Fat off the Bone: Week 5 - Chargers

Last week, the Packers did almost everything the scouting report said they would, but the Broncos were powerless to stop them.  Although the Broncos employed the right strategy defensively (playing nickel most of the game), they simply didn't have the horses to stay in the fight.

This week, the Broncos will again be the least talented team on the field; however, their familiarity with the Chargers' scheme and the Chargers' scheme itself should help the Broncos stay in the game.

Before we break down the percentages, remember that the system that Norv Turner uses in San Diego is the same system he's used since the days when he was the offensive coordinator for all the great Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1990s.  Troy Aikman is played by Philip Rivers.  Michael Irvin is now known as Vincent Jackson.  Antonio Gates is Jay Novacek.  At its core, it's a deep spread passing game, in which the quarterback, unlike other systems, reads deep to short.  In other words, Philip Rivers isn't playing around.   If the deep ball is there, he's going to take it.  

Perhaps that's why his career average yards per attempt is 8.0.  In Turner's offense, almost all of the passing plays have a deep option available to Rivers.  The receivers are taught to get as much space as possible between their intermediate and long routes and between their short and intermediate routes.  Rivers rarely uses a three-step drop.  Instead, in Turner's offense, he consistently uses a lot of five- and seven-step drops.  That doesn't mean he takes a lot of sacks, though.  That's because in Turner's offense, which relies on timing, the quarterback is taught to get the ball out quickly.  You've probably heard and read that Philip Rivers has a quick release.  Part of the reason is because he actually does have a quick release.  The other part is because he's expected to get rid of the ball as soon as his back foot hits at the end of his drop.

With this as our backdrop, let's look at how the Chargers attack a 4-3.

Observations

1. Norv Turner wants to attack you with two tight ends.

I used the same methodology as I did last week.  I looked at the first 15 plays of each of the Chargers games this year, excluding their game last week against the Dolphins.  The Dolphins run a 3-4, so it's not nearly as useful to include those plays in the sample.  The other teams the Chargers played (the Chiefs, Patriots, and Vikings) all play a 4-3.  

Here's how the plays broke down along personnel groupings.

Personnel Grouping                                                                Count
122 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) 26 46.67
113 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) 7 15.56
131 (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR) 4 8.89
221 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) 1 2.22
212 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) 14 26.67
TOTAL 45 100%

Turner has a preference for the 122 personnel grouping; he uses it about half the time.  He specifically likes to use Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd as his wide receivers, Antonio Gates and Randy McMichael as his tight ends, and Ryan Mathews as the running back, although he tends to rotate his running backs more frequently.

The 122 package presents teams with a lot of difficulty.  It will pose a huge problem for Denver on Sunday.  That's because Jackson, Floyd and Gates are all 6'5, while McMichael is 6'3.  No one in the Broncos' starting secondary goes above 6'1.  Expect Rivers, as he's done in the past against the Broncos, to take some shots downfield to Jackson and Floyd.  If you saw a secondary with a banged up Champ Bailey, an aging Brian Dawkins, and a rookie in Rahim Moore--all of them virtual dwarves compared to your receivers--wouldn't you take some deep shots?

If Gates doesn't play (as of this writing, he's doubtful), he'll be replaced in this package by McMichael.  McMichael's W position (second tight end) will then land on the shoulders of blocking tight end Kory Sperry, who runs 6'5.  Sperry (Colorado State), like Jackson (Northern Colorado) and Floyd (Wyoming), played his college football within a few hours of Denver.

Against the Chiefs, the Chargers had to use Sperry in this 122 package, and they weren't as successful as they wanted to be. It's also one reason why the Broncos could stay in this game.  Antonio Gates is a weapon of choice, and without him, the Chargers are more limited. This will allow the Broncos to play more man coverage than they might normally.

The other reason the Chargers struggled a bit was because of McMichael's versatility.  When he had to move from the W to the Y (first tight end), he became more of a pass catcher, and his versatility as a fullback hybrid was diminished.  

2. The Chargers have a strong preference for the I formation.

Given the Chargers' preference for the 122 package, it makes sense their formations would break down in the following way:

You'll no doubt see the Broncos get a healthy dose of two-back sets and I formations, specifically the I-Near formation, which is their favorite.  The I-Near, of course, provides an extra blocker to the strong side of the formation, but in the passing game, it also allows for the tight end (or other receiver depending on the package and alignment) to drive downfield and create additional space in the flat for the running back.  

Two-back sets and the I formation also have the added advantage of play action, which, as we've seen over the years, is a specialty of the Chargers.

Notice a tendency the Chargers have for max protection.  They are simply not going to allow the opposition to sack Philip Rivers.  This formation also has the added advantage of providing Rivers with running backs as passing outlets.

As a brief aside, max protection is something we've also advocated the Broncos use for Kyle Orton for all of the same reasons the Chargers like the formation.

3.  Motion Motion Everywhere

This won't be a shock, but the Chargers use motion almost as much as the Raiders.  Of the 45 plays I charted, they motioned in some way on 28 of them.  Turner really likes to use his second tight end in motion across the formation to kick out the defensive end in the running game on the various traps the Chargers run.  He also cleverly uses motion to disguise pick routes at the goal line, so look for it.

We reviewed this in our preview of the season-opening Raiders game, but as a refresher, there are a few reasons to use a lot of pre-snap motion:

  1. It allows the quarterback the ability to get a better handle on his man/zone reads.  The thinking is that if a defense is playing man coverage, the defensive back will follow the motion man.   If he doesn't, the quarterback can look for the soft areas of the zone.
     
  2. It allows the offense to disguise their true intentions.  False motion away from the true direction of the play is common with motion-heavy teams.
     
  3. It allows the wide receivers a chance to get into the action.  Motion towards the formation gives the chance for the wide receivers to crack back on the end or linebacker.
     
  4. To create mismatches.  If any of the Broncos linebackers end up playing man coverage on Ryan Mathews, it will be due to pre-snap motion--or bad defense.
     
  5. To make the defense think.  A defense that is set and prepared to execute a specific coverage isn't as committed to do so if they are constantly having to adjust to motion.

Unfortunately, the Broncos haven't shown a strong ability to adjust to pre-snap motion this season.  I expect that if they struggle early in the game against it, they'll simply resort to zone coverage in the second half.

4. The Chargers are balanced.

Simply put, of the plays I charted to start each of their games, the Chargers ran the ball 21 times and passed it 24 times.  However, on first down they ran the ball 75% of the time.  It appears as if the Chargers work hard early in the game to set up their big play action later in the game.  Don't bite, Brian Dawkins.  Don't bite.

5. The Chargers love the trap.  

San Diego runs most of its running plays through the 2 and 3 holes, utilizing various forms of the trap play.  This means that Brodrick Bunkley is going to face a fair amount of double teams.  In turn, the Broncos' play-side defensive ends are going to find themselves facing a charging guard as they try to follow the play.  What's left?  The backside linebacker.  In this case, that means D.J. Williams.  This game will be a real test for him and his breakdowns.

The Bottom Line

Here's where I have a lot of armchair advice for the Broncos on how to stop their opponent, but the truth is that Norv Turner is a brilliant offensive mind and will adjust quickly during the game.  It would be easy to suggest the Broncos load the box early in the game with Brian Dawkins, given the Chargers' preference for running ball on first down.  Further, without Antonio Gates as a safety blanket, zone blitzing would be a fine recommendation.  However, the key to stopping Philip Rivers in this game will come down to something I've not really touched upon yet.  The Chargers have a significant weakness at right tackle in Jeromey Clary.  If they do not provide Clary with help on Von Miller during passing downs, Miller will be in Rivers' face consistently.

The key then, assuming the Broncos can stop the Chargers' rushing attack (which we shouldn't assume), will be how Dennis Allen utilizes his old friend, the overload blitz.  Clary will be beaten badly on Sunday.  The Chargers will adjust by helping with an extra tight end or back.  This will give Allen the opportunity to overload the other side and attack Rivers with Elvis Dumervil and friends.  All-Pro tackle Marcus McNeill can only block one defender at a time.

I expect the Chargers will then adjust and go max protection during the second half to keep Rivers clean.  By this time, however, the Broncos will have remained in the game; things will be up for grabs.


You want some more?  Huh? You want a little?  Do ya?  Email TJ Johnson: tjthedudejohnson@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.  If you prefer, come get some sugar at It’s All Over, Fat Man! on Facebook and Twitter

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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