need them to win, though.