The Los Angeles Chargers landed the most high-profile coaching hire of the off-season. Jim Harbaugh has a proven track record, and most experts expect him eventually to turn the Chargers into a Super Bowl contender.

While the focus has been on maximizing Justin Herbert, perhaps we’re looking at the wrong side of the ball. Harbaugh’s best chance at reaching the playoffs in his first season in Los Angeles may lie with the defense. His defenses have usually been considerably better than his offenses. Seems counterintuitive since Harbaugh is a former quarterback. Most quarterback-turned-NFL coaches (Sean Payton, Doug Pederson, Kevin O’Connell, etc.) love to show off their offensive play-calling skills.

Harbaugh is different. His defense was dominant when the University of Michigan won the national championship in January. His defense was dominant when the San Francisco 49ers reached the Super Bowl after the 2012 regular season. It will take time for Harbaugh to build up the Chargers’ unit. However, he does have the pass-rushing duo of Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.

Many veterans don’t want to play for a new coach in a rebuilding season. Bosa and Mack could have bolted. Instead, they took pay cuts to stay.

Bosa, according to the Chargers’ official website, said: “I want to win. I want to be on this team. I want another shot with the guys in this room, especially Khalil. That’s what it was. Winning football games is more important to me right now than making some extra money. I think we have a great opportunity here.”

Mack added that L.A.’s hiring of Harbaugh made a difference in his decision, saying: “Oh yeah, that factored in as well. Just understanding the experience and understanding the staff that he was bringing in.”

Even though the Chargers (5-12) finished last in the AFC West, they were good at getting to the quarterback. Their 48 sacks ranked tied for seventh in the league. Mack had a career-high 17 sacks, including a franchise-record six in a victory over the Las Vegas Raiders. But Mack is 33. You have to wonder how much he has left.

However, his production this fall could be helped by Bosa at 100 percent.

Injuries have hampered Bosa in recent years. In 2023, he was limited to nine games but still collected 6.5 sacks. If Bosa starts at least 15 games, the 28-year-old could return to Pro Bowl form. Bosa and Mack have yet to play a full season together. To bolster their depth, the Chargers added pass-rushing specialist Bud Dupree (6.5 sacks in 16 games with the Atlanta Falcons). 

There’s reason for optimism. The Chargers’ strength could target a potential weakness for the Kansas City Chiefs. While most of the focus last year was on the Chiefs’ lousy wide receivers, their tackles struggled. According to Pro Football Focus, left tackle Donovan Smith had his worst season. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor was called for a league-high 23 penalties. Since Smith is a free agent, second-year player Wanya Morris or rookie Kingsley Suamataia will play on the left side.

If Bosa and Mack can consistently pressure Patrick Mahomes, that could be a game-changer. Of course, doing that to the mobile three-time Super Bowl MVP is easier said than done.

The Chargers are still a long way from being a legitimate threat to win the AFC West. But if Bosa and Mack are healthy, just reaching the playoffs in Harbaugh’s first season is a step in the right direction.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.