Chargers fall to Dolphins as their Special teams' collapse

The Los Angeles Chargers knew they were in for a tough game when they traveled to Miami this past weekend. The Dolphins had won four in a row and had gone 3-1 against the tough NFC West. They were forcing turnovers on defense and making plays on special teams. The Chargers, on the other hand, had been making critical mistakes in close games.

As expected, the Dolphins became the latest team to take advantage of Charger mistakes, beating the Chargers on Sunday in Miami, 29-21. The victory was the fifth in a row for the Dolphins, who improved to 6-3 for the season. The loss for the Chargers was their 6th in their last 7 games and they now have a record of 2-7. This was also the first game this season in which the Chargers never led.

Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn did not make any excuses after the game, stating: "Today, I felt we got outplayed. I take my hat off to the Dolphins. They did a heck of a job." While it was clear that the Dolphins were the better team on Sunday, Chargers mistakes on special teams did not help. Special teams have been a problem all season for the Chargers.

NFL Hall of Fame head coach Bills Parcells always put an emphasis on special teams in his career. He figured that every 100 yards is worth seven points, and yards can be gained or lost in a variety of ways. There are things like a blocked punt that can cost 50 yards in field position, or a punt that rolls an extra 20 yards when the returner could have made a fair catch. The Chargers had both of those examples on Sunday.

Punter Ty Long had his kick blocked by Andrew Van Ginkel of the Dolphins, with the punt recovered at the Chargers one-yard line to set up Miami's first score on the next play. Later in the quarter, Quenton Meeks was offside on a field-goal attempt by the Dolphins, giving the Dolphins a first down that led to another touchdown for a 14-0 lead.

It was the second blocked punt of Long in the past four games. The two special teams' errors contributed to 11 of the Dolphins 14 first quarter points. The Chargers cut the lead to 14-7 in the second quarter on a fumble recovery and return by linebacker Nick Vigil to the Dolphin 37-yard line, which led to a one-yard touchdown run by quarterback Justin Herbert.

Later in the second quarter, Charger punt returner K.J. Hill let a punt roll to the Charger 4-yard line instead of fielding it near the 20-yard line, which turned out to be a huge mistake. That cost the Chargers 15 yards in field position. After a three and out offensive series, a false start penalty in punt formation moved the Chargers back five yards before a 57-yard punt from Long, which Jakeem Grant of the Dolphins returned 20 yards to the Chargers 47 yard line.

The Dolphins gained 15 yards before settling for a Jason Sanders 50-yard field goal with 24 seconds remaining in the first half. The error by Hill and the 20-yard return by Grant gave the Dolphins an extra 35 yards in field position, which made the Sander long field goal possible. Miami had scored 14 of their 17 first half points off the poor play of the Chargers special teams.

On the ensuing kickoff, Joe Reed took the kickoff nine yards deep and returned it to the 13-yard line, using five seconds. Taking the kick out of the end zone was a mistake. Had he not returned it, the Chargers would have had the ball at the 25-yard line with 24 seconds to go and one timeout.

They would have had a chance to run a couple of plays and to attempt to get into field goal range. The Reed decision ended a half full of special team mistakes. Grant had punt returns of 18, 19 and 20 yards for the game, and ended up averaging 19 yards per return for the day for the Dolphins. The punt coverage was not good but was at least consistent.

Offensively, this was never going to be an easy game for Herbert and the offense. The Dolphins have good cover corners and because of that, can play very aggressively on defense. The Dolphins play a lot of Cover 0 defense, also known as a "zero blitz." The zero blitz is the only blitz type that has no deep safety. It is risky, but it also can be confusing for a quarterback and it can disrupt the timing of a passing attack and create turnovers. In the Dolphins zero blitz defense, they will bring up to eight pass rushers.

Because of the confusion their defense can cause, the Chargers came in wanting to run the football. That game plan might have worked if the special teams had not put the Chargers in an early hole. As Lynn said after the game, "I was disappointed in special teams and some of the things that went on there. Put us in the hole off the bat. When you go on the road, you can't give opponents anything."

Herbert had his worst game of his young NFL career. He completed 20 of 32 passes for 187 yards and he threw for two touchdowns. He also had the rushing touchdown. But Herbert threw a key interception in Charger territory, early in the fourth quarter that led to a Dolphin touchdown. That mistake sealed the victory for the Dolphins. Herbert was sacked twice, hit eight times, and forced to throw sooner than he wanted to. The pass rush and pass coverage made it difficult to get the ball out to his star wide receivers, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams.

Defensively, the Chargers played okay, but were unable to get any pressure on Dolphin rookie quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. The Chargers failed to sack Tagovailoa and hit him just once the entire game. Tagovailoa completed 15 of 25 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. It was not a great performance, but he was as good as he needed to be for another Dolphin win.

Parcells also said that "Fifty percent of the games in this league are seven points or less, and 25 percent are three points or less. That 100 yards makes a difference in half your games. So, I try get my team to understand those things." The Chargers are 3-15 in games decided by seven points or less over the past two seasons, so it would appear that they need to work harder on the details and the little things.

The Chargers return home on Sunday to face the New York Jets. The game will be played at SoFi Stadium with a starting time of 1:05 pm locally and will be televised on CBS. The Jets are the only winless team in the NFL, with a record of 0-9. They are last in offensive yardage per game at 266 yards per game and last in points scored per game at 13.4 points per game.

The Jets are 28th in defensive yardage allowed per game at 402.7 yards per game and are 30th in points allowed per game at 29.8 points per game. Any NFL team can beat another NFL, so the Jets need to be taken seriously. The Chargers need to avoid the mistakes on defense and special teams that have plagued them throughout the season. This is simply a game that the Chargers cannot afford to lose.


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