The Chargers have routinely hidden their substandard special teams play because of their late-game failures, often leaving the post-game blame for the offense or defense.
But the special teams blunders were unable to hide Sunday during the Chargers’ 29-21 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.
The Dolphins built a 14-0 lead in the first quarter because of a blocked punt and a series-extending offsides penalty during a field-goal attempt.
“I was disappointed in special teams and some of the things that went on there,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said in his post-game opening statement. “Put us in the hole off the bat.”
Special teams finally took the bulk of the blame for a Chargers loss, but they weren’t the only reason why the Chargers started slow and ended sluggish for their ugliest game of the season.
“Today, I felt we got outplayed,” Lynn said. “Got outplayed in all three phases. I take my hat off to the Dolphins. They did a heck of a job.”
The Chargers’ offense has generally been the opposite of their special teams. The team entered Sunday with one of the best offenses in the NFL, averaging 420 yards per game and a five-game streak of scoring 25 points or more, but most of that was an afterthought. They were known as the offense that couldn’t close games.
There was no game to close Sunday, despite the misleading scoreboard of a one-score game. The Chargers (2-7) had arguably their worst offensive output with rookie quarterback Justin Herbert as the starter.
Herbert had a season-low 187 passing yards with a costly fourth-quarter interception, wide receiver Keenan Allen was held to 39 receiving yards and the Chargers had a season-low 273 total yards.
“They had a great game plan for us,” Allen said of the Dolphins. “We were pretty confused out there with all the looks they were giving us. Good disguises. They mixed it up a lot.”
The Charger defense might have had its best performance in six weeks, but that’s mainly because the unit can’t be blamed for the short fields that came with the blocked punt and Herbert’s interception.
The defense was also forced to return to the field after Quenton Meeks’ special teams offsides penalty, but the defense had allowed the Dolphins to drive to the 10-yard line from their own 12-yard line.
Gus Bradley’s defense allowed 29 points or more for the sixth consecutive game, and yes, 21 points came off special teams blunders and a turnover, but they missed opportunities and failed to pressure rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
The Chargers’ defense dropped three Tagovailoa passes, including one that went through the fingers of linebacker Kenneth Murray, and failed to sack the rookie quarterback, only hitting him once.
The Chargers didn’t have star pass rusher Joey Bosa, who was sidelined with a concussion, but they still had Melvin Ingram, Jerry Tillery, Uchenna Nwosu, Linval Joseph and Justin Jones on the defensive line. That talented group is capable of disrupting a quarterback making only his third career start.
Lynn’s team was outplayed in all three phases, as he said Sunday, but he forgot to mention the fourth phase – coaching.
The Chargers’ coaching staff has taken heat for the close losses, but the narrow defeats also suggest the Chargers are competitive against most teams.
Lynn often has his teams motivated and competitive regardless of their record, but that wasn’t the case against the Dolphins. The Chargers managed to get a garbage-time touchdown from Allen to trim the Dolphins’ lead to eight points, giving Lynn’s squad a seventh one-score defeat this season.
“For the first time, we got outplayed in all three phases,” Lynn said Monday to echo his post-game comments. “I haven’t felt that way this year.”
The Chargers have lost 16 of their past 18 one-score games. But Lynn refused to hide behind another close-game narrative.
“Don’t think we’re OK with that,” Lynn said. “These guys are working every week and coaches are coaching. And we go out and we play to win the game. We don’t play to lose a one-score game. We play to win the damn game and we didn’t get it done.”
The Chargers went in the opposite direction to start the second half of the season. But perhaps they’ve been stuck in the same place the past two years with poor special teams play, conservative offensive calls, missed defensive opportunities and injuries – all leading to 19 one-score games since the start of last season.
The Chargers have a lot more issues than winning close games, and coaching might be one of their biggest concerns.
Lynn said the Chargers have had trouble replacing key special teams contributors such as Adrian Phillips, Derek Watt, Geremy Davis and Nick Dzubnar. But the Chargers have had a special teams problem since last season.
Football Outsiders had the Chargers ranked 32nd last season in special teams with a minus 5.1% in DVOA, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent. The Chargers remain in last this season and have gotten worse with a minus 10.6% DVOA.
But you don’t need analytics to know the Chargers have struggled with special teams this season. Rookie wide receivers K.J. Hill and Joe Reed have failed to provide a spark in the return game, Ty Long has had two blocked punts and kicker Michael Badgley has missed five field-goal attempts this season.
They’ve had many frustrating penalties, including multiple illegal formations on kicking attempts.
“There were some guys out there today (on special teams) that won’t be out there next week, I can tell you that,” Lynn said Sunday. “We’ll talk about that as a team, but that was disappointing to see.
“We expected the other young guys to step up in those (special teams) positions and right now that’s been a struggle, to be honest with you. That just has not happened.”
It’s up to the coaching staff to have young players step up and execute, but Lynn said special teams coordinator George Stewart has provided the proper coaching and the players haven’t been able to translate that onto the field.
“George Stewart doesn’t go out there and punt protect and do the things that I see him coaching in practice to get these guys to do,” Lynn said Monday. “Now, at the end of the day, that’s my responsibility, and I hired George Stewart and it’s his responsibility, so yeah, we do have to do some things to get their attention and make sure we’re putting the right players out there to get the job done.”
Many angry Chargers fans want coaching staff changes, and if nothing improves with seven games remaining, Lynn could decide to look into that. But a few weeks ago an adamant Lynn said that wasn’t an option.
Lynn and Stewart have a close relationship that goes back decades, and it wouldn’t be a good look if Lynn decided to fire Stewart and not Bradley, whose defense has struggled as much as special teams has the past two seasons.
“He was not happy with that at all,” Lynn said of Stewart. “If there was any coach that was down on his staff, it was George Stewart, but I’m telling you, all three phases got outplayed, so it wasn’t just special teams.”
If Lynn decided to fire both coordinators, then it would seem like he’s blaming everyone but himself. He fired offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt last season after eight games.
The Chargers need some type of change to turn this season around, but it’s up to Lynn – or the front office – to decide how extreme they want to get.