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5Qs, 5As with Bolts From the Blue: How did Brandon Staley save Chargers’ season?

Looking back, it actually gets harder and harder to believe.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams will see their grand palace of SoFi Stadium being infiltrated by the Los Angeles Chargers this Sunday. Despite this matchup being flexed out of prime time, there’s still plenty of excitement on hand. This is the battle for LA of course.

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley will face his former team for the first time. Staley has become quite a lightning rod for all kinds of attention while leading the Bolts. I discussed why this is and more with Michael Peterson from SB Nation’s Chargers blog Bolts From the Blue.

Q - Following a 27-20 loss to the Raiders on December 4th, the Chargers dropped to 6-6 and were on the outside of the playoff picture. Since then, they’ve won three-straight and clinched a playoff spot Monday night. How did this team manage to fight through adversity to get into the postseason?

A - Looking back, it actually gets harder and harder to believe. There was a point when the Chargers were missing star player after star player, with new ones getting injured seemingly every week. It was at that point where many Chargers fans likely threw up their arms and came to grips with what seemed like an inevitable outcome.

A washed season with no chance of the playoffs in sight. “Always next year!” they probably said quietly to themselves.

But then something amazing happened. After barely getting to the bye week with a 4-3 record, the Chargers came out swinging with a close win over the Falcons. Then, they proceeded to lose three of their next four to land at .500. But from that point on, they’ve won three games, two of which came against teams with winning records, and now all of a sudden they have a playoff spot clinched with two weeks to go. It truly doesn’t make sense, even though I just recounted the timeline to you.

For most of the season, it’s been Justin Herbert willing his team to victory each week. But the last two weeks especially, it’s been the defense that has helped the team the most as Herbert has struggled to put the ball in the end zone in back-to-back games.

Despite everything, this team has always been very close. They emphasize relationships and communication, which really has come in clutch during a season where new faces kept popping up on the roster every other week. If I had to point to something that doesn’t pertain to on-field actions as something that’s kept this team afloat, that would be it.

Q - Head Coach Brandon Staley is a polarizing figure for Chargers fans. Many have called for his head and placed him on the hot seat and I doubt however far the Bolts advance in the playoffs will satisfy them. What makes Staley so despised among certain members of the fanbase and what could he do to silence his haters?

A - In all honesty, the win over the Dolphins several weeks ago was a pivotal moment in his head-coaching tenure. Finally, his defense came to play and shut down one of the best offenses in the NFL. They’ve only since followed it up with two more strong performances, most recently holding the Colts to three points and keeping opponents 6-for-32 on third down over the past three weeks. Since that win over Miami, I don’t think you’ll find anyone calling for Staley’s job, and now that he’s gotten this team into the playoffs after such a tumultuous season, I don’t think anyone is in a hurry to see him lose his job in Los Angeles.

As far as expectations go this postseason, I believe they’ll be set based on who is healthy and which opponent they end up getting in the wild card round. If Joey Bosa and Rashawn Slater return for the playoffs, expectations would likely be high unless they’re matched up with the Chiefs or Bills. If it’s anyone else, I’d say a trip to the divisional round would be expected. If Bosa and Slater fail to return in time, a “one-and-done” situation wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.

Q - Justin Herbert has had a down year statistically but most of that can be attributed to injuries to his receiving corps. Still, there’s no denying that he’s one of the best young signal callers in the sport. Could you describe what makes Herbert so special and what are your expectations for him the rest of season?

A - Tough question, but I’ll attempt to highlight his biggest strengths without listing a billion things.

First, Herbert’s ability to process plays is as elite as I’ve seen in the NFL. He’s one of the only quarterbacks that can get through all four to five progressions on every single play before pulling the trigger. Essentially, this was a forced skill he had to learn in his near-three years in the NFL as he’s had much more porous offensive line play in front of him than most people think.

Second, there’s no way I could talk about his strengths without bringing up the fact he’s got a howitzer attached to his right shoulder. This level of arm strength is seldom seen in the NFL today and no one puts it on display more frequently than Herbert. I mean, just take a look at his latest feat where he threw a frozen rope across the field with perfect placement to Keenan Allen. It’s just unfathomable at times.

Lastly, his ability to maneuver the pocket is also something to behold. He’s one of those quarterbacks that escapes the pocket and you would almost bet the house that’s about to do something special. But the majority of the time, Herbert is shaking multiple defenders just to complete a six-yard pass. This is mainly due to Joe Lombardi’s system, but the play is impressive, nonetheless.

As far as expectations go, I’d like to see Herbert get back in the touchdown column over these next two weeks. He has three games with zero touchdowns and two of them have come in the past two weeks. Injuries certainly hurt his numbers this year, but it’d be nice to see him finish strong with at least another 300-yard passing game and four-five touchdowns passes over the next two weeks (barring being rested for the playoffs).

Q - The defense has struggled as a whole all year long yet they’ve come alive in their last three games against the Dolphins, Titans and Colts. Their game against Indy was the icing on the cake as they allowed just 173 yards of offense. What strides have you seen from the unit during the Chargers’ winning streak and where could they tighten up with the playoffs on the horizon?

A - The biggest change came against the Dolphins when Brandon Staley stopped asking his cornerbacks to play mainly off-man coverage and start pressing. It obviously worked out well against Tua Tagovailoa and that offense and I believe it’s given the secondary new life. The middle of the defense is seeing some improved interior play through Sebastian Joseph-Day and Breiden Fehoko, which is also seeping into the play of linebackers Drue Tranquill and Kenneth Murray. Tranquill has been stuffing the stat sheet all season long and Murray — after being a near-bust through his first two seasons — is really turning it on down this final stretch. Overall, I’d say improved tackling and a simplified scheme have helped this unit come together unlike we’ve seen all season.

Now when it comes to where they can get better, I’ll always say they could stiffen up as a run defense, but they can only do so much missing a pair of starters on that front line in Joey Bosa and Austin Johnson.

Q - The Chargers are a 6.5-point favorite in the battle for LA with an O/U of 40.5 according to DraftKings Sportsbook. What is your prediction for the game and how do the Bolts win their fourth in a row?

A - I believe the Chargers will come out on top but it’ll be another hard-fought battle with plenty of defense. I believe my final score prediction is 20-17 Chargers which means I’m certainly taking the under.

Aaron Donald is going to be an absolute menace, but it’ll be up to Lombardi and his offensive staff to make sure there’s plenty of outlets for Herbert before the All-Pro lineman ever has a chance to sniff him in the backfield. I believe this one will once again come down to one possession and my money is on the Chargers to finish with the ball.