COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Chargers (7-6) host the Titans (7-6) on Sunday afternoon at SoFi Stadium.
Tennessee leads the AFC South and is currently in fourth place in the AFC playoff race heading into Week 15.
The Chargers are in second place in the AFC West and in eighth place in the AFC playoff race. If they win their final four games, they will make the postseason, according to the New York Times’ playoff simulator.
The Chargers are favored by three points over the Titans, according to odds from BetMGM.
This is the Friday Notebook.
Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. (quad) is listed as doubtful for Sunday. He did not practice this week and is unlikely to play. James suffered the quad muscle injury in the Chargers’ Week 13 loss at the Raiders. He has not practiced since. James was on the field for Friday’s practice and stretched with his teammates during the activation period, his first time doing so since the injury. But he was watching defensive back drills as the individual period of practice started.
Alohi Gilman started at safety in place of James for last week’s win over the Dolphins. He is expected to do so again Sunday against the Titans.
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Offensive tackle Trey Pipkins III (knee), defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day (back/knee) and cornerback Bryce Callahan (core muscle) are all listed as questionable. Pipkins and Callahan both practiced fully Friday after being limited Wednesday and Thursday. Joseph-Day was limited Friday, and the Chargers added a back injury to his designation in the final game status report.
Tight end Donald Parham Jr., who has been on injured reserve since Week 9 with a hamstring injury, is expected to return on Sunday. He was officially designated for return last week and has now practiced for two full weeks. The Chargers would have to add him to the active roster by Saturday at 1 p.m. PT.
For the Titans, edge rusher Denico Autry (knee), wide receiver Treylon Burks (concussion), safety Amani Hooker (knee), cornerback Kristian Fulton (groin), cornerback Tre Avery (concussion), wide receiver C.J. Board (rib) and running back Dontrell Hilliard (neck) have all been ruled out.
Running back Derrick Henry got a day off for rest on Thursday, but he practiced fully Friday and came off the Titans’ injury report.
How can the Chargers defend Derrick Henry?
The Titans enter Sunday with a relatively inefficient rushing attack overall. They rank 20th in rushing DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric, and 25th in expected points added per designed rush, according to TruMedia.
But do not be mistaken: For the Chargers, this game comes down to slowing Henry, who is the second in the league in rushing behind the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs. The Chargers are 25th in rush defense DVOA and 29th in EPA/designed rush.
How do the Chargers attack Henry? To state the obvious, they have to tackle well. The Chargers showed improvement in that area last week against the Dolphins, but Henry is a much different challenge than Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.
Henry has 1,199 rushing yards on the season. Of those, 1,014 yards have come after contact, which leads the league, according to TruMedia. Henry also leads running backs with at least 100 carries in the percentage of rushing yards that have come after contact at 84.6 percent, according to TruMedia. No other running back is over 80 percent.
Teams have tried to defend Henry by throwing bodies to the line of scrimmage and loading the box. Among running backs with at least 100 carries, Henry has faced the second-highest rate of boxes with at least eight defenders, according to TruMedia, at 56.8 percent.
The Chargers will likely try and mix in some of these loaded boxes, especially if the defense gets off to a slow start defending the run. Against the 49ers in Week 10, the Chargers frequently deployed a six-man front, with four interior defensive linemen and two edge rushers, one of which was James. Drue Tranquill was the only inside linebacker in those packages. Overall, the Chargers played 27.14 percent of their defensive snaps with eight or more defenders in the box in that game, according to TruMedia, their third-highest rate in any game this season.
Coach and defensive play caller Brandon Staley could lean into a similar plan this week, stacking the box to limit Henry. But how they do that could differ from the San Francisco game. James will likely be out, and the Chargers would have to change the player on the edge in the six-man front. In addition, as defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko explained to me this week, there are “pros and cons” to using the six-man front.
“You’re thick inside,” Fehoko said. “Everywhere inside, all run lanes are closed. You hope your edges are good, but where you have your weakness is you have one linebacker behind the ball, so as a run front, we can’t let their running back get to the second level. We’re sacrificing an extra guy to put on the line of scrimmage, so you’re banking on that run, setting edges, making sure that thing bounces inside to the help.”
If the front does not hold up, then Henry is one-on-one with a linebacker, and that is what the Titans are hoping to accomplish.
The Titans try to create these one-on-ones for Henry in the open field in a variety of ways. But Fehoko said they major in outside zone, with offensive linemen all blocking in one direction laterally. Running backs will typically take an outside handoff or pitch in these run schemes and read the blocks before making one cut upfield.
And that is where Henry thrives: Getting north and south, particularly on the perimeter. More than half of the Titans rushes this season have gone either off tackle or to the end, right and left, according to Football Outsiders.
“They scheme up the run game to where he’s one-on-one, whether it’s with a linebacker, an edge player, a safety or a DB,” Fehoko said. “They’ll sprinkle in a little bit of in-between-the-tackles run game, but a lot of their run game is when he gets going and he’s one-on-one with somebody in the open field, whether it’s at the line of scrimmage, five yards past the line of scrimmage, 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. And that’s where their success is. So the challenge necessarily isn’t, ‘Oh, we got to beat up on their O-line.’ The challenge is not allowing him to be one-on-one, and that’s by getting more bodies to the ball carrier.”
The key with Henry is to prevent him from gaining momentum.
“If you allow him to get top speed by his fifth, sixth step,” Fehoko said, “that’s where you’re done.”
And there are several ways to achieve this. Penetration from defensive linemen is one way to cause disruption in the backfield and force Henry to move laterally or hesitate. But if that penetrating defensive lineman misses a tackle, then it can lead to explosive plays. Fehoko, instead, preached patience on the interior and attacking the track of the guards and centers to cause that disruption. The Chargers have to win that battle at the point of attack to prevent Henry from getting to that third or fourth step without hesitation.
“Don’t let that man build speed,” Fehoko said. “That’s the key this week.”
Part of that is setting good edges. When Henry does take outside zone handoffs or pitches, the Chargers edge rushers have to be stout. If they hold their ground, that can also lead to the hesitation from Henry that the defense is looking for.
“It’s just our job to kind of make him stop his feet, especially if they’re trying to get to the edge,” Chargers edge rusher Khalil Mack said. “We got to just play physical football. Dominate their tight ends, dominate their tackles, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Those matchups will come on the edge. And Mack is eager for the challenge.
“Hopefully they do try it,” Mack said, “so I’ll be there and I’ll be ready.”
Red zone offense
The Chargers offense enters this game against the Titans ranked 27th in red zone touchdown rate and 28th in goal-to-go touchdown rate.
The Chargers must improve in this area if they are going to make the playoffs. They cannot settle for field goals. They have to score touchdowns when they get inside the 20. The struggles in this section of the field are a big reason why they have not been able to separate in games. Six of their seven wins have been by six points or less.
Heading into Week 15, the Chargers are tied for the league lead in red zone field goals with 20. They are moving the ball and setting themselves up with opportunities. Their 48 red zone drives this season are tied for second, trailing only the Chiefs. But they are converting those drives into touchdowns less than half the time.
“We definitely should be performing better there than we have been,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said this week.
I have seen four main issues with the red zone offense this season.
1. The Chargers have yet to start a game this season with their full stable of offensive weapons. Keenan Allen did not play a full game until Week 11. Mike Williams suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 7 and only played six offensive snaps over the next five games. Parham, who is one of the Chargers’ best red zone threats with his 6-foot-8 frame, has only played 37 offensive snaps this season because of multiple hamstring injuries and a concussion. Those three players combined for 12 red zone touchdowns in 2021. They have just five this season — four from Williams and one from Allen. The Chargers have relied heavily on running back Austin Ekeler as their red zone threat. He has 11 of their 20 red zone touchdowns this season. Succeeding in the red zone is about having players who can win matchups, and because of injuries, the Chargers just have not had those players on the field enough this season.
2. Penalties. The Chargers have seven red zone penalties this season, tied for the seventh most in the league, according to TruMedia. Six of those penalties came on red zone trips that ended in field goals. The seventh was an illegal formation penalty on a kneel down at the end of the win over the Raiders in Week 1. If even three of those six drives had ended in touchdowns instead of field goals, the Chargers would rank 17th in red zone efficiency instead of 27th.
3. The Chargers’ first-down rushing efficiency in the red zone has not been good enough. They rank 26th in EPA/designed rush on first downs in the red zone, according to TruMedia. That has created far too many known-passing situations on second downs in the red zone, which is not keeping defenses honest. Some better production on first-down runs would give the Chargers offense more options on second downs.
4. Justin Herbert suffered fractured rib cartilage in Week 2, and that significantly limited his mobility until after the bye week. A quarterback’s ability to escape the pocket and create, both out of structure and on designed bootlegs, is absolutely crucial in the red zone. Not having that facet of the offense for a five-week span affected the season numbers. Still, the Chargers rank 26th in red zone touchdown rate since after their bye week, according to TruMedia. So that is not the only explanation.
“Far too often down there, this season, we’ve been put in passing situations early in the downs, on second down,” Staley said this week “The space is tighter down there. We definitely need to stay away from penalties. That’s been, I think, a theme for me, when I look at the 13 games we’ve played. I think that we’ve had far too many of these down there. Then, you have to stay away from negative plays, whether it’s sacks or negative run plays. I think that running the football allows you to do that. I think that we just want to be more consistent in doing that and create that mindset of them having to defend all 11 (players) and really allowing our O-line to come off the football and dictate the pace of the game. It’s a work-in-progress, but definitely committed to making it better.”
(Top photo: Harry How / Getty Images)