The Chargers stopped a late, go-ahead 2-point conversion in a 20-19 victory against Tennessee in Week 7, and then after their bye prevented Seattle from scoring a touchdown on the final play that could have forced overtime. The Chargers have forced four turnovers in red-zone situations, a figure matched only by Miami, while allowing a 68.4 passer rating that ranks second in the league, according to PFF.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley coached the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary in its embryonic stages. He had an intimidating strong safety, Kam Chancellor, with diverse talents: Chancellor was an enforcer against the run, a dynamo in coverage, an asset in the pass rush. Now with the Chargers, Bradley has a promising equivalent in the rookie Derwin James, the 17th pick of the draft.
Like Chancellor, James aligns mostly in the box but has ranged all over the field. He leads all safeties in sacks, with four, and pressures (sacks, hits and hurries), with 15. His 35.7 pressure percentage, according to PFF, is best among the 25 safeties with at least 12 pass-rush snaps this season.
As teams more regularly deploy three- and four-receiver sets, defenses counter by playing more defensive backs, amplifying the significance of slot cornerbacks. The best are versatile enough to cover smaller, faster receivers, like Julian Edelman of New England, or athletic tight ends like Travis Kelce of Kansas City, while also providing run support and, at times, aiding a blitz.
In Desmond King, the Chargers have a superb nickel corner. He has faced more targets in the slot without allowing a touchdown (38) than any other defensive back, according to PFF, while limiting quarterbacks to a league-low 62.2 passer rating when throwing his way — partly a product of his three interceptions.
On the boundary, the Chargers’ Casey Hayward has yet to pick off a pass — an oddity for someone who grabbed 11 over his previous two seasons — but his tight coverage has flummoxed receivers. Among the 102 cornerbacks who have been thrown at 25 or more times, Hayward ranks first with a 27.0 forced incompletion percentage, according to PFF.
What could undermine the Chargers’ defense is its diluted front seven, which lost linebacker Denzel Perryman and defensive tackle Corey Liuget to season-ending injuries and has yielded at least 103 rushing yards in each of the last five games. In other words, even if the Chargers manage to suppress Mahomes and the league’s most creative passing offense, they still have to contend with Kareem Hunt, the A.F.C.’s leading rusher.
The Chargers will have their own expectations to draw from, plus almost a season’s worth of Chiefs tendencies to study and parse and explore. They hope to do better than last time, better than others who have struggled. Their best might just be good enough.