Earlier today, we got refamiliarized with San Diego's offense. Let's check in on the defensive personnel, plus consider some ideas for how the Broncos can complete a season sweep of the Chargers.
Defensive line - San Diego’s line has begun to come together, but they’re still not the team's strongest link. Third-year right end Corey Liuget (94) struggled early in the season with a shoulder injury, but he now has 4.5 sacks, and according to PFF, zero missed tackles. He has also committed six penalties and has struggled at times to get to the running back.
If he gets there, he doesn’t miss, but his lateral movement needs to improve. Luiget also has the most QB pressures on the team, with only 27 - that’s the lowest production from a team leader in the league.
Left end Kendall Reyes (91) is in his second year and has seemingly gone backwards. He’s got four sacks, but tends to struggle in both the pass rush and run defense. Since he’ll be facing Louis Vasquez and Orlando Franklin, I’d expect to see a number of runs by Denver that will mimic this one. Tackling is an issue for the defense as a whole, the line included.
Melvin Ingram’s (54) return helped create a fumble against New York, and he might be a factor.
The man in the middle is usually Cam Thomas (92), 2010 fifth-round pick who’s referred to in the locker room as ‘Baby Zilla’. He has been erratic and has been in negatives rankings more games than not, leading to his replacement in the starting lineup by Sean Lissemore.
The Chargers hope 335 lb. rookie Kwame Geathers (95) will become their starting NG in 2014.
Linebacker - SD has fairly two good ILBs in Donald Butler, who is the QB of the linebackers, and rookie Manti Te’o. Butler is an excellent veteran player who’s had an up and down year, while Te’o has stepped up since coming out of Notre Dame.
To be fair, Te’o also often struggles in run defense, due to a lack of strength and a need to learn better hand usage, (especially on stack and shed technique). He’s been good at rushing the passer up the middle and anticipates plays well. It’s something that Manny Ramirez will have to watch for. San Diego also has Andrew Gachkar (59) and Bront Bird (97) taking occasional snaps.
Their outside linebackers are Jarret Johnson (96), Reggie Walker (52), Tourek Williams (58), and Thomas Keiser (90). I think that among them, only Johnson is a consistent threat.
Ingram returned from the PUP list last week and had a single assist against the Giants, although he helped set up a fumble as noted above. Unlike years past, this isn’t the Chargers’ best group.
Secondary - Left cornerback Shareece Wright (29) is the Chargers' best at the position. He’s paired with Richard Marshall (31), who’s given up a 118.0 QBR and a 76% completion rate to opposing quarterbacks. It’s just a guess, but I think that Peyton Manning might target Marshall once or twice...
The other corners are slot man Johnny Patrick (26) and Derek Cox (22), who’s been benched in each of the last three games. Cox was first pulled when he blew the play on Julius Thomas’s 74-yard catch-and-run score in Week 10.
Despite a poor performance against the Giants, free safety Eric Weddle (32) is probably the Chargers' best defensive player - he’s the key gear that makes the machine run. Third-year man Marcus Gilchrist handles the starting duties effectively at strong safety, with 2013 college free agent Jahleel Addae (37) backing up as needed.
Both Weddle and Gilchrist are high quality players - the Bolts have a lot of weaknesses, but safety isn’t one of them. They will need to develop depth, but their starters are very good.
Kickers - Punter Mike Scifres doesn’t hit for distance, averaging only 43 yards, but his hang time is 4.6 seconds, so he gives his coverage team a chance to get down and eliminate runbacks.
Placekicker Nick Novak has gone 26 for 29 this year, with all three misses coming between 30 and 39 yards.
Returns - Oddly, the team only has 15 punt returns on the season; Eddie Royal has seven of them, for 41 yards, plus four fair catches. Keenan Allen has the other eight, for 73 yard, and 10 fair catches.
Ronnie Brown (23) handled two kickoff returns against the Giants, while Danny Woodhead (11 for 260 yards) and Lavelle Hawkins (8 for 176 yards) have returned the rest. Fozzy Whittaker, who started the season as the Chargers' kick returner, is now in Cleveland.
How do you attack the Chargers? It helps when Rivers throws three interceptions, as he did last time the teams played. The Chargers are going to go with a lot of short passes out of their base package and use more audibles (which worked well against the Giants), with an increasing use of the no-huddle. Denver’s defense has practiced against that kind of offense incessantly, so despite the areas where the defense has struggled at times, I think that Denver will handle this challenge effectively.
As always, the offensive side for the Broncos is the biggest issue for their opponents. There’s not a lot that will change - there are always some new options for the second game with a divisional foe, but not many, given the short week. For the most part, the two changes that I think will matter are last week's return of Julius Thomas, which should help offset the loss of Wes Welker, and the advancement of Montee Ball.
I recently noted that I expect Ball to be used in much the same way that Knowshon Moreno has been, and that’s mostly been the case. Against Tennessee, Moreno had 14 carries for 78 yards, while Ball had 15 carries for 77 - which is about as even as you can get.
The Bolts will be sucking for oxygen after four quarters of trying to stop both backs and keep Manning out of the end zone. Jacob Tamme reminded people last Sunday that he’s perfectly capable of being a major pain for defenses. He, too, will help.
Denver’s struggles this year on special teams aren’t news to the Chargers - Tom Krasovic has been talking about the chance of taking advantage of that this week. The Chargers are also ‘up’ emotionally, coming off a big win against the Giants, but playing Peyton Manning and his receivers on the road, with their running game getting heated up, is a lot different than playing the Giants in San Diego.
Ball’s ability to break tackles is as strong as Knowshon Moreno’s, and the Chargers are not tackling well. The Bolts know that the only way to beat Denver is to keep Manning off the field, so stopping the run will be essential.
Their short passing game will help, and they will need to get their own running game equally effective. The clock can be their best friend if they control it, and their worst nightmare if they don’t. Since the issue of whether Manning can throw long and in cold weather has been clarified, SD can’t hope for help there.
The Chargers are going to have to tackle well, attack Manning effectively, and stop the run - none of which they’ve excelled in during the season to date. Last time they played Denver, they sent six rushers at Peyton on five occasions, and he made them pay each time (although Andre Caldwell dropped one). Every divisional game is something of a crapshoot, but the Chargers are facing a serious uphill battle to go home with a win tonight.
It says here that they can’t. I’m expecting Denver to win by 10+, even with a short week. Playing Thursday night games after competing on Sunday is rough, but both teams will have that same challenge. San Diego has to add dealing with the cold, the altitude, and with being on the road to their side of that equation. I don’t see them being able to do so effectively. Look for Denver to triumph, 35-24.