Casey Hayward led the NFL with seven interceptions in 2016 but was shut out last year.
The play served as an example of what the Los Angeles Chargers‘ secondary is focused on in the lead-up to the regular season — improvement in catching interceptions.
“Any time it touches any one of our hands we want to get the ball, especially myself,” Hayward said when asked about the play. “We all hold ourselves to a high standard. As a defense, we want to lead the league in turnovers … One of the big ones you can do is get interceptions.”
The members of L.A.’s secondary anointed themselves the “Jack Boys” last offseason because of their penchant for taking the ball away from the other team, but failed to live up to that lofty nickname in 2018. After finishing second in the league with 36 interceptions during a two-year span from 2016 and 2017, the Chargers totaled only 13 last season.
According to stats compiled by the defensive coaches, the Chargers had 15 dropped interceptions last season. Cornerback Michael Davis led the team with four dropped interceptions.
Chargers secondary coach Ron Milus said a point of emphasis this past offseason and in training camp has been doing a better job of corralling those interception opportunities. Specifically, the Chargers want to win the 50/50 contested catches with receivers.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to be able to make the contested catch,” Milus said. “We’re going to catch a couple fair catches, but it’s making the unusual catches. At the end of the day, rush and cover work together, and when we have an opportunity to catch the ball, we have to catch that sucker.”
The pass defense under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was mostly solid a year ago, as the Bolts finished No. 9 in the NFL, allowing just 228 passing yards a contest. The Bolts also gave up just 23 touchdowns through the air last season, 12th-best in the league.
However, Bradley’s defense totaled just 20 takeaways in 2018, No. 16 in the NFL. The Chargers had 27 in 2017, good enough for No. 6.
Davis has yet to haul in an interception in his first two seasons in the league, something the Southern California native believes he can change this season. Davis has had a handful of interceptions during training camp practices.
“This year, I’m trying to grab those four, and then plus more,” Davis said, referring to the drops he had last season. “I’ll try to take two or more to the house. I just have to focus.
“Last year, I wasn’t really focused on catching the ball, I was focused on scoring before catching the ball. This year, I’m focused on catching the ball first and then scoring.”
Cat-quick at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds with track speed, Davis regularly puts himself in position to make plays. He just has to do a better job playing the ball at that “moment of truth” when he’s fighting for it against a receiver.
Davis said assistant defensive backs coach Chris Harris conducts daily presentations before practice on how to strip the ball and the best way for players to get in position for interceptions, and that the Bolts’ defense is defined by how it takes the ball away.
Creating more pass rush can also help the secondary. It’s one reason the Chargers drafted defensive tackle Jerry Tillery in the first round.
The Bolts had just 38 sacks last season, tied for 19th in the league. Bradley believes they can increase that total with the addition of Tillery, along with the improvement of young players such as Justin Jones and Isaac Rochell, adding juice to already talented edge rushers Joey Bosa — who missed the first nine games last season due to a foot injury — and Melvin Ingram.
“Our main thing is we just want to get the ball,” safety Adrian Phillips said. “It doesn’t matter how we do it. Interceptions would be great. Everybody always sees those. Any time we’re putting our offense in a position to win the game, then we’re doing our jobs.”