A little more than two weeks ago, the Ravens invaded the 27,000-seat temporary home of the Chargers and won handily, deploying an offensive game-plan that was at the same time old-school and antiquated and visually unappealing yet somehow innovative and intriguing and—most importantly—undeniably effective. That day, the Ravens amassed 160 rushing yards at a 4.5 yards per carry clip, which enabled them to control time of possession and keep the chains a-moving’. (If you’re reading this blog, chances are you cheer for the Steelers, which means that you probably watched this game; a loss by Baltimore would’ve enabled the Steelers to clinch the AFC North by winning just one of their remaining two contests.) Last weekend, the Chargers headed eastward and returned the favor; instead of adjusting their offensive game-plan, though, the Chargers made changes on the other side of the ball.
You see, NFL coaches are oftentimes very stupid—for instance, some coaches thought that Lamar Jackson, who played no small role in guiding the Ravens to a 6-1 finish and dragging them into the postseason, should play wide receiver in the NFL, this despite Jackson winning the Heisman as a quarterback and, duh, literally never catching a single pass in college; other coaches, meanwhile, use depth linebackers to cover elite NFL receivers—but they aren’t dummies, which is to say that the defensive coaches of a team who lost to an offense that’s unconventional by modern NFL standards but largely analogous to many college systems are gonna do their homework and develop a counter strategy. Gus Bradley and his staff presumably watched film of the Ravens, which led them to the very obvious diagnosis that, by employing a dizzying bevy of play-fakes and read-options, the Ravens could sneak Jackson—a veritable read-option virtuoso with 4.3 speed—or his meaty backfield counterpart Gus Edwards six or seven yards upfield past the linebackers before the defense could react.
The antidote for this? Jam a whole daggum bunch of defensive backs right on in there, that’s what. This incredible statistic, per Adam Schefter:
Chargers utilized 7 defensive backs on 58 of their 59 defensive snaps Sunday, per NFL Next Gen Stats. They used 7 defensive backs 50 times in the regular season, which accounted for just 5% of their snaps. No team had used 7 DBs on more than 18 snaps in a game this season.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 6, 2019
And it worked! By stacking the tackle box with speedy and positionless defense backs, the Chargers managed to prevent Jackson and Edwards from wiggling their way through traffic for significant gains and seal off outside running lanes. All told, they held the Ravens to 90 yards on 23 carries and, for most of the game, completely abated Jackson (Jackson finished the game with a hair under 200 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, which was the result of a monstrous comeback bid in the fourth quarter—not bad for a guy who should be playing receiver, apparently). That’s no small feat given that, in the seven weeks preceding this contest, the Ravens averaged 230 rushing yards per game.
I wish the Steelers could do this! They can’t, of course, because they, unlike the Chargers, are not replete with amorphous defensive backs like Derwin James, Adrian Phillips, and Jahleel Addae, but instead employ the likes of Coty Sensabaugh and the cursed Artie Burns, who in an alternate universe populated by blanket people would be cheesecloth. Even if the Steelers did have, say, Derwin James, a player for whom I’d trade my kidney, I have absolutely no faith in the collective ability of Pittsburgh’s defensive coaching staff to do anything of tangible value with him. Like, giving Keith Butler free rein to coach Derwin James would be the spiritual equivalent to giving a dog a Rubix Cube: the commodity in question will almost certainly be used, but there’s little chance it’ll be used correctly.
And that’s the end of the article. I have no concluding remarks other than that I really wish not only that the Steelers secondary was more versatile, but that it could go seven-deep with real, legitimate NFL talent. Alas, it is not and it cannot. I’m sorry that this article was so dumb. Maybe we’ll add some multidimensional defensive backs with broad, malleable skill sets in free agency and the draft.