Sunday night and this morning I was watching one of the many SD Charger analysis shows, this one called Chargers Game Plan. Josh Lewin is the Chargers' radio guy, while Chris Chandler describes himself as an NFL analyst. They had a couple of players who had quotes or who stopped by. Their perspective was predictable, in many ways - they were talking about the Broncos team as it had been prior to the bye. That’s perfectly reasonable - they aren’t always up on the Denver Broncos' changes, and they showed minimal film from the KC game. They had a lot to say about what the matchups were, though, and that’s what drew my attention.
The Chargers’ faithful were very clear that in their opinion, they have a far superior defense. That’s understandable. Denver made a lot of changes in the last game, and it slammed the door on the KC running game. Sure, KC had to try to move to the passing game sooner than they wanted to, as they fell farther and farther behind, but their attempts at running were mostly met with immediate tackles and players flocking to the ball. They also talked about how the Broncos are vulnerable to the long pass, and that they were shocked that Brandon Lloyd was leading the league in receiving yards. They granted that Kyle Orton was being effective, but made it clear that he wasn’t capable of putting a game on his back. Nice to know - don’t tell Tennessee or Kansas City.
On the other hand, they were highly respectful of the Broncos' receiving corps. They didn’t know that Eddie Royal may not play tonight, and didn’t mention his potential replacement. I haven’t seen the lineup, but two options present themselves to me - Jabar Gaffney at the slot, and Demaryius Thomas taking the outside, doing what he does well - going long. He needs to improve his catching - letting a TD pass bounce off his fingers by not extending his arms was a bad mistake in the KC game, but he’s a rookie and he’s still learning.
The other option, of course, is getting Eric Decker on the field. He is, in may ways, potentially a perfect slot receiver. He may not have Royal’s quickness and slashing style, but he’s very strong, doesn’t mind taking big hits and is fearless going over the middle. He’s also gifted with incredible hands, and dropped three passes in college - in his entire career there. Personally, I hope that both rookies get playing time. This is the kind of game that makes me miss Matthew Willis, but he’s going to be back next year. Another speed merchant who is developing good hands and is nearly unstoppable on the go route is a great addition. If he and Orton develop a connection to add to the one Kyle has with Brandon Lloyd, they could light up the scoreboard like fireworks on the 4th of July.
The most embarrassing gaffe on their preview was that they are still listing Russ Hochstein as the left guard and Zane Beadles as the right tackle, with no mention of Ryan Harris. They gave a nice little discussion of the talent, skill and power of Ryan Clady, but even after talking about the Kansas City game, they ignored Harris. Somehow, I doubt that Norv Turner or Ron Rivera have made the same mistake. You’d think that the return of an All-Pro right tackle and the emergence of Beadles as a very good left guard would be worth a quick mention, but it wasn’t to be.
The play of the Broncos' linebacking corp against KC was covered in some detail, praised highly, and Mario Haggan’s work led the spot. They didn’t notice that he’d moved back to OLB, but that’s fine - this is the kind of sloppy journalistic work that is common among TV personalities. There are, happily, some exceptions.
I’ve watched Ron Jaworski over the years, and ‘Jaws’ has matured from NFL quarterback to perhaps the best-informed commentator that I’ve seen at this time. Jon Gruden is engaging and far more amusing. He’s also a very knowledgeable fellow, but Jaws seems to take a more specific and thorough approach to whatever he’s asked to handle, looking deeper into his subjects and studying film almost constantly. One such aspect came up this morning with the Broncos, and the subject was that Kyle Orton, the #4 QB (based, in this case, on yardage - with one less game, he’s still tied for first in the league at throws over 40 yards with 10, and is second in the league at throws over 20 yards with 22).
Jaws actually took the time to examine the stats that fans often do not have access to, such as Orton’s exact numbers on play action. Kyle learned to handle the basics of play-action plays at Purdue under Joe Tiller and continued to develop his moves in Chicago. But if you go back to 2008 and watch his games and compare that to 2010, it’s obvious that he’s learned a few things during that time. Orton has completed 52 of his 77 play-action passes this year for 927 yards — 17.8 yards per completion — and a 120.0 passer rating. This, with the Broncos' bottom-dwelling running game. Orton’s going to be using play action frequently tonight and his work to date indicates why he’s been so successful this year. He has the play-action fake down to a fine art, and teams have to respect it.
By the way - even though he’s been used sparingly so far, fullback Spencer Larsen had a few plays in the KC game that I’ve been hoping to see since training camp. Larsen lined up in the I-formation on one play and instead of leading the blocking, received a quick handoff from Orton and slashed into the line, shedding two tacklers before another two brought him down after an 8-yard gain. KC was caught totally off-guard, never having seen him used that way before. Larsen also caught his first TD pass, as well as throwing a massive block on Tim Tebow’s rushing TD.
I’m aware of the feelings of many fans regarding the numbers that Knowshon Moreno has put up, and I’m no more thrilled with them than they are. I do feel that a certain level of rational balance is appropriate - Moreno has been fighting through injury all year, and the KC game was the first time that he’s stepped on the field healthy. Fans who point to the fact that he’s played through the injury as evidence that he wasn’t injured haven’t been following the statements that have been made regarding those injuries. I see that as a statement on his toughness, while others simply consider it unacceptable performance. Opinions vary, but his first 100-yard game should be added to the factors.
So is the fact that last weekend was the first time that he was running behind the offensive line that Denver had hoped to start the season with, and you could quickly see why. He was hit in the backfield on exactly one play, as opposed to 2009 when he was hit behind the line on a high percentage of his runs. I haven’t seen the exact numbers on the first half of the season for that issue, but he certainly wasn’t running unencumbered. Things changed when the blocking did, and being healthy helped.
This may be one of the more important issues with regard to this game. While I don’t expect that the Chargers are as feckless as the commentators from the Chargers Game Plan show seemed to be, Ryan Mathews, the oft-injured running back from Fresno State has 87 carries for 382 yards, which is a long way from what San Diego believed he would produce when they drafted him. He’s likely out for this game, and Moreno is healthy and running behind the reunited Denver offensive line. This gives the Broncos the potential for something that SD won’t have - a balanced attack.
This isn’t to say that SD won’t have a decent runner - they will. Human bowling ball Mike Tolbert, originally a fullback at 5’9" and 243 lb, will be their dominant ball carrier. Denver won’t be underestimating him - he has the same 87 carries as Mathews, but has outgained him with 395 yards. He’s quicker than most fullbacks, is hard to see behind the scrum of the LOS and hits the hole with power and authority. However - It’s still true that this game is far more likely to be a question of whether Denver can limit Philip Rivers’ production in terms of points, and whether Denver can match and exceed that production. With a healthy running attack and offensive line, the offensive side has a good chance. What about the defense?
Andre' Goodman is still out, and Perrish Cox will continue to replace him, a situation that may not change when Goodman gets healthy. Champ Bailey will be tested - Malcom Floyd had been as much an afterthought as Brandon Lloyd was, but he, too, has blossomed into an excellent receiver this year as Vincent Jackson and SD had been unable to rectify their differences. Legedu Naanee, a 4th-year, 6’2" receiver out of Boise State has also been making the best of his chance to shine. Due to injury he only has 11 receptions, but a 16.9 yards per reception average.
I think that what interests me the most out of the game will be watching for Wink Martindale’s approach to trying to limit the SD offensive attack. It’s his first year as an NFL defensive coordinator, but he has a lot of experience in the field and he’s watched SD before as the linebackers coach. With Doom on IR, Denver will turn to Robert Ayers, who is likely to be very limited in his number of plays as he returns from a broken bone in his foot, Mario Haggan at OLB will try to reprise his 3-sack total from last week’s game and Jason Hunter, who has been an all-around solid player for Denver will probably be at the weak side. DJ Williams is definite at RILB, but it remains to be seen if Wesley Woodyard or Joe Mays take the dominant number of snaps at LILB. I’d expect Woodyard, who has more coverage experience, but Gates is probably out for tonight, so Mays may get more playing time, especially if Tolbert begins to gain traction in the running game.
The final story on tonight is going to be special teams play. If Eddie Royal is out, Denver will be using Perrish Cox and probably Syd’Quan Thompson or Demaryius Thomas as returners. SD has the immensely talented Darren Sproles, but he, too, has struggled with an injury. The Bolts have also had 5 punts blocked this year. Norv Turner has sworn that it won’t happen again this year, but he won’t be out on the field - a guy can dream, can’t he? Games like this often swing on special teams play, as last year’s Monday Night contest in SD proved. Eddie Royal returned both a punt and a kickoff for TDs - and that was the game. Nate Kaeding, the Charger’s excellent kicker, has been hampered by an injury himself, but hopes to handle the kickoff and FG responsbilities tonight. If he can’t, Kris Brown will do the honors.
It’s a gorgeous day in San Diego, with bright sun, temperatures in the 60s and light breezes. It’s Monday Night Football, with a division rivalry on the line and quite possibly, the chances of each team making a wild card or even division title being decided. If you don’t look forward to this, you don’t like Denver football.