CARSON, CA-Surprise. Surprise. The Los Angeles Chargers started their 2017 season cold enough to freeze an ice pack. They’re pretty hot now. And in first place. After their 0-4 start, the Chargers weren’t just counted out to make the playoffs. They were counted out for the season. Hopes of winning the AFC West Division was deemed to be a lost cause for first-year head coach Anthony Lynn’s team.
That was then. The Chargers are playing lights out football now. Winning the division title is in reach. Riding a four-game win streak, the Chargers are now tied for first place with the Kansas City Chiefs. Capturing the division crown will all likelihood come down to the Chiefs-Chargers rematch of a game played earlier this season. Alex Smith and Chiefs dusted the Chargers 24-10 in Week 3.
“The biggest thing, I think, for our team is (head coach Anthony) Lynn did a heck of a job keeping everybody dialed in when we were at 0-4,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Let’s just try and win a game and okay, let’s just try and win another game. We really just took the boring one week at a time approach, and everybody just dug in. I think he’s done a good job also, thinking back to Jacksonville when we were 3-5 or wherever we went to, whatever we were, and he said, ‘We’re still in the hunt. We’re still in the playoff chase. If we weren’t, I’d tell you.’ I thought that was interesting being where we were.”
Where the Chargers was then was sitting at the bottom of the AFC West. They had dropped games to the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, Chiefs, and Philadelphia Eagles. The Chargers have gone 7-2 in their last nine games. LA’s defense has been front and center of the team’s revival. Yes, Keenan Allen has played like a man on fire all season. And yes, Rivers continues to play at a high level.
But to overlook the upped-level by the Chargers defense would be somewhat disingenuous.
“I like the way they’re flying to the football,” Lynn said. “They’re playing the rush a lot better.”
Getting after the quarterback is something the Chargers are doing quite well this season. Young. Old. Rookie. Veteran. Pocket-passer. Mobile quarterback. It doesn’t matter to Melvin Ingram or Joey Bosa who is lined up behind center. With those two players spearheading the pass rush, the Chargers have recorded 37 sacks and 16 interceptions through the team’s first 13 games. As a unit, the Chargers defense is ranked No. 3 in the NFL in pass defense.
Trying to stare down the Chargers defense and make plays have become increasingly difficult as the season has progressed. That formula didn’t worked out too well for the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and the Dallas Cowboys. Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins learned that lesson Sunday at StubHub Center where they had their bubble gum handed back to them in a 30-13 road defeat.
“That’s another tough game,” Lynn said. “You know, they’re all tough in the National Football League. This team went out on Wednesday through Saturday and they really locked in and focused. I thought it showed in the first half. We could have gotten a few more touchdowns instead of field goals in the first half, but second half, I thought they bounced back and made some nice plays. Defense did a nice job again, keeping them under 300 yards on offense. I think this is the third week in a row they’ve done that.”
The NFL’s sixth-rated passer, Cousins was no match for the wrinkles that the Chargers defense threw at him. The Washington offense scored a grand total of six points. Courtesy of the Chargers defense, Cousins had a not-so-pleasant afternoon, generating just 151 passing yards. The Chargers got to Cousins a couple of times in the form of sacks, and recorded their 11th interception in the last five games when Kyle Emanuel picked off Cousins.
“The corner fell off and I was wanting him to carry with Niles’ [Paul] route. He fell off and then the ball bounced into the guy who ended up intercepting it,” Cousins said after the game. “That was a play we had drawn up this week. In hindsight, I probably did not have a good enough feel for the play. It is installed during the week and you hope you are ready and got it down. I think the result shows that [I] didn’t quite have mastery of it the way I needed to.”
For the game, the Chargers limited Cousins and the Redskins offense to just 201 total yards, the fewest amount of yards the franchise have held an opponent since 2014.
“They did a really good job of being in the right positions on defense,” Washington wide receiver Jamison Crowder said. “They were covering up all the holes in the zone defense.”