What was expected to be the best Chargers defense to date under Brandon Staley instead turned in the worst performance yet Sunday.
Averaging 8.2 yards on each of its 65 plays, Miami had 10 full possessions and scored on seven of them. Two other times, the Dolphins turned the ball over deep in Chargers territory.
Still, given the chance to steal the game late, the defense again failed to stop Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill in the final two minutes of a 36-34 loss that both shocked and embarrassed.
“We need a stop,” defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day said. “It don’t matter. We need a stop at the end. We didn’t get the stop. That’s on us. Offense played their asses off. … We just gotta play better on defense.”
Throughout training camp and the preseason, the Chargers touted their defense as improved, knowing the unit had to be better in order to balance with quarterback Justin Herbert and the offense.
They talked about continuity, with nine starters returning. They talked about familiarity, this being the third year in Staley’s system. They talked about personnel, Staley insisting he had the players to match the package.
In their first opportunity to prove all of that true, the Chargers permitted Tagovailoa to throw for 466 yards, Hill to catch passes for 215 yards and the Dolphins to run wild and free.
All this against an opponent the Chargers dominated here in mid-December, controlling time of possession and limiting Tagovailoa to a 10-of-28 dud that netted only 145 yards.
In the lead up to Sunday, Staley assured that the meeting from nine month ago was irrelevant. He wasn’t wrong.
“Their guys won all the 50/50 balls in this game,” Staley said. “They made all the big plays.”
One of the biggest was a 35-yard Tagovailoa connection to Hill that put Miami back on top 27-24 late in the third quarter and again underlined an issue that remains glaring.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson was beaten cleanly on the play in his first game back after suffering a significant knee injury that ended his 2022 season in Week 7.
It also came on the first Miami offensive snap after Jackson ended the Dolphins’ previous drive by intercepting Tagovailoa in the end zone.
Unfortunately, Jackson made the decision to attempt to run the ball out and was stopped at the four-yard line, the poor field position helping set up the subsequent 35-yard score by Hill.
The Chargers signed Jackson last offseason to a contract that fully guarantees him $40 million. But before he was injured last year, he struggled to the point where he was benched.
Now, while battling back from a ruptured patellar tendon, Jackson finds himself still searching for what he once was — a Pro Bowler during his time with New England.
And the scoring bomb to Hill wasn’t his only low point Sunday. On the final play from scrimmage of the first half, Jackson committed a pass interference penalty that gifted the Dolphins three points in a game decided by, of course, two.
“We gotta lock in and play the whole quarter,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “That’s what happened right there. We lost concentration for a second and it cost us.”
Said Staley: “Obviously, we can’t foul on that play. We were just trying to get out of the half. That really hurt us.”
During the Dolphins’ final game-clinching drive, Jackson remained on the sideline, replaced by Ja’Sir Taylor as Staley shuffled his defensive backs. Jackson, in fact, didn’t play after surrendering the 35-yard score to Hill.
Asked about Jackson afterward, Staley called his performance “not very good,” adding that none of the Chargers’ secondary played well.
To that end, Miami’s final score was set up when Tagovailoa and Hill hooked up for a 47-yard gain to convert a third-and-10. The defender beat on that play was Taylor.
“I didn’t do a good enough job today getting us adjusted throughout the game,” Staley said. “We tried. Our adjustments just didn’t take shape today. It turned into a track meet in the passing game.”
The Chargers gave up eight pass plays that gained at least 20 yards each. They barely pressured Tagovailoa — no sacks, two quarterback hits — on a day when he often was quick to get rid of the ball. They forced just a single three-and-out, the Dolphins punting only that one time.
Before Sunday, the Chargers’ poorest defensive showings under Staley had come in his first season. They gave up 531 total yards in a Week 5 victory over Cleveland and 410 passing yards in a Week 15 overtime loss to Kansas City.
The Dolphins finished with 536 total and 466 through the air.
“In some spots, we just let those guys loose…” safety Derwin James Jr. said. “You can’t give them no room to breathe. When you do that, that’s what happens.”
Given room to breathe, Tagovailoa and Hill smothered the Chargers in exhaust fumes and scorched turf.