At the Post-Match press conference after one of the more memorable Wembley games in recent years, Los Angeles Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn was in an expectedly great mood. Unprovoked- he told reporters how happy he was with the win as soon as he walked through the door. After a painful start to the 2017 season, Lynn came under fire for bland-playcalling and special teams failures. Just over a year on, he has one of the highest approval ratings of any Coach in the League.
Lynn’s presser was upbeat and full of praise, but one comment intrigued me more than all the others. Tyrell Williams scored on the Chargers first offensive play with a 75-yard touchdown. From the stands it looked like a vanilla coverage that was simply exposed by a nice route from the speedster, but Lynn took a different view. He told reporters that he and his QB coach Shane Steichen ‘knew’ it was going to be a touchdown. The Chargers used pre-snap motion to pull the Titans linebackers close to the line of scrimmage.
This was meant to be a contain coverage from the Titans, as they overcommitted to stopping the out route by Keenan Allen. Tyrell Williams then blew past Logan Ryan and scored what became an easy touchdown. In the words of Lynn, ‘that’s preparation’, plain and simple.
Tyrell Williams echoed similar thoughts, saying that they had worked on that play throughout the week and knew it would generate a huge chunk of yards against a conservative Titans coverage.
In some ways, the Chargers used their tendencies in the first six weeks to set themselves up for this play. Only the Cowboys ran a higher percentage of runs on first down than Lynn’s Chargers entering the game. And not only were the Chargers run-heavy, but they were effective at it. They averaged six yards per carry on first down runs, second to only the Carolina Panthers.
YouTube: Philip Rivers Launches 75-Yd TD to Tyrell Williams!
Sean Culkin’s pre-snap motion drew all three Titans linebackers underneath, simply because they were worried about the potential of a run up the middle. Not only is this an outdated philosophy on the defensive side of the ball, but it makes little sense to play this way when Melvin Gordon isn’t on the field.
While the Titans mistakes did play a part in this early touchdown, the play was an aggressive risk from the Los Angeles Chargers, and the type that has propelled them into being Super-bowl contenders. The end of Mike McCoy’s reign at the Chargers was characterised by bland and predictable play-calling. Anthony Lynn was brought in to work alongside Ken Whisenhunt and fix this, but the 2017 season looked as if Lynn was just Mike McCoy wearing a mask.
As Warren Sharp outlined in an excellent and revealing article, the Chargers play-calling in 2017 was bland. This, alongside some historically comical special teams play, completely derailed the Chargers season. GM Tom Telesco has built a superb roster and drafted very well, but bland play-calling from Lynn and Whisenhunt caused this roster to stagnate and get stuck in NFL purgatory.
The Chargers ran the ball in 2017 on first down at the third-highest rate, but they were joint last in success rate. Of the 44 qualified running backs, Melvin Gordon ranked dead last terms of efficiency on first down, but Anthony Lynn still force fed him.
So how does this relate to the 2018 Chargers? Well in honesty, not a lot has changed philosophically. The simple difference is that the Chargers have gotten good at running on first down, and can now kind of justify it. Only the Dallas Cowboys have opted for a higher percentage of first-down runs, but the Chargers have been highly efficient on them this year. These successful runs have taken the pressure off Phil Rivers as he faces less third and longs than he did last year, but they have changed the way that defenses play against them. For right or wrong, teams are having to stack boxes to stop the run and to stop Keenan Allen, who runs a lot of hitches and slants underneath.
But there is a sense of aggression from this team that has been lacking in recent years. Tyrell Williams’ early touchdown emphasized this. As did Mike Williams’ touchdown later on in the game. This is a team that has moved away from the predictable two-tight end sets and stick plays that Mike McCoy lived on throughout his career. This is a vertical offense with two excellent deep threats who can take advantage of stacked boxes, and the extra safety coverage that Keenan Allen receives every time he runs a slant or an out route.
The first play of the game only counted for seven points, but it symbolised what this Chargers team has become. This is an aggressive team who’s improved efficiency has propelled them into the AFC Championship race. This team has always historically been able to make big plays, but a lot of those big plays felt forced because Phil Rivers nearly always had to turn on gunslinger mode. Now, they play with a clearer mind, and their preparation actually matters as they are now able to stay on script.
Phil Rivers’ interception stats are down, but he is still an aggressive quarterback. There is an element of control about this Chargers team, and with Joey Bosa nearly back, they should be feared.