Last night’s Chargers-Chiefs game was fantastic, a display of two of the best young talents in the game at quarterback. Ultimately, the Chiefs walked away with the 27-24 victory, proving that the road to an AFC West title still runs through Kansas City.
The turning point in the game was rookie Jaylen Watson’s 99-yard interception return TD. This was the third interception thrown by Herbert in five games against the Chiefs. It was a rather inaccurate throw that really never should’ve been made. So, how did it happen? Chargers head coach Brandon Staley (with a dash of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi) was acting ridiculously, that’s how.
Keep in mind, this was first and goal at the Kansas City three-yard line. What does Staley draw up? A play-action look to Herbert’s weak side against a six-man box. Interesting decision. Generally, I wouldn’t be too upset with this, but Staley made no effort to establish the run prior to this play, and that’s why nobody, and I mean nobody, fell for the fake to Austin Ekeler. All of Arrowhead Stadium knew Ekeler wasn’t getting the ball.
Remember the Chargers’ first touchdown drive? After the big pass to Mike Williams, what did the Chargers do? A power run with the newly-acquired Sony Michel. It didn’t work, but on the very next play, they went play-action left to fullback Zander Horvath wide open in the flat. The first play set up the second play, and forced the defense to respect the Chargers going back to Michel. Instead, Herbert pulled it back and found a wide-open receiver. That’s good play-calling. On the interception, the Chargers had gone four straight first downs without running the ball. In that span, they ran a total of 13 plays. Only two were runs.
The Chiefs had no reason to respect the run, so the fake to Ekeler was about as effective as G.O.B. Bluth showing a sleight of hand trick — illusion, Michael! — to David Copperfield. Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay didn’t fall for the fake at all. He ran straight through Ekeler, who tried to set a block but failed, and on to Herbert, without a second thought. Gay’s presence forced a bad throw from Herbert and obscured the former Rookie of the Year’s vision, causing the errant throw into the arms of Watson.
I understand Staley’s hesitance to run the ball on the goal line without All-Pro center Corey Linsley, who left the game at halftime with a knee injury, but you have AUSTIN EKELER! The man had 20 touchdowns last season and is well-regarded as one of the best backs in the league. Hell, he was just ranked the sixth-best halfback in the league by the players. If you don’t trust center Will Clapp to open a gap, at least trust Ekeler to find a new one or follow left tackle Rashawn Slater into the end zone. Ekeler is known for being able to fight for extra yards. In 2021, he averaged 15.8 rushing attempts per broken tackle, better than the likes of Derrick Henry (21.9), D’Andre Swift (16.8), Leonard Fournette (16.4), and Ezekiel Elliott (26.3). Give him the damn ball! At the very least, giving Ekeler the ball not only gives your best short-yardage player the opportunity to make a play at the goal line, but would make play-action all the more effective on the next two plays. Even if Ekeler had lost two or three yards, maybe play-action on second down would’ve forced Gay to think twice before moving toward Herbert. That split-second decision would’ve alleviated some of the pressure on the Chargers quarterback, and Gay wouldn’t have been up in Herbert’s face when he made the throw. That’s all the difference in the world.
I’m not saying a run with Ekeler was by far the best play in that situation. It’s the goal line. Mike Williams had been having his way with the Chiefs DBs all night. He’s bigger and stronger than anyone the Chiefs could’ve put on him. A back-shoulder fade would’ve been a great call as well. It’s much safer than an out route against man coverage on first down. At worst, the Chiefs intercept the ball, but it’s highly unlikely the corner who made the hypothetical pick would’ve been able to get out of the end zone. Of course, that’s a worst-case scenario. Best case? Williams continues to Moss his defenders like he’d been doing all night. I find the latter situation much more likely. Instead, the Chargers opted to come out in a tight 11-personnel package, preventing Herbert from making a throw like that. Williams was too close to the center to force a 1-on-1 situation. Just an awful call all-around.
Staley out-coached Andy Reid in the first half. However, where Reid made defensive adjustments, swapping to more Cover 2 and zone blitzes to prevent big plays to Williams, the Chargers’ offense couldn’t adjust. They failed to utilize Ekeler until garbage time, and failed to get Williams involved. The interception was obviously not a good throw, but Staley did his quarterback no favors with how he set up that play.