The final game of the 2021 NFL regular season came down to the wire, as the Chargers and the Raiders were tied at 32 late in overtime. The two appeared to be heading for a tie, which would have gotten both teams into the playoffs.
Then, Los Angeles coach Brandon Staley called a timeout with 38 seconds left in the game. The call came before the Raiders ran a third-and-4 at the Chargers' 39-yard line and with just seconds remaining on the play clock.
What followed was an 8-yard run by Josh Jacobs to set up a game-winning 47-yard field goal attempt from Las Vegas' Daniel Carlson. It went through the uprights as time expired, sending the Raiders to the playoffs as the No. 5 seed and the Chargers home.
Staley's timeout became a point of controversy after the game. Why not just keep the clock running and see if the Raiders were willing to run out the clock? Staley's explanation of the call checked out, but what didn't was the Chargers' execution after it.
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Why did the Chargers call timeout?
As Staley explained, he called the timeout in order to set up the Chargers' defense. He wanted to stuff Josh Jacobs and ensure that Daniel Carlson's potential game-winning attempt would be as long as possible.
"We felt like they were going to run the ball, so we wanted to get our best 11 personnel run defense in, make that substitution so that we could get a play where we were deep in the field goal [range]," Staley said.
That substitution became a bit of a talking point after the game.
What went wrong after the Chargers' timeout
The Chargers changed up their defense after the timeout, as they replaced linebacker Kenneth Murray with big-bodied nose tackle Linval Joseph. There was nothing wrong with the decision on Staley's part, as Joseph, 33, has long been strong against the run.
That said, as former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho outlined, that created a fundamental formation change for the Chargers. Instead of operating with four defensive linemen and two linebackers, the Chargers had five linemen and one linebacker on the play. That put pressure on linebacker Kyzir White to both defend the middle of the field and also fire downhill to try and stop Jacobs once a gap emerged.
Brandon Staley took the timeout because he out smarted himself.
As Acho detailed, White stayed in the middle of the field as opposed to moving with the tight end to get to the gap Jacobs was attacking. In Acho's opinion, that wouldn't have happened with another linebacker on the field, as White would have been able to shoot towards the gap with the other backer rotating into the middle of the field. The safety didn't have the same responsibility, so White had to wait a split second to identify the gap.
As a result, by the time White came downhill, Jacobs' crease had already formed. He hit it, got to the second level and carried the ball for a first down and into field goal range.
Acho blamed Staley's personnel change for this mistake, but the coach said that subbing Murray after the timeout wasn't the issue. It was just a matter of failed execution.
"We obviously didn't execute well enough, but we wanted to get our premium one backline defense in here and that's what we did," Staley said.
Given that Murray has struggled for most of the season — he ranked 72nd of 86 qualified linebackers entering Sunday's action, per PFF, and had six missed tackles compared to 18 made on the season — it's easy to understand why Staley would sub him out.
At the same time, Acho's point has merit. Having an extra linebacker out there may have helped the Chargers to limit Jacobs' gain, but if Los Angeles wasn't confident in Murray, it didn't have a lot of options to replace him, as Drue Tranquill was in just his first game back from a leg injury that sidelined him three weeks.
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Did the Chargers' timeout change the Raiders' strategy?
Both Derek Carr and Rich Bisaccia claimed that the Chargers' decision to call timeout changed their strategy, but Staley was doubtful of that after the game.
"They were gonna run the ball on the play before [the timeout]," Staley said. "And then they ran the ball the very next play."
In all likelihood, the Raiders were going to run the ball, see what they could get and kick a field goal if they felt confident enough in the potential result. At that point, they just needed to avoid giving up a defensive score to advance to the playoffs, win or tie. And a win would give them the No. 5 seed and a date with the Bengals as opposed to a tie, which would give them the No. 7 seed and a meeting with the Chiefs, so that had to have been on the team's mind as well.
Either way, the Raiders certainly weren't preparing to take a knee. As such, the Chargers called the timeout and put on the field the unit that they believed would give them the best chance to stop the Raiders.
They just couldn't do it.