The Chargers entered the season cautiously confident they had a defense that could win a Super Bowl. With defensive guru Brandon Staley designing schemes for a star-laden unit including a healthy Joey Bosa and J.C. Jackson, Los Angeles thought this group was sturdy and solid.
And then Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill ran over, around and through that defense in a historically ominous start to the Bolts’ season.
Los Angeles yielded a franchise-record 466 yards passing in its 36-34 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, and that massive number was just the beginning of the Chargers’ woes.
“It’s definitely a humbling loss defensively, knowing that we didn’t help the offense at all,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said. “We’ve just got to get it corrected and be ready for next week.”
The Chargers gave up 536 total yards, the most they’ve allowed in an opener. Los Angeles couldn’t cover Hill (11 catches for 215 yards) and couldn’t counter Tagovailoa’s playmaking acumen.
They also couldn’t stop making crucial mistakes, none more glaring than Jackson’s 30-yard pass interference penalty at the halftime gun to gift three points to Miami in a two-point loss.
While Staley and his players gave credit to the Dolphins’ offense for an exceptional performance, the Chargers also admitted they weren’t what they expect to be.
“The defense, we didn’t come out and have a good game,” safety Derwin James said. “We didn’t make the stops we’re supposed to make. We’ve got to do better for the offense. We will be better.”
The Chargers broke the franchise record of 453 yards passing allowed to the St. Louis Rams in November 2002. The Bolts also gave up the second-most yards passing allowed by any NFL team in a season opener, surpassed only by Miami’s 516 air yards allowed to New England in 2011.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Chargers pressured Tagovailoa only five times on 46 dropbacks, resulting in no sacks and just two quarterback hits. That’s not an encouraging number for a defense heavily invested in vaunted pass rushers Bosa and Mack, who combined for only three tackles and didn’t really lay a hand on Tua.
The mistakes were big and small, but the one that glared brightest was Jackson’s inexplicable decision to shove Erik Ezukanma 30 yards downfield when Tagovailoa made a low-percentage heave from midfield right before halftime. Miami converted the penalty into a 41-yard field goal that infuriated Jackson’s teammates.
“Man, y’all going to make me curse, man,” Mack said with a grimace. “I was pissed off. Nevertheless, you’ve got to look at it and get it corrected. Championship football is not played that way, and we want to be champions. That’s not acceptable.”
Jackson, the $82.5 million cornerback who missed the final 11 games of last season, made two more glaring mistakes: He ran an interception out of the end zone for only 4 yards in the third quarter, and he was beaten on Hill’s 35-yard TD catch a few minutes later.
Staley bluntly said Jackson’s performance was “not very good. Everybody on defense today that was covering did not have a good game. It was not just J.C. Jackson. It was our entire back seven didn’t have a great game. It starts with me, as the coach, and I have to do a better job.”
The defense wasted a 433-yard, 34-point performance by Justin Herbert and an offense that did enough to win, according to Staley.
When Chargers receiver Keenan Allen was asked where his team must improve overall, he had a quick answer: “I think get off the field on third down defensively. That would be big for us, giving the offense more opportunity. We put up 34, and if we get a couple of stops on defense, that might turn into 44.”
Staley repeatedly credited the Dolphins, whose top talents played exceptionally well. When the Chargers hosted Miami last December, they held Tagovailoa, Hill and the offense to just 127 yards passing in a 23-17 victory.
“Sometimes games like this happen in the NFL,” Staley said. “The last time we played these guys, it was the other way. Sometimes, you’re going to have a game where you light it up, and sometimes in a game with that type of skill over there, you can get lit up.”