STATS’ advanced data and analytics explain how the Los Angeles Chargers have gone from 0-4 to a potential AFC playoff team
The city of Los Angeles’ apathy toward the Chargers’ move from San Diego seemed more than justified. Sparse crowds mostly populated with the opposition’s fans showed in the built-for-soccer 30,000-seat StubHub Center to watch what would become a winless team through Week 4 heading for a third straight season with double-digit defeats.
Folks laughed from near and far at the expense of the newly branded Bolts – long after the Chargers’ initial logo flop. Nothing from the announcement of relocation to the product on the field in a new home had gone as planned. And an already-skeptical Hollywood fan base wasn’t going hit the box office to watch a bunch of guys bomb on stage.
What’s changed in the last two months? Not the apathetic L.A. fans, that’s for sure. But at least now the Chargers can claim those averting their attention are missing something potentially special. Not only can they become the first team since the 2004 Bills to begin 0-4 and reach .500 through 12 games, but the Chargers can increase their playoff chances with a victory over the lowly Cleveland Browns in Week 13.
Jim Mora’s famous rant probably comes to mind when mentioning the Chargers and playoffs together. But a deeper dive into STATS’ advanced data and analytics shows how the Bolts have turned around their season.
Although 0-4 is easy to ridicule, remember that stretch included three defeats by a combined seven points – including a 26-24 loss to the currently 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles – and another to a Kansas City team that started 5-0. The Chargers have gone 5-2 since to pull within a game of the AFC West lead behind the Chiefs, who are enduring a 1-5 slide.
Some of what’s changed for the Chargers comes down to simple offensive efficiency. They ranked 27th with a 34.9 percent third-down conversion rate through Week 4 but have increased that percentage to 40.2 since. And instead of relying on big plays in the running game (gains of 10-plus yards) early on, they’re chipping away to gain yardage when it’s there.
The Chargers’ 12 big rushing plays in 75 attempts through four games translates to a 16 percent big-play rushing percentage that ranked second in the NFL during that time span. However, they also had 15 of those attempts stuffed at or behind the line, marking for the highest stuff percentage in the league at 20.0.
That stuff rate has drastically decreased to 9.9 over their last seven games, which matches the big-play percentage in that span. The Chargers have increased their average rushing attempts per game to 28.9 from 18.8, which tied for the lowest average in the NFL through four weeks. Melvin Gordon didn’t have more than 18 carries in any of the first four games, but he’s had at least 18 in five of L.A.’s last seven – coincidently in all of the Chargers’ wins in that stretch.
The biggest story the last two games has been the resurgence of Keenan Allen, who had a pair of 100-yard receiving games in the first four weeks but has really broken out the last two following a rough stretch. Allen had 12 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns in Week 11’s 54-24 thrashing of Buffalo and 11 grabs for 172 yards and a score in a 28-6 Thanksgiving Day win at Dallas, in which Philip Rivers threw for a season-best 434 yards.
Rivers has only been sacked once in the last three weeks and 12 times all season, the second fewest of a QB who has started at least 10 games. One’s first reaction would be to credit the offensive line for that. Don’t, especially when considering the Chargers’ running backs rank 25th in the NFL with 3.7 yards per rush.
According to STATS X-Info data, Rivers has the quickest snap-to-pass release in the NFL to make up for the line’s lack of protection. He makes quick decisions, and he’s especially thrived the last two weeks. And that uptick in offensive production is only helping a defense that has been one of the best units in the league during the Chargers’ hot stretch.
Some of the numbers are pretty transparent. They had one interception and two takeaways through four games compared to 13 picks – tied for the NFL lead with the Eagles – and a league-most 17 takeaways over their last seven. Tre Boston and Casey Hayward have four interceptions apiece to tie for third in the NFL.
They’re part of a Chargers secondary that also ranks third in the league in defensive burn percentage. STATS X-Info classifies a burn taking place when a targeted defensive player allows a completed pass. The Chargers are being burned 42.2 percent of the time, with Philadelphia and Minnesota being the only defenses getting burned less. The league average is 49.5 percent.
At least some of the success in the secondary can be attributed to the defensive line, especially Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who rank among the best edge rushers in the NFL. The Chargers rank sixth in generating pressure according to STATS X-Info, doing so on 56.5 percent of opportunities when the league average is 45.6.
The NFL average for edge rushers is 13.3 percent, but Bosa generates pressure 25 percent of the time with Ingram close behind at 21. Bosa’s 10.5 sacks rank fifth in the league, with Ingram’s 8.5 tied for 12th. And Ingram’s ability to bust through the O-line doesn’t end with him tracking down quarterbacks. His 13 tackles for loss at tied for fifth in the NFL with household name Von Miller and ahead of another in Michael Bennett.
And the pressure now is mounting on the division-leading Chiefs as the Chargers continue their turnaround. STATS has developed a ranking formula that includes contextual analysis of pass defense, rush defense, pass-rush defense, offensive pass efficiency, rush efficiency and pass protection, among other factors. The ranking system is based on the previous six weeks of play to better account for injuries, personnel changes, etc. According to STATS, the Chargers rank as the sixth-best team in the NFL heading into Week 13, and that ranking likely would be higher had they not blown a late lead in a 20-17 overtime loss at Jacksonville in Week 10.
The possibility of the Chargers ending up in a playoff spot isn’t all that far-fetched with their play trending up and quality of opponents trending down. The Chargers finish the season against the Browns (30th in the latest STATS rankings), Redskins (16th), Chiefs (27th), Jets (22nd) and Raiders (19th), giving them a real possibility to finish 2017 riding a seven-game winning streak.
Maybe the fans in Los Angeles will be more accepting of the Bolts by then.