COSTA MESA – When Desmond King sits down at the start of the week to study opposing receivers, the Chargers’ shutdown nickel cornerback first scours tape to note every possible tendency he can find.
How do they release off the line? How do they come out of their breaks? How do they catch the ball? Each answer offers a kernel of insight into how King might exploit the wideout across from him, and through 12 weeks of a breakout season, King has done his fair share of exploiting. From his place in the slot, his passer rating against (62.2) is the lowest in the NFL.
This week, however, there is no obvious way to exploit the wideouts that await King and the rest of the Chargers secondary. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown is the most consistently dominant receiver of the past half-decade, and former USC standout JuJu Smith-Schuster, at 22, is perhaps the league’s most transcendent young wideout, with a dazzling future ahead.
Together, they are a matchup nightmare. With both on the field at the same time, it’s impossible for a defense to focus too much on one or the other. A week ago, the Broncos aimed to eliminate Brown as best they could, and while they won in a flurry of turnovers, the strategy saw Smith-Schuster break loose for 13 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown, and Brown still reel in nine passes.
So as the Chargers prepare for a pair of wideouts unlike any they’ve seen this season, King and the rest of the secondary have decided not to focus too much on one or the other. The process remains the same as its always been, King says. Exploit the tendencies you’ve seen on tape.
“Just do your job,” King said. “It’s just another team. We’ve played a lot of good receivers this year, teams with multiple guys who can make plays.”
Not many receivers have made the plays that either Brown or Smith-Schuster have this season, and no defense yet has quite figured out how to exploit them. While Brown leads the league with 11 receiving touchdowns, Smith-Schuster ranks sixth in receiving yards (1,055). Both rank in the top six in the NFL in catches of 40-plus yards; combined, they have nine such huge pass plays.
But for the members of the Chargers secondary, Sunday’s matchup is not so much about shutting down Brown and Smith-Schuster as it is a referendum on where they stand heading into the season’s home stretch.
“Respect everybody, but fear nobody,” cornerback Michael Davis said. “We respect AB and JuJu, but we’re going to go out there and play our game. It’s about us. Not about them.”
The Chargers secondary certainly deserves respect for how its shut down opposing pass offenses in recent weeks. Not since September has the Chargers defense allowed more than 250 yards through the air. Over the past month, the secondary has been arguably the league’s best, allowing opposing quarterbacks a mere 177 passing yards per game on average.
No NFL corner has been better in tight coverage this season than Casey Hayward, who boasts the league’s best forced incompletion percentage (27 percent), according to Pro Football Focus. King has been arguably the league’s best nickelback. And Derwin James, the Chargers’ versatile first-year safety, is the odds-on favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Altogether, there may be no better secondary to slow the Steelers’ pair of unstoppable receivers.
But that’s not the mindset in the Chargers secondary. Not until Sunday, at least.
“I’m more focused on me,” James said. “I’ll watch what I watch of them, but it’s about what I do.”
The Press Enterprise | Ryan Kartje | November 29th, 2018