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Scouting the Browns’ Week 6 opponent: Los Angeles Chargers - Our Q&A with Bolts from the Blue

We ask about the Chargers’ 3-2 start, their rookie safety, the strength of their offensive line, and more.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns are home to take on the Los Angeles Chargers. To help preview a few topics from the Chargers’ perspective, we reached out to Jamie Sewell from Bolts from the Blue and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!

Chris: “It must be pretty tough to put a label on how good the Chargers are this year. They have faced arguably the two best teams in the NFL and lost both of them, but then beaten arguably the three worst teams in the NFL. Where do season expectations stand for Chargers fans right now?”

Jamie: “Good question! It can’t be often that there’s this kind of disparity in terms of the teams faced five games into the year. The Bills, Raiders, and 49ers (without Jimmy Garoppolo) are all poor teams, and the Chargers picked up the win each time (albeit with a bit of a close call against the 49ers). The Rams were always in control against the Chargers, and while the Chiefs eventually beat the Chargers 38-28, the Chargers spent the majority of that game shooting themselves in the foot. They had at least 6 or 7 crucial drops, including 3 that would have gone for long TDs.

And therein lies the problem. The Chargers are so good at self-destructing and playing down to the competition, even the most talented Chargers teams are never seen as a real threat to make a run - and this is one of the most talented teams the Chargers have had in the past decade. After a huge let down Week 1 against the Chiefs (who have now beaten the Chargers 9 times in a row), it looks like the Bolts might finally be gathering some momentum, but Sunday will be a good test of how true that actually is. It’s a fairly easy schedule down the stretch, and there’s too much talent on paper for the Chargers to miss out on the postseason again, so I’ll pin the expectations at 10-6 and a wildcard spot behind the Chiefs. Honestly, though? Who knows. 8-8 would disappoint me, but it wouldn’t particularly surprise me, either.”

Chris: “Safety Derwin James was the Chargers first round pick, and he currently leads the team in tackles. Tackles don’t always tell the story, though -- how has he performed through 5 games?”

Jamie: “Incredibly. It was shocking to see him fall to #17 in the draft, and it’s even more shocking now that he’s looked every bit as good as advertised, if not better. The Chargers would be 2-3 (or possibly 1-4) without Derwin James. He’s playing some FS, where his range in covering the deep zone is remarkable, but he’s also playing in the box, covering TEs, and rushing the passer - without Joey Bosa, Derwin James has been the best pass rusher the Chargers have had. He’s also played some slot CB! He’s excelled everywhere the Chargers have lined him up, and credit has to go for DC Gus Bradley for utilising Derwin James like the Swiss Army Knife he is, but more credit has to go to Derwin James for - well, for being Derwin James. He had his worst game of the season last week against the Raiders, but it’s unfair to expect him to keep up the same excellent level of play week in, week out. Hopefully, that was just a little blip, and he’ll be back on form against the Browns on Sunday. If it wasn’t for Denzel Ward (and Darius Leonard) I’d say Derwin was the undisputed DROY through the first five weeks, but it’s going to be a fun competition there. The Browns have got themselves a great one in Ward.”

Chris: “What is the strength and weakness of the Chargers’ offensive line?”

Jamie: “This completely changes based on injuries, because both of the Chargers starting tackles were limited in practice all week, and are questionable to play. Russell Okung at LT is pretty good - he made the Pro Bowl last year - although Jerry Hughes for the Bills gave Okung real problems in Week 2. Okung got banged up against the 49ers in Week 4, and missed the game against the Raiders last week. The starting RT is Joe Barksdale, who’s probably a below average starter, although not a complete liability. He does have problems with injuries, though - he got hurt Week 1 against the Chiefs and hasn’t played since - and it’s a guess as to whether Okung and Barksdale are back in, to be honest. If one of them misses out, last year’s 6th round pick Sam Tevi will step into the fold, either at LT or RT depending on which one it is on the shelf. Tevi is pretty athletic, and he’s great as a run blocker, but not all that strong as a pass blocker. He’s improving game by game, but bad things will happen if he has to block Myles Garrett. If both are out, UDFA Trent Scott comes in at RT and Tevi will play LT. Scott was signed as an UDFA from Grambling State, and he’s about as raw as you’d expect. He’s shown flashes, and hasn’t gotten Philip Rivers killed, but the Browns would be licking their chops at going up against him.

At LG is their 3rd round pick from last year, Dan Feeney. He’s struggling, to be honest. PFF have him at a 38.6 overall for the year, which makes him the #71 rated OG. He’s definitely been a weak spot on the line so far. At RG is Michael Schofield. Schofield was originally signed as a G/T depth piece last season, but played well when called upon, and has found himself as the starting RG all season, because Forrest Lamp is, for whatever reason, not getting a look in. Schofield has played well, in fairness, and has probably been the best OL behind C Mike Pouncey. I love Mike Pouncey more than you should love a C. He’s allowed just two pressures all year, but his real strength comes out in space. This man can MOVE. Take a look at this:

Pouncey has been an incredible addition to the team after being cut by the Dolphins this offseason, and is the glue holding a patchwork OL together. In reality, this line isn’t great, but Philip Rivers is able to mask their deficiencies by getting the ball out as quickly as he does. The Browns defensive front poses a nasty test, though, and I’m hoping that Okung and Barksdale are both able to go.”

Chris: “If you were the Browns, which player(s) would they be wise to try to exploit on the Chargers’ defense?”

Jamie:Jahleel Addae had a career year playing as a box safety last year, but the addition of Derwin James has pushed him back into a FS role, which is a position he’s just not cut out for. Addae struggles in coverage, is making bad reads, and takes... uhh, interesting? angles to the ball:

He’s number #37 in this clip, but you probably could tell that. It hurts, because I really like Addae when he’s close to the line of scrimmage, but he’s just not working out at FS. The Chargers LBs also have a problem, because both Kyzir White and Jatavis Brown - the starting OLB and his backup - are out this week (Jatavis is doubtful, but after not practicing all week it’s hard to see him making it). That’s probably going to mean more Nick Dzubnar at OLB, who’s a Special Teamer and should never be playing a single snap on defense. The Chargers LBs have an awful tendency to bite on playaction fakes and open up space over the middle of the field (behind them, but in front of Addae), and I’d say the Browns could have a lot of success by running playaction and looking to expose the Chargers LBs (and Addae) in coverage.”

Chris: “Tell us about a player on offense and a player on defense who are playing a key role for the Chargers this year, but who Browns fans may not have heard of.”

Jamie: “I love being asked this question, because it means I get to talk about Austin Ekeler. Austin Ekeler is very good at football. An UDFA from Western State last year, Ekeler climbed the depth chart in preseason to snag the #3 RB job, and it wasn’t long before he started getting meaningful touches, and making them count. He’s looked even better this year, and despite only seeing about 25 touches a game is usually good for about 120 yards from scrimmage and a TD, whether it be rushing or receiving. The Chargers coaching staff need to find more ways to get Ekeler and Melvin Gordon onto the field at the same time, because Ekeler is probably the second best playmaker on the offense behind Keenan Allen. Gordon and Ekeler are on pace for the most yards from scrimmage ever for a RB duo (a record which Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram set last year), and trust me, that’s not just down to Melvin Gordon. (Personally, I don’t think there’s anything that Gordon actually does better than Ekeler, but that’s not always a popular opinion).

On defense? I was going to say Kyzir White, but he’s out, and that doesn’t leave a lot of choice, because the Chargers defense has been pretty disappointing so far this season. I’ll go with DT Darius Philon and DE Damion Square, because together, they’ve made a defensive line without Joey Bosa look not completely awful. Square started the season at NT, but he’s so much better served at DE, where his size and skillset fits better. Next to him inside is Darius Philon, who is easily the Chargers best interior DL after being a 6th round pick from Arkansas in 2015. Andy Benoit said this last season:

Andy is wrong like usual, because Philon definitely isn’t at that level. But he’s a solid DT, and he’s definitely capable of causing the Browns some problems on Sunday.”

Thanks again to Jamie for taking the time to answer my questions.