Given Chargers fans' specific concerns going into the game, there was a lot to be pleased with after the game’s conclusion. A team and a season are both works in progress. Like a horse heading into the home stretch, a team wants to heat up at just the right time. The Bolts have never been able to do that. That’s why fans are so skeptical and subsequently frustrated.
However, last night was a good start. There were more reasons to be optimistic in an “ugly” game than in a “fast” 4-1 start like a year ago. There were still flaws galore which Bolt-heads lamented and which ended up dooming the team in the end.
It’s a new season and the sample size is only a single game. Let’s look at 10 things we learned, if only for one night.
Jared Gaither’s status is a sad combination of mystery and travesty.
The only sack of Philip Rivers came as a result of misdirection between Mike Harris and Tyronne Green. The only time Harris’ guy appeared to get by him, Rivers was able to step up and find Malcom Floyd for the game’s only touchdown.
ESPN stated during the broadcast how infrequently throughout NFL history teams have started their seasons with players like Harris, but the kid held up and stood strong the rest of the way.
There were no “deer in the headlights” moments as there were against Minnesota and Dallas in the preseason. Rivers had a relatively clean pocket all night long against a team that pounded him into the turf last November—of course, the Raiders no longer have Kamerion Wimbley, who the Chargers will see next week.
Last season, Rivers single-handedly ended drives in the red zone. He’s a gunslinger and I’m sure he desperately wanted throw the ball all over the field last night. Instead, he gave the Bolts exactly what they needed.
Even on a night where the running game was anemic, Rivers didn’t force things. Most importantly, he didn’t bail the opposition out with foolish interceptions.
This is a huge relief for Charger fans.
There were many signs this preseason that last year’s 20-pick campaign wasn’t a fluke but last night looked like a fresh start. The “chuck-and-suck” offense of a year ago was nowhere to be found as the far-from-mobile quarterback did an excellent job of escaping the rush and making smart decisions.
Norv Turner calls the plays, so he gets some of the credit for understanding the type of game the Chargers found themselves in. He didn’t needlessly throw the red flag and prompt more unwinnable challenges, a trait he shares with his predecessor.
At one point, he even showed some serious fire on the sideline.
Charger fans will instantly feel the bile moving up their throat at the mention of Ted Cottrell’s name, but I’m not talking about the mess of a defense that led to his dismissal during the 2008 bye week. I’m referring to the 2007 team which caused a ton of turnovers and reached the AFC title game.
Melvin Ingram’s forced fumble last night was reminiscent of post-suspension Shawne Merriman and his big hit against Tennessee in the 2007 playoffs. Merriman’s breakout game in 2005 may have stopped the Colts quest for a perfect season, but it was his pressure on Peyton Manning in those same playoffs that sealed the win.
John Pagano was as patient as his offensive counterparts on the Chargers sideline Monday night. Although the third-down conversion rate and the seemingly large spaces open across the field will need to be worked on, the defense made the plays it had to and showed enough of a killer instinct to get heat on Carson Palmer when he had no choice but to throw.
Ryan Mathews’ absence was most notable when the Bolts got down to the Raiders’ 10-yard line. That’s where he’s shown he can be most dangerous, by getting outside and past the pylons.
Ronnie Brown flat out looked slow in the game. The run-blocking wasn’t as good as the surprisingly strong pass protection, but there were plays when there seemed to be space and it just wasn't there.
Curtis Brinkley experienced a little more success and Le’Ron McClain looked like Lorenzo Neal reincarnated when the Bolts were bleeding the clock. A.J. Smith might seriously need to consider finding someone to not only start games if Mathews is unable to go, but also to spell him during games he’s healthy enough to be in.
When Oakland was forced to use a guy who hadn’t long-snapped since high school, the Chargers' special teams took advantage. Quentin Jammer nearly blocked the chip shot field goal that ended the first half and things deteriorated for the Raiders’ special teams at every opportunity thereafter.
The Chargers did take a small risk by even punting on the game’s last play, when they could have conceivably had the punter run out the clock or even into the end zone.
It was a welcome relief to see “Super Melvin” on the hands team during the onside kick. It was even nicer to see him go to the ground after grabbing the ball and not try to needlessly run with it like Marlon McCree in the playoff game against New England a few years ago. Ingram did appear to think about it, however.
Last year, the Chargers were most lacking talent on defense and needed playmakers more than anything. It was the biggest reason they couldn’t get off the field on third down. When the pressure and talent level of the opposition is raised, someone needs to step up.
A.J. Smith has tried to find character guys for a while now. The off-field results are mixed at best, as any perusal of the Pacific Beach police blotter over the last seven years will reveal. Clearly, Ingram is who they were looking for.
True, he made some rookie mistakes: lining up in the neutral zone that gave the Raiders a first down and later hitting Carson Palmer late. Still, at least he’s got the motor and skills to make those plays. I believe the term often used is “active.”
Corey Liuget looked strong in the trenches last night. He was able to free up some of the linebackers, which is essential for a 3-4 defensive end. On a night when Antonio Garay was on the sideline, Liuget looked like the player Charger fans were promised when he was drafted in the first round a year ago.
It might also have been premature to proclaim Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal or even Dante Rosario as tepid signings.
Fans have been waiting all summer for Philip Rivers to make a big throw to Robert Meachem. Their inaugural connection was the first big play of the game and really injected some life into the offense. Royal, who hadn’t yet gotten out of shrink wrap since coming over from Denver, was the team’s best rusher and looked strong on returns. Rosario stood out on special teams as well.
Quentin Jammer had an awful season a year ago and a particularly bad showing against Oakland. He was tested all night and responded on each occasion. The pass interference call on him was dubious at best.
Antonie Cason still looks, at times, like Jammer did for his first few years in San Diego. He plays way too far off his man and gets beat too frequently. However, he made some nice plays last night. It was highly refreshing to see him stay with his man and knock the ball away when it looked like it would be a reception. Marcus Gilchrist also looked better and saved a touchdown.
Eric Weddle looked not only like an All-Pro, but also a defensive captain. There were instances when you could see him directing and teaching the cornerbacks after the play. Atari Bigby looked like the player the Chargers thought they were getting when they signed Bob Sanders a year ago.
In his first regular season game in a year, Kaeding may have caused more touchbacks last night than in any season he’s kicked in San Diego.
He looked confident on his kicks, which is not always the case.
His 41- and 45-yard field goals were especially encouraging. Those were kicks the Chargers desperately needed to put some distance between themselves and the Raiders.
Then again, it’s only in January when his confidence seems to be a problem. It wasn’t quite playoff pressure, but it was nice to see from the man I call "Tweety."