Re-Digesting the Chargers

Happy Fat Man Friday, friends.  On Sunday, the Broncos will plays the Chargers for the second time this season.  What’s changed since October 9th?  Well, on the surface, the answer is everything.  Tim Tebow took over the Broncos offense in the second half of that game, with his team trailing 23-10 and looking sluggish.  Tebow then rallied the team to fall just short of winning at 29-24, as a pass into the end zone on the game’s final play was nearly caught by Matt Willis in the typical Hail Mary crowd.  On that day, the Chargers improved to 4-1, and the Broncos fell to 1-4.

Since then, the Broncos are 4-1 on the strength of an improved defense and running game, as well as some timely plays by Tebow.  The Chargers are 0-5 in that same period and have gotten really banged up in the process.  I can’t see any way that their season isn’t over, in terms of playoff meaning, at this point.

We’re going to leverage the article I wrote six weeks ago, because the schemes haven’t changed.  We’ll focus on what has changed, which is mostly personnel, and we’ll go from there.

Game Watched:  Week 11 vs. Bears

Chargers Defense

a.  San Diego has been beaten in coverage a lot lately, and their run defense has slipped a bit too.  Their offense has been putting them in tough situations at times, and it has been showing, as they’ve gotten worn down late in games.  Here is the participation data, updated for the whole season to date:

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
DL 92 Vaughn Martin 415 66%
DL 71 Antonio Garay 338 54%
DL 94 Corey Liuget 281 45%
DL 76 Cam Thomas 195 31%
DL 74 Jacques Cesaire 166 26%
DL 90 Tommie Harris 156 25%
DL 91 Ogemdi Nwagbuo 71 11%
DL 93 Luis Castillo 31 5%
LB 51 Takeo Spikes 583 93%
LB 99 Travis LaBoy 498 79%
LB 56 Donald Butler 450 72%
LB 95 Shaun Phillips 323 51%
LB 98 Antwan Barnes 292 46%
LB 58 Na'il Diggs 200 32%
LB 52 Larry English 76 12%
LB 49 Darryl Gamble 36 6%
LB 91 Everette Brown 21 3%
LB 54 Stephen Cooper 11 2%
DB 31 Eric Weddle 625 100%
DB 23 Quentin Jammer 510 81%
DB 20 Antoine Cason 505 80%
DB 28 Steve Gregory 438 70%
DB 33 Dante Hughes 251 40%
DB 38 Marcus Gilchrist 217 35%
DB 27 Paul Oliver 116 18%
DB 31 Bob Sanders 102 16%
    Average DL 2.63  
    Average LB 3.96  
    Average DB 4.40  
    Total Defensive Snaps 628  

As you see, the substitution pattern is virtually unchanged.  This team doesn’t use a lot of sub packages, and it’s clear that they’d prefer to play big up front whenever possible. 

b.  I think that the defensive line group for the Chargers has fallen off lately.  NT Antonio Garay has been banged up and playing limited snaps, but as I watched the Bears game, and as I also saw the boys from Whale’s Vagina against Oakland the week before, I really noticed reduced productivity.  The Chargers are expected to get long-time DE starter Jacques Cesaire back from injury this week, so maybe that will help them.

c.  None of the Chargers LBs are particularly good in coverage.  They want to play four of them all the time, so it’s very important that you make them cover.  Teams have been hurting them with TEs and RBs in the passing game lately. 

d.  This LB group is also not particularly fast in pursuit.  This has been their rush defense totals in the five-game losing streak:

Opponent Attempts Yards YPC TD
Jets 31 162 5.23 0
Chiefs 32 94 2.94 1
Packers 28 136 4.86 0
Raiders 41 191 4.66 1
Bears 32 92 2.88 2
Total 164 675 4.12 4

The Bears and Chiefs have pretty bad offensive lines, (and the Chiefs have a deep backup starting at RB), and it shows in their totals.  The Raiders were without Darren McFadden, and the Packers got 52 yards on 8 carries from Aaron Rodgers.  In any case, teams with good lines have been setting the edge on the Chargers and running the ball outside on them.  They’re tough inside, but not as tough as they’ve been in past years.

e.  The secondary is as I described it six weeks ago.  You have to watch out for Antoine Cason jumping a route because he has excellent ball skills, but beyond that there will be average coverage.  Eric Weddle continues to look really good, and I saw him really diagnose a couple of screens quickly against Chicago and make big plays on them.  The Chargers are about 75% man-to-man against 25% zone coverage. 

As you see below, not much has changed in how the Chargers rush the passer.  They’re a four-man rush team, and there’s almost no zone-blitzing.

Pos # Name Rush Coverage % Rush % Coverage
DL 92 Vaughn Martin 210 1 99.5% 0.5%
DL 71 Antonio Garay 162 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 94 Corey Liuget 116 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 76 Cam Thomas 92 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 74 Jacques Cesaire 98 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 90 Tommie Harris 98 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 91 Ogemdi Nwagbuo 34 0 100.0% 0.0%
DL 93 Luis Castillo 12 0 100.0% 0.0%
LB 51 Takeo Spikes 31 277 10.1% 89.9%
LB 99 Travis LaBoy 149 89 62.6% 37.4%
LB 56 Donald Butler 16 183 8.0% 92.0%
LB 95 Shaun Phillips 133 43 75.6% 24.4%
LB 98 Antwan Barnes 159 16 90.9% 9.1%
LB 58 Na'il Diggs 10 114 8.1% 91.9%
LB 52 Larry English 36 13 73.5% 26.5%
LB 49 Darryl Gamble 18 4 81.8% 18.2%
LB 91 Everette Brown 7 0 100.0% 0.0%
LB 54 Stephen Cooper 0 6 0.0% 100.0%
DB 31 Eric Weddle 11 315 3.4% 96.6%
DB 23 Quentin Jammer 1 262 0.4% 99.6%
DB 20 Antoine Cason 1 262 0.4% 99.6%
DB 28 Steve Gregory 5 236 2.1% 97.9%
DB 33 Dante Hughes 7 169 4.0% 96.0%
DB 38 Marcus Gilchrist 0 125 0.0% 100.0%
DB 27 Paul Oliver 1 59 1.7% 98.3%
DB 31 Bob Sanders 1 48 2.0% 98.0%
    Average DL 2.49 0.00 99.9% 0.1%
    Average LB 1.69 2.26 42.9% 57.1%
    Average DB 0.08 4.47 1.8% 98.2%
    Total 4.27 6.73    

Chargers Offense

a.  The scheme is the same, and the skill position players mostly are too.  The big difference is on the offensive line.  Compare the starting lineups from October 9th and last week’s game vs. the Bears, to what the injury report tells us we may see Sunday:

POS 9-Oct 20-Nov 27-Nov
LT Marcus McNeill Brandyn Dombrowski Brandyn Dombrowski
LG Kris Dielman Scott Mruczkowski Tony Moll
C Nick Hardwick Nick Hardwick Nick Hardwick
RG Louis Vasquez Steve Schlling Steve Schlling
RT Jeromey Clary Jeromey Clary Jeromey Clary

Dielman and Mruczkowski are already on IR, and McNeill, Vasquez, and Tyronne Green haven’t participated in practice this week.  The October 9th group was San Diego’s planned starting group for the season, and it’s just gotten decimated lately by injuries.

b.  The Chargers have been bad in protection all season, but they’re much worse when Dombrowski plays than they are with the average McNeill.  Everybody has been pondering what’s wrong with QB Philip Rivers this season, and the answer is primarily a lack of protection.  I expect them to really try to slow down the Denver pass rush Sunday, as they did against the Bears.  The Bears largely cooperated, but I doubt that the Broncos will want to do that.  Here is the protection help data from among the skill position players.  Again, not much change in overall strategy:

Pos # Name Protection Pattern Snaps % of Total
WR 83 Vincent Jackson 0 407 407 93%
WR 80 Malcom Floyd 0 206 206 47%
WR 12 Patrick Crayton 2 175 177 40%
WR 86 Vincent Brown 0 170 170 39%
WR 13 Bryan Walters 0 59 59 13%
WR 15 Richard Goodman 0 30 30 6%
TE 81 Randy McMichael 102 167 269 61%
TE 85 Antonio Gates 2 300 302 69%
TE 82 Kory Sperry 7 46 53 12%
TE 69 Tyronne Green 2 0 2 0%
RB 24 Ryan Mathews 23 166 189 43%
RB 35 Mike Tolbert 38 193 231 53%
RB 22 Jacob Hester 19 68 87 20%
RB 44 Curtis Brinkley 3 10 13 3%
    Average WR 0.00 2.38 2.39  
    Average TE 0.26 1.17 1.43  
    Average RB 0.19 1.00 1.18  
    Total 0.45 4.55 5.00  
    Pass Plays     439  

c.  While we're at it, here's an update to offensive participation:

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
WR 83 Vincent Jackson 634 89%
WR 80 Malcom Floyd 295 41%
WR 12 Patrick Crayton 258 36%
WR 86 Vincent Brown 222 31%
WR 13 Bryan Walters 77 11%
WR 15 Richard Goodman 37 8%
TE 81 Randy McMichael 492 69%
TE 85 Antonio Gates 448 63%
TE 82 Kory Sperry 150 21%
TE 69 Tyronne Green 14 2%
RB 24 Ryan Mathews 344 48%
RB 35 Mike Tolbert 324 46%
RB 22 Jacob Hester 234 33%
RB 44 Curtis Brinkley 26 4%
    Average WR 2.14  
    Average TE 1.55  
    Average RB 1.31  
    Offensive Snaps 711  

As you see, the Chargers are a predominantly 12 or 21 personnel team, and they rarely use a third WR.  Norv is old school, because he's convinced that what he's doing works.

d.  Everything else remains unchanged from six weeks ago.  Is yesterday’s tryptophan fest making me lazy?  POSSIBLY.

Beating the Chargers Defense

a.  The zone read and dive option game is open for business against San Diego, and I really like the shovel option against them too.  They’re not much of a pursuit team, and they’d really like to just line up and plug the B gap by being physical.  The Broncos need to make the Chargers think on defense and force them to react to what they’re seeing.

b.  I like a lot of three- and four-WR sets against San Diego, because they really don’t want to play small.  The Broncos need to force them to substitute CBs for a DL and a LB at times, and if the Chargers won’t, it’s incumbent upon Tim Tebow to make them pay by hitting passes to a WR being covered by a LB.

Last week, the name of the game was making the Jets play big because they wanted to play small.  New York answered that challenge pretty well, but still lost.  The Broncos are uniquely able to mess with defenses and dictate their personnel groupings, because the presence of Tebow turns pass personnel into run personnel, depending on what he does on the play.  It’s cool to make a defense put two extra CBs on the field and then ask them to tackle Tebow, who probably weighs 260 pounds, rather than the 236 he’s listed at.  We saw Mr. Darrelle Revis shrink from that challenge, and I can’t think of many CBs who’d want that collision.

c.  I want Tebow ready to scramble in this game, because it’s very effective against the Chargers, with their slow-ish LBs and how much man coverage they play.  Tebow, Rodgers, Matt Cassel, and Mark Sanchez have all found success running against San Diego recently.  Strangely, Carson Palmer didn’t.

d.  I think that this is the week where the backside pass option gets added to the zone read series.  It’s the next step, and it’s the difference between what the Broncos are doing and the “Wildcat.”  Have you noticed how many people have compared the Broncos' success to what Miami did in 2008, and then said, well defenses figured that out, so they’ll figure this out too?

That’s stupid because the problem with the “Wildcat” is that teams never had to really fear the pass, so they were able to play 10 in the box and blitz the bejesus out of it.  It started out as a math advantage for the offense and became one for the defense, in other words.  The difference here is that Tebow can throw the ball a lot more effectively than a guy like Ronnie Brown can, people’s statements that he “can’t throw” notwithstanding.

Check out this play design:

This is something Tebow did a lot in college that we haven’t seen yet.  The Z comes off at half speed like he’s looking to block, and then takes off across the field.  The Y starts left and blocks, and then releases out to the right flat.  Tebow plays this like a normal zone read, but knows he isn’t handing off.  When he pulls the ball out and moves right, he’s reading the high-low progression with the Z and the Y, and if neither is there (unlikely), he can still run the ball himself.

This is a good play for getting some yards right now, but the even bigger benefit of it is that it causes the backside defenders to hesitate even more than they already are from this action.  It especially gives the single-high safety pause, so the next time the action is run, the RB is going to most probably see less traffic on the play side.

As much as people want there to be an answer to stopping the zone read series, there isn’t one, if every possible play from it can be executed.  The field is simply stretched too far, and the defenders are being asked to read too much.  The Broncos need to keep working to get to that point, because as long as Tebow is the Broncos QB, this series is open for business.

e.  It’s time to let Tebow try to throw for a 3rd-and-8 from the pocket.  Sink or swim, the offense has to be able to do that as it grows into a higher-functioning unit.  Give the guy some help with a pattern concept that gets a player open against the coverage being played, and give him some protection, and let’s see if he can hit the throw.

Stopping the Chargers Offense

a.  This is still a difficult task, but it’s easier than it was six weeks ago with the injuries up front and also if Malcom Floyd doesn’t play.  The first thing you need to do is account for the Chargers RBs.  It’s absolutely crucial that you know where they are, and that you have a defender following them.  Check out the following pre-snap diagram:

This is simple 2-Man under, like the Broncos run frequently.  The Chargers are in 12 personnel and the Y is Antonio Gates, while the TE is Randy McMichael.  The Broncos are going to be in base most of the time here, and Von Miller will be the Sam LB.  The two WRs on the left are Vincent Jackson and somebody else, maybe Vincent Brown.  The RB can either be Ryan Mathews or Mike Tolbert.  The yellow lines indicate man coverage, and the two safeties are going to be in deep halves.  This is what the Chargers want to do:

McMichael’s route is going to cause a traffic jam for the MLB, and he’s not going to be able to get through it to prevent the RB from catching a swing pass and picking up a bunch of yards.  The Chargers throw the ball to their RBs more effectively than any team in the NFL. 

So how do you stop this?  I would give Miller and either Joe Mays or Wesley Woodyard (whoever is at MLB) an auto-check to zone up the short area against this shotgun twins look.  That means that Miller jumps outside to guard the flat, and the Mike LB has the inside route from the TE, knowing he has over-the-top help.  Neither throw is there, and Rivers is going to probably be in some trouble in the pocket, because this was a half-field read for him.

Rivers almost never throws this swing action from under center, because the timing doesn’t work correctly, so the shotgun with the open edge is the key to diagnose. 

b.  If you’re taking away the swing pass, the other way the Chargers throw short is with the screen.  Somebody has to be in man coverage on a RB, even if he initially looks like he’s blocking.  The Chargers like to invite the green-dog and then throw the screen, and they have a few dozen variations on the play.  Cover the back, and later for the green-dog.  The offensive linemen are going to release downfield after three seconds, and Rivers is going to have to throw the ball into the ground.

c.  Finally, the Broncos will need to contain the deep passing game.  Rivers and Jackson did really well hitting it on the Bears, and the safeties will have to be especially cognizant of Jackson downfield.  Floyd possibly not playing would help here, because he was the one who beat the Broncos before halftime six weeks ago.

d.  Through all of this, pressure is paramount; it's what has been causing Rivers to turn the ball over and the Chargers to lose games.  The Chargers can’t protect Rivers, and they know it, so they’re going to try to limit their need to do so.  They’ll stick to their screens and swing passes and try to throw deep off of play action.  The Broncos need to be in Rivers’ face, and they need to watch for these three specific things.

The Chargers have homefield advantage, and as Doug noted, they actually managed to sell out the game.  Funny how when I went on their website at 2:21 PM on Friday, this is what I saw:

That’s all you need to know.  The Chargers have craptastic fans and not much of a homefield advantage, and I think the Broncos are going to win this game.  The Chargers have struggled to contain Tebow now twice, and I think that’s likely to continue.  With the way the Broncos defense is playing, I’m feeling pretty good about getting to 6-5 and putting the final shovelful of dirt on the Bolts’ playoff chances.

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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