Why Chargers drastically changed defenses for Ravens

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Philip Rivers, the only passer in the Class of 2004 left standing, jogged off the field in his grass-green Charger uniform late Sunday afternoon …

Whoa. Chargers wore white against Baltimore. “Grass-green?”

Grass-stained, from shoulder pads to nameplate to numbers, front and back. Equipment guys aren’t getting that baby pristine unless they wash it six times.

“YES! YES!” Rivers yelled, the fire still in his 37-year-old eyes, stopping to hug GM Tom Telesco and owner Dean Spanos outside the locker room after the 23-17 wild-card win over the Ravens.

Lots to unpack after this game. It starts with that defensive plan. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley threw the changeup of the NFL season at Baltimore, making a dominant run game feeble with a seven-defensive-back alignment from the first snap of the game to the last. When Bradley first discussed it with coach Anthony Lynn early in the week, Lynn said, “Are we insane, or what?” Nope. It worked. The Chargers (13-4) flummoxed Baltimore with 58 snaps (out of 59) of seven-DB defense.

The Chargers did this for health reasons—they’re beat-up at linebacker—but also for strategic ones. Instead of playing 240 pounds-250-251 across as their three ‘backers, Bradley wanted to go 195 (Jahleel Addae), 210 (Adrian Phillips), with rookie all-pro safety Derwin James (215) coming into the box at times—like the first defensive snap of the game. Lamar Jackson, the biggest running threat in the league at quarterback right now, broke for the right end on the first play from scrimmage in front of a jacked-up crowd.

Loss of one. James stoned him.

“The momentum of the defense rose from there,” James told me afterward. “When that play happened, we just got so jacked.”

Midway through the first quarter, an NFL GM acquaintance of mine texted me: “Chargers playing with 7 DBs. What’s this all about?” Speed. Quickness. Playing Lamar Jackson. That’s what it was about. “I wasn’t sure how this was gonna hold up,” Lynn said afterward. “They were running for 300 yards lots of games with Lamar playing. Gus felt like getting speed on the field could help contain Lamar. It could help in the passing game, dropping back and taking over routes that our linebackers usually cover. It worked. Our guys, they embraced it. It was risky, but it paid off. We’re talking about going up against a rushing attack that no one can stop right now. And we’re gonna do it with two 200-pound guys?

“What was cool,” said James, “is our DB room, we got seven or eight guys in there everyday. And today, every one of them started and played the whole way, basically.”

It’s infectious being around James, who will compete with Indianapolis linebacker and NFL tackles leader Darius Leonard for Defensive Rookie of the Year. You can tell he loves his space in life. He talked to every media member for as long as he could Sunday, punctuating it with talking on FaceTime to a slew of friends, at one point introducing one to Melvin Ingram. It’s cool to see someone who loves the game and wants to be great acting out his dreams.

“So you guys haven’t lost all year outside L.A.,” I told James. “Why are you so good away from home?”

“It’s fun being around guys who love being into football 24/7,” he said. “We love football. We love it, we love it, we love it. When we get on the road, we get to spend more time together talking football, being together.”

James, Desmond King, Ingram, Michael Davis … The Chargers have picked a bunch of players recently who love football the way Philip Rivers does. That showed up play after play Sunday. Did you notice Rivers acting out Sunday? He got whacked hard by Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon twice in the second half—and Rivers thought both hits came a little late, after he’d released the ball on a pass. So Rivers got fired up at Judon, and they jawed, and Judon at one point looked hurt and struggled to get up. “That’s what you get!” Rivers hollered at him.

And so on the Chargers’ last scoring drive of the game, early in the fourth quarter, Rivers, a plodder, escaped trouble and lumbered nine yards for a first down on third-and-eight. When he got up, Rivers looked like Steve Smith. He thrust his chest out for the 45 Ravens and 70,432 fans to see.

By his locker afterward, no longer grass-stained but still filthy (and deliriously happy), Rivers did his best to dissect how it happened. He did a terrific job of dumping off passes milliseconds before a cover-zero rush would get to him. “They brought cover-zero again on us some, and we took advantage when we got an opportunity for big plays. I told [friend and Baltimore safety Eric] Weddle and [defensive coordinator] Wink Martindale after the game they did a heckuva job. What did we have? A little over 200 yards of offense.”

Now the Rivers will head back to the East Coast late Friday after a full week of prep for the Patriots. And Rivers knows this could be his last shot at the elusive Super Bowl. One of the most annoying NFL storylines, to Rivers, is that his 2004 draft-mates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning have a total of four Super Bowl wins. He has zero.

So, I asked him, will the trip to Foxboro be especially important, with the sands of time running out of the hourglass?

“I think … definitely, probably, maybe I’ll be even more excited. I think probably even a little bit more emotional. You know? So you’re going to Foxboro … That gets me a little bit. Last time we were there in the postseason was 2007, or January ’08, but 2007 season. That’s 11 years ago, you know. Now we’re going back in there … I went in there at 26 and go back in at 37. You know. With a totally different team.

“But because you’re going against a Bill Belichick defense, a Bill Belichick team, and Tom Brady-led team … you’re talking about arguably the greatest of all time. I’m not playing Tom. But it’s always special. Peyton Manning was always a favorite to play. It was special to look over and say, ‘Peyton Manning’s leading that team over there!’ That was special to me. Tom Brady’s gonna be the guy leading that team over there this week. That’s special. I’m not going against Tom, but it’s special.

“I think this team is just … I think we’re a little more weathered. You know? We just been through a lot. We’ve been all over the place. We’ve been to London. We’ve been everywhere on the road and won. We’ve won with defense. We’ve won with offense. We’ve won with kick returns. We’ve won with field goals. There’s no other way we can win. I don’t know that we can be put in a situation and go, ‘Oh gosh, how are our guys gonna respond?’ That doesn’t mean you always win. But I don’t know anything that can come our way that can make us go, ‘Help!’ “

Good vibe out of the Chargers’ cramped locker room Sunday. They’re one-third of the way down the Super Bowl road. That second trip, though. It’s a doozy.

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Why the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

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The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

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