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Insider take: Los Angeles Chargers watching playoffs from home because of leaky defense

Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Justin Jones (93) removes his helmet after the Los Angeles Chargers lost to the Las Vegas Raiders in overtime of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Tyler Dragon
USA TODAY Sports+

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley was introspective during his end-of-year press conference this week. Despite a promising 4-1 start to his first year on the job and six players named to the Pro Bowl, including star quarterback Justin Herbert, the Chargers flamed out down the stretch and failed to clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2018.

“I just need to be a more complete coach in all phases," Staley said. "I was doing a lot for the first time, all the time. I feel like I learned so much this season; offense, defense, special teams, scheduling, training camp, offseason, you name it. There are just so many things that go into being a pro head football coach. Going into the second year of it, I’m just a lot more certain of where I need to go with my game.

"For my first year, I know that I couldn’t have tried any harder. I know that I gave everything I had to this team and to this role and responsibility, but I also know how much I can improve.”

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Fans criticized Staley in the aftermath of the Chargers’ playoff-spoiling loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. Although the Chargers finished with the NFL’s No. 4 offense and No. 5 scoring offense, defense was their Achilles heel.

Los Angeles’ third-down defense ranked last in the NFL. Opponents converted on 50% of third downs. The Chargers’ run defense was third-worst in the NFL. Those holes ultimately cost them a shot at the playoffs for a third consecutive season. 

“It was a fight all season long to find that consistency on that down and distance,” Staley said of the team’s struggles on third down.

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Staley was also blunt about the team’s run defense.

“It was uneven, for sure,” Staley explained. “I would describe it as a fight for us, because we played well at times, we played well in stretches, but it just wasn’t quite consistent enough. It’s a combination of all things. Run defense is a product of playing team defense. It’s not just a front issue or an edge issue or linebacker issue, it’s a team, a defensive issue — you need all 11 guys to play run defense.”

Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley looks on during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Staley, 39, climbed the coaching ladder expeditiously because of his defensive prowess. His only season as the Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator in 2020, the Rams had the league’s No. 1 defense.

Los Angeles finished this season as the 23rd-ranked defense.

Staley did converted the Chargers from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. There’s typically a learning curve when teams not only change coaches but also defensive schemes. In order for Staley and the Chargers to reach their postseason goals, they’ll have to shore up their defense and acquire players who fit their new approach.

Pro Bowl pass rusher Joey Bosa, who played in a three-point stance for the first five years of his career before transitioning to a two-point stance this season, talked about the complexities of learning a new defensive scheme.

“I see a group that was in their first year in a system — it’s a pretty complex system,” Bosa said. “It’s going to take a while to master. The fact that we had the year that we did, which was a pretty successful year in my books, I’m pretty happy with it.”

The Chargers aren't happy, however, sitting out of the playoffs again this year.

Staley is tasked with going back to the drawing board this offseason, reflecting on what went wrong and onboarding talent.

The good news is the Chargers possess two franchise building blocks under contract through next year: Bosa and strong safety Derwin James, both named to the Pro Bowl. 

Staley's next objective is building around those two, so the defense can complement an offense that features one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

“I feel like we have a lot of great pieces,” James said. “There are a lot of great players that we have around here and a lot to build around. I can’t wait for us to come back stronger next year.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports+ NFL Insider Tyler Dragon on Twitter @TheTylerDragon.