The San Diego Chargers are 2-0, but are presented with their toughest challenge of this young season on Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons come to San Diego looking for their third straight win against opponents in the AFC West.
The Falcons traded blows with the Kansas City Chiefs before pulling away in the second half, and they jumped on the Denver Broncos early thanks to four turnovers. There is very little doubt that the Falcons are contenders.
If the Chargers want to prove to the rest of the NFL that they are contenders and not pretenders, they need to find a way to beat the Falcons, but it will not be easy. The Chargers will have their hands full with Atlanta’s high-powered passing attack and opportunistic defense.
As Philip Rivers goes, so does the Chargers' offense. In Week 1, the Chargers settled for five field goals, but thanks to a sloppy Oakland Raiders team and good defense, there was little reason for the Chargers to take chances. The running game stalled and the need for Ryan Mathews to return to action was clear, although not yet detrimental.
In Week 2, the Chargers were also missing tight end Antonio Gates, but all the injuries didn’t seem matter against the poor Tennessee Titans. The Chargers exploded for 38 points and got the ball into the end zone with regularity.
Two good performances aside, the Chargers haven’t faced a defense like the one in Atlanta. Atlanta’s defense has forced seven turnovers and leads the league in turnover margin. This is a defense that will force the issue and they also have six sacks on season.
Atlanta’s defense is now coordinated by the well-respected Mike Nolan, and although not everyone agrees on how much his defense fooled Peyton Manning in Week 2, it doesn’t change the fact that it was effective.
It’s a good thing Ryan Mathews is likely to play on Sunday, because the Falcons' main vulnerability is in the running game. Both defensive tackles, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry, haven’t been very good against the run and they surrendered 113 yards on 22 carries to Willis McGahee in Week 2.
Of course, the Chargers may not want to subject Ryan Mathews to the punishing hits of the interior defensive line in his first week back, so don’t be surprised if you see a heavier dose of Jackie Battle when the situation calls for a run between the tackles.
The Falcons limited tight ends Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen to a combined four catches for 29 yards last week and might make things difficult for Antonio Gates. The Falcons did allow a long touchdown to Kevin Boss in Week 1, so there’s hope that the Chargers can get their best weapon in the passing game rolling, but they will need to be prepared to use their other receivers.
The Chargers should really try to get Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal going, as they have been an afterthought on offense so far this season. Meachem is supposed to be San Diego’s big-play receiver, and the Falcons allowed several big plays in Week 1 to Dexter McCluster, Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston.
The Chargers will likely need to make big plays to keep pace with Atlanta’s offense.
The Falcons are a passing team and the Chargers haven’t faced one like them this season. The closest thing the Chargers saw was against the Raiders, but they were playing without Denarius Moore.
Carson Palmer had to dink and dunk against the Chargers because they kept both Atari Bigby and Eric Weddle deep in the secondary. A similar strategy could work against the Falcons, although Roddy White and Julio Jones can also find space in the short and intermediate zones.
Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer are both having rebound years thanks in large part to a vastly improved pass rush. Rookies Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes continue to help pressure the quarterback, and Shaun Phillips, Cam Thomas and Donald Butler seem to be thriving with some of the attention on them shifted to the rookies.
Falcons’ right tackle Tyson Clabo didn’t fare well against Von Miller last week, and the Chargers might be able to attack his side and force Matt Ryan to get rid of the ball quickly. Still, Matt Ryan has reached a level where defenses can only hope to limit his production.
The biggest challenge for the Chargers will be keeping the Falcons out of the end zone while trying to force turnovers and not worry too much about yardage. To do that, the Chargers need to make sound tackles in the secondary and keep Atlanta’s receivers in front of them.
Tony Gonzalez will be the first elite tight end the Chargers will face this season and covering him will be another challenge. With Jones and White limited against Denver early, Ryan found Gonzalez with good frequency.
It’s hard for linebackers to cover a tight end like Gonzalez and San Diego’s linebackers have had some issues in that area. The Chargers will have to put a lot of pressure on the safeties, both to help Jammer and Cason and to cover Gonzalez. Thankfully, the Chargers have plenty of tight ends that certainly mimicked Gonzalez in practice this week.