Film study: Chargers have turned their season around by winning on third down

The Chargers got off to a rocky start in Los Angeles. They opened with four straight losses and were the butt of jokes for not being able to sell out a 27,000-seat soccer stadium. Even more deflating: three of their first four losses came by three points or less. 

Now, however, things are quite different. The Chargers have won six of their last eight and are riding a three-game win streak with the Redskins coming to town in Week 14. They look like contenders in the AFC West, tied for first in the division with the free-falling Chiefs and the disappointing Raiders.

This is the second three-game win streak that the Chargers have enjoyed this season. They defeated the Giants, Raiders and Broncos to climb back to 3-4, then lost to the Patriots and Jaguars, dropping to 3-6. This streak, however, feels different than the first. They dominated the Bills and then crushed the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. They then beat the Browns in a difficult 19-10 game, but they looked in control throughout. Now at .500, they're hoping to make the leap with a win over the Redskins.

The biggest difference for the Chargers right now is simple: They're keeping their offense on the field. The Chargers are first in the league in average time of possession over the last three games, with an incredible 35:42. Now, time of possession is a stat that needs a lot of contextualizing. What if a team is just scoring faster? Well, the Chargers are fifth in opponent points per game over this streak, sitting at 13.3 points allowed over their last three games. Indeed, the defense is quietly fourth in the NFL in points allowed, giving up only 17.7 per game. The tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram has been dominant, and Casey Hayward is having one of the best seasons of any cornerback in football.

The Chargers defense isn't complicated. It doesn't have to be. Gus Bradley is used to scheming around talent -- he was the defensive coordinator for the famed Legion of Boom in Seattle. For the Chargers, the idea is actually similar. Let Ingram and Bosa wreak havoc, give Hayward rope on the receiver on the outside, let Tre Boston help Trevor Williams over the top. It's a simple blueprint, but it works.

All of this to say, defense was hardly the problem for the Chargers when they were struggling. The offense just couldn't click for whatever reason, and there was the nagging problem, just like in years past, of the Chargers being able to close out games. During the last three weeks, the Chargers have blown out their opponents. The real test will come when they have to run a four-minute drill in a tight game .

For now, however, all we have is what they've done. And what they've done is beat up on teams in the trenches. Against the Bills, the Chargers ran the ball 35 times and passed it 37. Against the Cowboys, they had a 1:1 run-pass ratio, at 33-33. Against the Browns, we saw a much more imbalanced offense, with the Chargers running 25 times and passing 43. This was smart play-calling, since the Browns have the sixth-ranked run defense in the league vs. the 17th-ranked pass defense. Clearly Anthony Lynn and Ken Whisenhunt saw something that they liked on the tape, and even though the win was ugly, it was still a win.

During their win streak, the Chargers are 24-43 on third down, a mark of 56 percent. During their 3-6 start, the Chargers went 34 percent on third down (38-112). Games are won and lost on third down. Los Angeles has not proven to be the exception.

One way that the Chargers are finding more success is by getting creative in their third down play-calling, in addition to using route combinations to free up receivers deep in the secondary.

Here's one example. This route combination on third and 10 is really nifty. The inside receiver Keenan Allen (2) is going to run an out route, while the topside receiver Hunter Henry (1) runs and in-and-out. This play is eventually completed to Travis Benjamin (3) on a post route. The Cowboys are in a dollar, or 3-2-6, defense. The Chargers have 11 personnel on the field, with the tight end and running back lining up up top.  

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This doesn't create matchup problems so much as it creates confusion in what appears to be a Cover 2 Man defense from the Cowboys. This is the moment that it all falls apart for the Cowboys secondary, and the route combination comes into play. Allen (2) is going to cut underneath Benjamin's (3) post route. The free safety starts to bite down on Allen's route, thinking that he can pass Benjamin off to the strong safety. The strong safety, however, hasn't seen Benjamin's route, and he thinks that his responsibility is the tight end Henry running an in. The top-side corner for the Cowboys has no one to cover, so he settles into a zone on the outside. Once Henry breaks back out, he'll become his responsibility, but the strong safety hasn't accounted for this.

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The old adage for a safety is "don't let anyone behind you," which makes this image ... not great if you're watching the tape on Monday. Benjamin is behind everyone, and with a slightly better throw this play would go for six.   

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But as it stands, Benjamin gets a 46-yard gain on third down and the Chargers keep the ball (and to be fair Philip Rivers was flushed out before making this throw).

This third-and-11 drag is another way to exploit man-to-man coverage, and it highlights great decision-making from Philip Rivers. Keenan Allen runs a flag while Tyrell Williams runs a drag underneath. No. 30, Anthony Brown, is matched up on Williams. Brown starts the play deep in the secondary, and he'll end up getting picked off by Allen when Allen breaks on his flag. The Cowboys bring pressure that the Chargers pick up, which frees up the middle of the field for Williams.  

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This is the moment that Allen picks Brown off. Williams is free underneath, and there is minimal help topside. What's more, that help is occupied. Rivers is actually still looking at Allen, his no. 1 read on this play. However, upon realizing that the numbers in the secondary don't add up, he's able to find Williams coming across the middle.  

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Williams broke off a 31-yard gain on this play. Every time the Cowboys played man, it felt like they were exploited in some way. All of Williams' yardage on this play comes after the catch, sans about three yards, but that makes sense when there are five men in coverage, and four running routes. By the way, this isn't a pick play. Allen leads one Cowboys defender into another, he doesn't initiate the contact himself.

All of this is fine, but why is it different that the games the Chargers lost? For starters, the way that they diagram their plays has become a lot less reliant on receiver speed and athleticism. There's nothing wrong with counting on receivers to make a play, but ideally if you have to bomb it you want it to be on second or even third and short. When the defense is relying on pass, completing passes gets a lot harder.

This third-and-11 play call is, by no means, bad. It calls for Benjamin to cut into the middle of the field where there should, in theory, be space. Meanwhile, Hunter Henry runs a post from the outside while the slot receiver cuts underneath him. It's a tried-and-true combination. What it doesn't combat, however, is the Cover 3 defense that the Eagles run against it. Benjamin appears to be the only read on this play for Rivers, and although the theory is sound, the execution is not.  

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There comes a time in every zone's life where it must become man. The Eagles could not possibly play this better. There is an outside corner accounting for the out, an outside corner accounting for the post, a topside corner handling the isolated receiver and a player underneath for the running back. Most important, Benjamin is in the middle of the field. He could choose to sit here, but the Eagles are playing the sticks and he would still be short. Even with all of these Eagles in coverage, there's still a safety to take away the deep ball.  

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This forces Rivers to fit the ball into an impossibly tight window. The ball falls harmlessly incomplete, and the Chargers face fourth down.  

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Anything over 8 yards on third down is, by its nature, difficult to convert of course. However, there are schemes and combinations that allow teams to do it. No matter how many players get into coverage for a defense, there will always be holes. What stands out for the Chargers is how many weapons they have. Whether it's the all-around athleticism of Allen, the sure hands of Henry, the speed of Benjamin or the versatility of Melvin Gordon, Rivers has options on third down. Lynn and Whisenhunt are allowing Rivers to dig into those options.

Coaches can diagram the best play scheme in the world, but it won't matter if the players can't execute. The biggest different between these Chargers and the ones earlier this year is that they're making plays. Film and squiggly lines are fine, but at the end of the day, the players define how plays will go. They're making the plays right now. They have to continue doing so. Another fun fact: Philip Rivers does not have an interception during this streak, and he's thrown only one in the Chargers' six wins. When Rivers protects the ball, everything is gravy for the Chargers. They'll have to hope for that to continue.

With all of this being said, the Chargers have a long way to go. As impressive as they've been, the Bills and Cowboys are both in the middle of putting out fires, and the Browns are, to be frank, the Browns. The Chargers have to prove that they can beat some good teams if they're going to make the playoffs. But if they do get in, then watch out. Because with the way they've been going, they aren't going to be an easy out. 

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