Happy Thursday, friends. I thought I’d take a few minutes today to talk about the Chargers offense, and how the Broncos can best contain it. They did a pretty solid job against them in San Diego last November, holding Philip Rivers and Company to thirteen points, and in a general way, Monday will see a stronger Broncos defense playing against a weaker Chargers offense.
Mr. Rivers has always reminded me of Bernie Kosar, and I think his game is slipping in his early 30s, similarly to how Kosar’s did. His numbers aren’t that bad so far in 2012, but I just don’t see the same guy on video that I saw three or four years ago.
The receiving group that Rivers is working with is diminished from 2011, too. Losing Vincent Jackson and replacing him with Robert Meachem is a bad deal. Eddie Royal, nice guy that he is, still struggles to get open against a zone defense. An underrated loss in the Chargers’ passing game is running back Mike Tolbert, who caught 54 passes for the Bolts last season. His replacement, Jackie Battle, doesn’t have that kind of receiving skill, and he has just six catches for 49 yards in five games.
The Chargers are a vertical team. What that means is that they like to stretch the field in such a way as to get the safeties to play deep, thus opening up the running game, the screen game, and the underneath game for the tight end. They don’t spread the field a whole lot, and they use more two-back groupings than most teams in the NFL do at this point.
In the running game, the Chargers play with a ton of angle-blocking techniques, and don’t do much zone blocking at all. They’re really dangerous if you let them get the edge, and Ryan Mathews can hurt you with outside runs if the defense doesn’t win out there.
As much disdain as there is out there for Norv Turner and his track record, the fact is that he’s one of the best play-callers in the NFL. The Chargers always have a good game plan, and an excellent flow to their scheme that keeps defenses stressed and off balance. The running game sets up the deep ball, which sets up the screen game, which causes softness at the second level, which allows Antonio Gates to push off freely, and wreak havoc. Many armchair “coaching experts” are wrong about Turner, like they’re wrong about Josh McDaniels.
Check out this diagram, which is a quintessential vertical Chargers pass play against a 2-deep shell, with man-to-man underneath (2-man, as it’s called). Defenses like playing 2-man, because the man guys can play trail technique and have help over the top. This concept obliterates 2-man, though.
The first thing to notice is that the Chargers are in 21 personnel, which dictates that the defense is in base personnel. That means that three linebackers are going to have to try to cover two backs and a tight end in man coverage. The wideouts run 9 routes, with the cornerbacks trailing them, and both safeties are stressed with having to provide over-the-top help.
Both running backs run swing routes to the flats, with neither having protection responsibilities. If there’s a blitz, Rivers will just throw hot to one of them. The key player is the TE, usually Antonio Gates. He’s running vertically at the strong safety, and then crossing the field at 18 yards to stress the free safety.
What the free safety does is going to determine where Rivers goes with the ball.
If he plays the 9 route aggressively, Rivers is just going to throw Gates the ball. If he tries to split the difference, the play is probably to the 9 route. If the man coverage on both is good, and the FS is in good position to help both players, the play is to just check down to the RB in the right flat, because the MLB almost certainly can’t get out to the flat fast enough to cover him.
This is an Air Coryell concept going back to the 70s, and it works because it kills 2-man. For that reason, I think the Broncos’ best bet is to play a lot of zone against San Diego. I feel good about their ability to stop the running game with seven men in the box, so I would go with a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 6.
The weakness of Cover 3 is in both flats, and the weakness of Cover 6 is in the field-side flat, and the Chargers like to throw to the flats, but I think the Broncos have enough speed on defense to mitigate those weaknesses. If Rivers is having to repeatedly take the check-down in the flats, I think he’s eventually going to get frustrated and throw a few to the Broncos.
One important thing to watch is the Chargers’ pass protection. As Doug noted in the Lard, it hasn’t been very good this season, and they haven’t seen pass rushers like Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Now it looks like both Jared Gaither and Jeromey Clary are hurt, and that’s not a recipe for good things for the men from Whale’s Vagina.
I think that the Broncos should have an easier time this week against San Diego’s offense than at any other time this year except the Raiders game. Really, I’d say that the San Diego talent on offense isn’t much better than Oakland’s, and if the Broncos execute, I expect that they’ll win pretty handily.