Digesting the Chargers

Happy Friday, friends.  It’s Chargers week, and today we’re going to Digest the Bolts.  After watching the film, I have some reasons to be cautiously optimistic, and I get the impression from some comments on other articles that I’m not the only one.

As with any week where I come back from vacation, it’s been hellacious.  When you sign up to be a salaried employee, they don’t explicitly tell you that your pile only grows when you’re away, but you figure it out pretty quickly - and taking Friday and Monday off means doing six days of work in four days when you get back.  Anyway, on to the analysis.  Between my job, this site, and my Marketing Strategy class for my MBA program, my brain has been analyzing nonstop this week, and the hamster is getting a little tired.  Still, for you, I press on.

Game Watched:  Chargers at Dolphins (Week 4)

Chargers Defense

a.  Despite switching from Wade Phillips to Ron Rivera to Greg Manusky at Defensive Coordinator, this defense hasn’t changed much schematically over the last seven years.  This is an advantage for the players in it, but it also aids the Broncos who’ve been around, because everybody should know what to expect.

The Chargers play a lot of man-to-man, and they play a one-gap variant of the 3-4.  They rush the passer with five men most of the time, and mostly that consists of their three D-linemen and two OLBs.  They rarely bring an ILB (or both), and very occasionally a Safety will factor into the rush scheme.  To illustrate this, check out the following table:

Pos # Player Rush Coverage
DE 92 Vaughn Martin 23 0
NT 71 Antonio Garay 16 0
DE 94 Corey Liuget 13 0
DE 91 Ogemdi Nwagbuo 9 0
NT 76 Cam Thomas 9 0
DE 90 Tommie Harris 13 0
OLB 99 Travis LaBoy 7 12
OLB 95 Shaun Phillips 24 4
OLB 98 Antwan Barnes 7 0
OLB 52 Larry English 16 2
ILB 51 Takeo Spikes 4 30
ILB 56 Donald Butler 5 8
ILB 54 Stephen Cooper 0 1
ILB 58 Na'il Diggs 2 16
CB 38 Marcus Gilchrist 0 34
CB 20 Antoine Cason 0 34
CB 33 Dante Hughes 2 15
FS 31 Eric Weddle 2 32
SS 28 Steve Gregory 1 33
    Total 153 221
    Average (34 Snaps) 4.50 6.50
    DL Assignment 100% 0%
    OLB Assignment 75% 25%
    ILB Assignment 17% 83%
    DB Assignment 3% 97%

True story, I wrote the previous paragraph based on what I saw with my eyes, and then I did the chart based upon data compiled by PFF.  You have to love it when the math supports what you see with your eyes.  This is not the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Jets.  There isn’t much in the way of zone blitzing, and there’s no particular use of overload concepts either.  But Ted, I thought that all three teams use a 3-4 scheme?  Allow me to beat the drum once again: 3-4 is a personnel grouping, not a scheme.

The Chargers are a one-gapping, four- or five-man, non-exotic rush team.  They’re counting on their guys up front being stronger and faster than yours, and also on their DBs and ILBs being able to hold up in coverage.  You’ll see roughly 75% 2 Man-Under, and 25% zone (nothing too tricky).  It looked to me like they’ll often check to zone when an offense gives them a stacked receiver look, so as not to let a man cover guy get rubbed.  (This is a fairly typical automatic check.)

Pos # Player Snaps
DE 92 Vaughn Martin 42
NT 71 Antonio Garay 34
DE 94 Corey Liuget 27
DE 91 Ogemdi Nwagbuo 15
NT 76 Cam Thomas 13
DE 90 Tommie Harris 18
OLB 99 Travis LaBoy 36
OLB 95 Shaun Phillips 47
OLB 98 Antwan Barnes 8
OLB 52 Larry English 21
ILB 51 Takeo Spikes 57
ILB 56 Donald Butler 32
ILB 54 Stephen Cooper 2
ILB 58 Na'il Diggs 24
CB 38 Marcus Gilchrist 55
CB 20 Antoine Cason 57
CB 33 Dante Hughes 24
FS 31 Eric Weddle 57
SS 28 Steve Gregory 57
    Average # of DL 2.61
    Average # of LB 3.98
    Average # of DB 4.39

If you look at this basic snap data, you'll see that when the Chargers go Nickel, which is infrequent, they swap out a DL for a DB.  Of course, that's smiliar to what both the Packers and Broncos do.  The Chargers didn't play dime even once, and only five DBs played in the game on defense, which may not surprise you against Miami.  You may be more surprised to know that the same pattern basically held against the Patriots in Week 2, though.

b.  The Chargers defensive line didn’t look very good to me.  All six players who played up front spent some time on skates in the running game.  If the Dolphins had anybody who could run between the tackles, and/or if they hadn’t given up on trying so easily, they could have definitely put up some good running numbers.  Miami had 55 yards on the ground in the first quarter on 10 carries, and they ended the game with 22 carries for 72 yards.  Apparently, they were really excited about Matt Moore’s throwing ability.

c.  The Chargers LBs did play well against Miami.  ILBs Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler were steady and consistently got to where they were supposed to be.  For rushing the passer so little, they made it count.  Spikes had a sack, and Butler had two hits and a pressure.  Phillips is having an outstanding season, and he was consistently a factor in both the pass rush and as an edge-setter in the run game.  The normally invisible English got two sacks against Marc “The Turnstile” Colombo.  LaBoy was kind of a waste in a lot of snaps, but he’s a Manusky favorite from San Francisco.  None of the backups showed much besides English.

d.  The Chargers were without their (not really) best CB Quentin Jammer, and he’s expected to play Sunday.  I actually think Cason is better, and he’s a guy you have to watch for on the route-jumping front.  He has excellent ball skills, and while you can complete some throws on him, he threatens to turn you over too.  The rookie Gilchrist didn’t look like much in coverage to me, but he did intercept a pass.

e.  The key to the whole defense is Weddle, who combines excellent instincts with first-class range.  Weddle runs well enough to be a CB, and he’s a great example of the kind of player teams want nowadays at FS, in that he can cover either man or zone, and he can also fill in the running game and make a tackle.  Against below-average QBs like Chad Henne and Matt Moore, Weddle is going to dominate.  Steve Gregory at SS is below-average individually, but he gets by fine for the Chargers within their scheme.

Chargers Offense

a.  Also from the Department of Things Which Are Unchanged, I give you the Whale’s Vagina offense.  It looks exactly the same as it did last year, the year before, and when Norv Turner coached everywhere he’s ever been.  Norv isn’t an innovator - he’s a guy who believes that he has something that works, which was handed down from Don Coryell and Ernie Zampese, and he coaches his players to execute it, game after game, and year after year.

The Turner offense is very vertical in design, and the passing scheme is designed to back defenders up, allowing for a lot of straight-ahead (vertical) running, and with running success, the idea is to pull the defenders closer, and hit them over the top with the pass.  Once the offense is having success with both run and pass, as we’ve seen, it can pass when the defense is thinking run, and run when the defense is thinking pass, and be very successful.

This is a very TE-intensive offense even in the absence of Antonio Gates, and a lot of passes get thrown to the RBs as well.  The WRs don’t run much in the way of short routes, and the short passing game is almost entirely from the backfield; the Chargers are outstanding at executing screens and swing passes.  I think they’re Philip Rivers’ best throws.  The Turner offense doesn’t use audibles, because a core belief is that any play within it can be executed properly against any defense.

b.  At QB, Rivers is very good, obviously, but he’s been throwing a lot of interceptions this season, as he’s tied for the league lead with six alongside Brother Orton.  He throws one of the better deep balls in the NFL, and as I mentioned, he’s tremendously accurate and sound on the screens and swing passes.  I’m continually impressed with Rivers’ pocket mobility and his ability to get the ball out quickly from funny angles, even if it’s to throw it out of bounds and avoid a sack.  Rivers isn’t fast, but he’s definitely no statue at the launch point.

c.  RB Ryan Mathews is starting to look like a twelfth-overall pick in the Draft, and he had a pretty big day against Miami with 16 carries for 81 yards and five catches for 68 yards.  He teams with sometimes-FB Mike Tolbert, who added six carries for 17 yards and a TD to go with five catches for 51 yards.  The other back who plays is FB Jacob Hester, who is mainly used as a run blocker.

These three backs are not used much in pass protection at all, and defenses need to specifically account for them all as receivers when they’re on the field.  The Chargers would much rather minimum protect, invite the rush, and then throw a swing pass out to Mathews in space, than they would have him stay in and try to block a rusher.

d.  Vincent Jackson is good, but I’m continually unimpressed with WRs Malcom Floyd, Patrick Crayton and Vincent Brown.  None of those guys threatens a defense individually very much, and really, they’re all guys who are hoping that scheme puts them in an open spot.  Jackson got away with a ton of push-offs against Miami and caught three passes for 108 yards.  Floyd, who’s tall and not much else, caught two for 26 yards, and Crayton, who played 49 snaps, caught his only target for three yards. 

e.  I mentioned that this is a TE-focused team, and I saw Randy McMichael running the same routes that Gates usually runs, stretching the seam.  Of course, he’s no Gates, and he caught three of his six targets for 25 yards.  Kory Sperry and Tyronne Green (an extra OT) also played some snaps at TE but generally aren’t a factor in the catching-balls department.

Pos # Player Snaps
WR 80 Malcom Floyd 51
WR 83 Vincent Jackson 22
WR 86 Vincent Brown 23
WR 12 Patrick Crayton 49
WR 15 Richard Goodman 4
TE 81 Randy McMichael 54
TE 82 Kory Sperry 33
TE 69 Tyronne Green 2
RB 24 Ryan Mathews 36
RB 35 Mike Tolbert 36
FB 22 Jacob Hester 20
    WR in Game (avg) 2.26
    TE in Game (avg) 1.35
    RB in Game (avg) 1.39

As you can see from the above chart, the Chargers stick pretty close to base personnel.  They rarely go empty at any position, and on most plays, there’s one RB, one TE, two WR, and then the fifth guy is close to equally likely to be any of the three.  When Hester is on the field, a run is about 75% likely, and when Tolbert is in the game, especially joining Mathews, you really want to watch the pass.  The Chargers are equally likely to run or pass out of a two-TE look, so there’s not much clue there. 

f.  The Offensive Line of the Chargers can be had.  LT Marcus McNeill is solid and so is C Nick Hardwick, but I think that LG Kris Dielman is in decline, RG Louis Vazquez isn’t very good to begin with, and RT Jeromey Clary is awful in pass protection while being okay in the run game.  Quality RTs are pretty hard to find, but I don’t know why you’d pay that guy $20 million for four years.

As I mentioned, the Chargers are one of the most likely teams in the NFL to minimum-protect.  On 37 dropbacks against Miami, they used a sixth blocker only 17 times.  They count on Rivers to get the ball out quickly, especially to his RBs.

Beating the Chargers Defense

a.  Pass protection is king against the Chargers, because if you can protect, you can complete passes against their man coverage.  They don’t have a player who can consistently cover either Brandon Lloyd or Eric Decker one-on-one, as long as Kyle Orton isn’t being hurried too much.

That said, I don’t like max protecting against San Diego, because they’re generally only rushing four or five players.  I like automatically chipping with the TE on Phillips when he is lined up off the offense’s right side, to help Orlando Franklin, but I do want Daniel Fells getting downfield in the passing game.  I think that he’s a favorable matchup against Gregory or any of the Chargers LBs.

The interior offensive linemen need to concentrate on anchoring, because there’s not that much going to be coming at them in terms of inside blitzes or stunts.  A few times a game, the Chargers will try to trick a G into doubling Garay (or whoever is at NT) and then run an ILB on a delayed blitz into the opening that the G left.  To me, it’s so infrequent that that needs to be the QB’s problem to recognize and get the ball out quickly.  I can’t have Chris Kuper standing around all game waiting for Takeo Spikes to come three or four times.

b.  I think that there’s some available success to be had in the running game.  The Dolphins were getting it blocked early on and then went away from it.  Since the Chargers like base personnel so much on defense, I’m a big fan of bringing in Chris Clark to be an extra TE and just running at them with power.  The Raiders had a lot of success with a sixth OL against the Bolts last year, and I think the Broncos can too.  What you don’t want is to allow Phillips to run around Franklin and crash down on an inside run.

c.  Patience beats the Chargers defense.  Patience with the run, and patience with taking what the passing game offers you.  I am not the biggest fan of going after Eric Weddle deep, because he’s really good.  If it’s there you take it, but don’t count on it being there.

d.  This isn’t really in Kyle Orton’s bag of tricks, but the best thing you can do with Weddle is try to influence him with eye placement and pump fakes.  Otherwise, he gets to the sideline as well as any FS in football, and it starts to look like a great idea that Cason was playing trail technique on Lloyd.

Stopping the Chargers Offense

a.  Auto-check to eight in the box when Hester is on the field, especially if it’s 22 personnel.  You’re playing the percentages in expecting the run in that situation.  Also, don’t expect the RB to follow Hester to the hole.  A lot of times, the FB will lead to the backside of the play and have seal responsibilities.  The Broncos will need good gap discipline, even while they don’t always sell out for the run.

b.  The major threats in in the passing game are the deep ball to Jackson and the short stuff to Mathews and Tolbert.  The Broncos will need to play those as their first priorities.  Here are a couple of familiar passing game constructs that the Chargers use:

In this first one, the Chargers are stretching the field both vertically and horizontally, which is quintessential Air Coryell.  First of all, the defense is almost always going to have Base personnel in the game against 21 personnel, and the Chargers know that.  They go shotgun, they know that they have five good receivers to be covered, and on this play (as usual) all of them are going into the pattern.  The outside WRs are running 9 routes, but that’s really just to move the CBs, and hopefully the FS.  What the Chargers really want is the best option from the Deep crosser that the TE is running, or the two swing routes by the backs.  This is deadly when Gates is healthy, and without him, it’s still pretty damn hard to stop.

This second diagram shows another frequent concept for San Diego, and it’s designed as a man-beater.  The outside guys both run to the corner (SD does a lot of mirroring like this, so my use of it is no accident).  That drags the CBs outside, and hopefully the Safeties.  Then they just simply cross the inside players and hope for some rub action while running the single RB out to the flat.

These two diagrams are the essence of the problem defenses face against the Chargers passing game.  It’s really hard to cover five good receivers across a whole field when the QB has the whole field to read.  That’s especially true when some of the good receivers are TEs and RBs, because you’re suddenly asking LBs to cover them.

Luckily, the Broncos potentially have a good answer.  For this game, I’m asking Champ Bailey to follow Jackson and man him up.  Remember how the Broncos had so much success defending Kansas City last year when other teams didn’t, because Champ took Dwayne Bowe out of the game?  I envision the same kind of thing here.  Only have one real outside threat against the Broncos as your own risk.

I’m then having Andre’ Goodman take Floyd one-on-one as well.  If you’re not scared of Jackson deep, like most teams are, suddenly you can sit on Mathews and Tolbert in the short passing game.  I’m willing to give up a couple of minor completions to guys like Crayton and McMichael, but I’m loath to let those backs run wild in space.

Covering Jackson deep and the RBs short is the first priority - before the running game, and before anything else in the passing game.  If you can take away his outlets, it gets a lot easier to hit Philip Rivers, and the Broncos have a really good chance of doing that on Sunday - especially if Elvis Dumervil is all the way back.  Jeromey Clary, may Christian God have mercy on your soul, because you’re in for a tough day trying to block Von Miller.

I think that overall we’re going to see a pretty competitive game, and I like this matchup a lot better for the Broncos than I did the one against the Packers.  It could go either way, but I was thinking that I might homer up for a change and take the Broncos at home.  Check out Fat Pickins over the weekend, and you’ll see for sure.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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