Sunday afternoon will be the best test to see who this Chargers defense really is. Are they the team that sacked Zach Wilson eight times and caused three turnovers?
Or are they the team that gave up over 500 yards and 36 points to the Miami Dolphins?
The Detroit Lions will reveal a lot about which is true.
“This is a great challenge for us to go out there and prove that it’s not a fluke, and that we’ve been working,” Chargers edge rusher Tuli Tuipulotu said.
The Lions’ offense features quarterback Jared Goff, who has had a rollercoaster of a career, going from a Super Bowl appearance against the New England Patriots with the L.A. Rams to being traded for Matthew Stafford. That trade would help the Rams win Super Bowl 56.
Goff started the season with his Lions at 6-2 with a big win over the Chiefs to start the year, then scoring 34 against the Packers and 42 on the Panthers. They did suffer an overtime loss to the Seahawks and a blowout loss to the Ravens.
They are a team also with question marks on whether they are legit.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley is familiar with Goff, having been on the Rams 2020 staff and having to practice against the quarterback every day.
“What he’s been able to do in Detroit for that team — where they started in Detroit, to now — he has been a winner,” Staley explained. “That’s what happened at Cal, when he was in college, he was on a team that wasn’t very good in college, and then they became a really, really good football team. I have a ton of respect for him. He is playing at a really high level.”
The way Baltimore neutralized this offense was to pressure Goff, which the Chargers have the pass rush for. They are coming off taking down Jets quarterback Zach Wilson eight times while making him fumble twice.
“It’s good that we have sacks,” Tuipulotu said. “It’s helping us win games. A sack is really good for us. We just get sacks.”
The pass rush is led by Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, and Tuipulotu. Mack leads the team with nine sacks, with Bosa close behind with 6.5, and the rookie is at four.
Detroit features one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, which ranks third in the NFL in pass-blocking efficiency through nine weeks, according to PFF. They also have allowed 72 pressures on 311 dropbacks and the fewest sacks this season.
“That gives you an advantage, offensively, when you have premium tackles out there,” Staley explained. “They have [Lions T Taylor] Decker, who is a first-round pick, who has played a ton of football. I was in the division with him in Chicago. When you have two tackles like that, it really gives you a lot of flexibility with how you play, run game and pass game.”
That is part of why Goff has been so successful; Lions head coach Dan Campbell has prioritized getting his quarterback a tremendous offensive line and solid weapons. The Lions have drafted well the past few seasons.
They drafted former USC receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown in the 4th round in 2021 and Iowa Sam LaPorta in the 2nd round of this year’s draft.
“Those guys are just real tough covers if you get the wrong guy on them whether it’s a linebacker or a safety,” Staley said. “I just think both of those guys fit the way that they want to play. They’ve done an excellent job and you can see it in their production.”
St. Brown has caught 57 passes this season for 665 yards and three touchdowns. He has over 100 receiving yards in five of his seven games. The Chargers’ secondary has struggled against top receivers, giving up 215 yards to Tyreek Hill, 149 to Justin Jefferson, and 179 to Travis Kelce.
They have been better the last two weeks, but the Lions feature more firepower than they have faced since the Dolphins game in week one. LaPorta has been consistent all season, so the defense needs to be smart when trying to contain him.
“This group knows what it’s made of,” Staley said. “I just think the last couple of weeks, where we’ve had some good performances, it validates that, to an extent. But we know that it is a week-to-week league, and you have to understand that.”
Their offense also features two backs that can do damage in Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery, who combined have over 700 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
The Chargers’ defense features the seventh-best defense against the run at 89.8 a game, but they also feature the 32nd-ranked passing defense at 286 yards a game.
Staley has said that the defense is a week-to-week, and even though it seems like it might have turned a corner, Sunday will be a true test.
“We’re just at the beginning,” Staley said. “This group continues to improve. Just one week at a time for this group, but we’ve made improvement.”