Week 9 has arrived, and the Atlanta Falcons have climbed to 4-4 and first place atop the NFC South after a crazy win over the Carolina Panthers. Atlanta now has another opportunity to get their first winning record against the Los Angeles Chargers, and the Falcons are currently 3-point underdogs according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you all incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Chargers, so I’ve enlisted the help of a Los Angeles expert: Michael Peterson. Michael is a producer over at SB Nation’s Chargers site, Bolts from the Blue.
I brought five questions to Michael to try to get a better read on how the Chargers have fared over their first seven games, including an update on their injury-ravaged WR depth chart and the team’s ability to stop the run.
Q1. It’s no secret that the strength of the Falcons offense is the run game and that the weakness of the Chargers defense is against the run. Why has Los Angeles struggled so much to stop the run, and how big of a concern is this potential mismatch?
Michael Peterson: Stopping the run will always be a concern for this team until they finally figure out how to do it in Brandon Staley’s system. The whole scheme “invites” the run (light boxes pre-snap) since the average run gains less yards than the average pass play. However, if the players executing the system aren’t capable of getting the job done, then that’s a massive problem. The loss of Joey Bosa was huge and needs no further explanation. The linebacker group is weak outside of Drue Tranquill and the secondary has been hit-or-miss on securing runs that break into the second and third levels. Two of the team’s worst-graded players this year by Pro Football Focus have been cornerback J.C. Jackson and linebacker Kenneth Murray. Jackson is out for the year but Murray remains a starter and he’s been a liability against the run due to the inability to take on and shed blocks. Safety Nasir Adderley was benched against the Browns due to his poor tackling performance the week prior, as well. For whatever reason, the Chargers built a team with far too many players that can’t seem to make an impact in stopping the run.
Q2. Despite the loss of Joey Bosa and JC Jackson, the Chargers have managed to remain above-average against the pass. How is the depth performing in the absence of those two stars, and how confident are you in the defense’s ability to slow down Atlanta’s efficient but low-volume passing game?
Michael: Jackson was arguably the worst starter on the team before his injury. PFF had him graded as the worst defender on the field in his final two games while still being in the bottom three in several other contests. When he was benched against the Broncos, the defense actually looked better when Michael Davis played the entire second half. It’s crazy to say — and I hate to say it — but he will not be missed this season.
The depth behind Bosa was “fine” for a few weeks but now that depth is also gone. Both Kyle Van Noy and Chris Rumph II split time opposite Khalil Mack but Rumph II is not out a handful of weeks with a sprained MCL. Van Noy will start against the Falcons with little to no depth behind him. Jeremiah Attaochu, a former draft pick by the Chargers almost a decade ago, was signed off the street and will provide backup alongside Derek Tuszka.
Marcus Mariota has played well against Chargers in the past and I expect that to continue. His mobility will likely give the Chargers defense fits for a portion of the night and with the defense struggling on third-and-long situations this year, it could very well be a big week for the former second-overall pick.
Q3. Speaking of injuries, they seem to be mounting in the wide receiver room just as they’re stacking up in Atlanta’s cornerback room. Which WRs do you expect to be available for Los Angeles on Sunday, and how do you feel about the passing game’s chances against a depleted Falcons secondary?
Michael: As of me writing this, the Chargers receivers currently practicing are Joshua Palmer, Michael Bandy, Jason Moore, John Hightower, and Keelan Doss. Aside from Palmer, those are all practice squad receivers or guys signed off the street due to the aforementioned injuries. I normally would be confident in Justin Herbert to make it work with a lackluster supporting cast, but he hasn’t been his normal self, either.
When the Chargers played the Seahawks, Seattle had a bottom-three run defense. The Bolts still managed less than 40 yards rushing. The fact that Atlanta has the league’s worst passing game unfortunately doesn’t move the needle for me. They SHOULD find some success, but only time will tell.
Q4. Despite the presence of an elite running back in Austin Ekeler, the Chargers have struggled to run the ball. Los Angeles is 27th in rushing yardage and 28th in yards per carry. What is the cause of the ground game issues, and how important is that aspect of the offense to the team’s gameplan?
Michael: At this point, the ground game might as well be an afterthought. The Chargers haven’t ever “needed” to run the ball well but it would help in general as they try to close games and move the chains in short-yardage situations. Ekeler has never been a traditional running back and I don’t think he needs to be. He can tote the rock, as seen in his huge game against the Browns, but the offensive line in front of him is also dealing with injuries on top of a regression year from left guard Matt Feiler. All of this has made the team’s rushing attack basically non-existent. As long as teams can be threatened by the run to open up the play-action game for Herbert, then I’d consider it a success at the end of the day.
Q5. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Chargers and often refer to them as “the AFC Falcons”. Do Chargers fans feel similar kinship with a fellow cursed franchise? Also, what’s your prediction for the outcome of Sunday’s game?
Michael: In my years covering and watching the Chargers, the two teams I feel the closest bond to have been the Falcons and the Vikings. There have been so many similar themes and woes shared by all three of these franchises over the years that sometimes you can’t help but laugh at it all.
My final prediction for this game is a narrow victory for the Chargers by a score of 20-17. As one would expect, this will come down to a field goal at the end.
Many thanks to Michael Peterson for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow him at @ZoneTracks, and if you’re in the mood for a Chargers perspective on things, follow Bolts from the Blue at @BFTB_Chargers.