Donald Butler has made a jump in 2012.
The San Diego Chargers are in first place after five games and have avoided a slow start. It’s a start; now the Chargers need to continue their winning ways for another 11 games. The Chargers sit at 3-2, so there is certainly room for improvement, especially after losing to the previously winless New Orleans Saints last week.
The team has three wins and two losses, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story of where the team stands. One win was against the terrible Tennessee Titans, and one loss was against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Things change from week to week.
When the players are executing the scheme, the stats usually back it up. Provided those players are healthy, you would expect that production to continue. When things aren’t working, the coaches usually alter the scheme or approach.
Stats usually support how a team is playing if you are willing to look at all of them. Of course, a great offense might hide a below-average defense and turnovers make up for many issues. Five weeks of data should be enough to draw a few conclusions from the stats, even if some could be an inaccurate reflection.
The Chargers have been a passing team for several years, and that continues despite sub-par performance protecting Philip Rivers. The Chargers are currently 25th in sacks allowed, and Jared Gaither’s return was supposed to help. Gaither lasted all of two games before suffering another injury, and Michael Harris will be forced into action again.
The protection might limit the passing game all season, and it certainly plays a factor in some of the interceptions Rivers has thrown. Still, Rivers is able to be productive and has the Chargers in an acceptable territory as far as completion percentage, first downs and touchdowns.
One way the Chargers might be able to help Rivers is by leaning more heavily on Ryan Mathews. Mathews is probably the most dynamic player the Chargers have on offense, and he’s yet to be used like a centerpiece. The rushing offense has been average, but with increased usage of Mathews, those stats might look a lot better.
On the other side, the Chargers are forcing opponents to throw. Defensive coordinator John Pagano has his defense playing extremely good run defense. The Chargers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season and gave up only 88 rushing yards to Jamaal Charles, who leads the league in rushing yards.
The Chargers don’t face many more running teams, so it would be surprising if the run defense stats get worse. The Chargers are setup to have one of the elite run defenses in the league by the end of the season.
Perhaps the most concerning unit for the Chargers is the secondary. So far, the secondary has allowed a lot of completions, first downs, third-down conversions and touchdowns and rank near the bottom of the league in each statistic. The Chargers have relied upon interceptions to bail out the secondary and have been able to create them despite only an average pass rush.
The Chargers have been able to produce turnovers without a great pass rush, which points to Pagano having his players prepared, and the Chargers have smart, savvy veterans. It’s possible the Chargers will not be able to keep up this level of production without an improved pass rush. More snaps for Melvin Ingram would be nice if he didn’t make a costly mistake at least once per game.
The lack of cornerbacks on the roster has really hurt the Chargers in the passing game, and injuries have also probably played a role.
Which injury has made the biggest impact on the Chargers
The Chargers were bitten by the injury bug at several key spots early, which may be impacting their performance, but they are starting to get healthy.
One area in particular that was impacted was the running game, as Mathews missed the first two games and Gaither missed the first three. Unfortunately, Gaither is hurt again, and Mathews wasn’t the No. 1 option when Gaither was healthy.
Still, Mathews alone can have a positive impact on the running game, with Gaither’s absence more negatively impacting the passing game. It’s a passing game that has been getting the job done, but not in impressive fashion.
The passing offense could certainly use a dynamic deep threat, as Robert Meachem has yet to consistently stretch the field, which is certainly negatively impacting the other receivers. Vincent Brown is due back from a broken ankle in the next few weeks, and he is a deep threat that helps open up the shorter stuff for Gates and Floyd.
The only other significant injury has been to cornerback Shareece Wright, who has missed four games. The Chargers could certainly use as many options as they can find at cornerback and began the year with just four on the 53-man roster.
Quentin Jammer has played with a cast on his hand, Antonio Gates missed an unimportant game and the Chargers also have an injured place kicker, but the Chargers seem to be staying healthy as a whole.
Scheme and Approach
Should the Chargers lean more on the running game?
Norv Turner’s offensive scheme is well-established in San Diego and really remains largely the same, as it has been for years. Turner likes tight ends and has used Randy McMichael and Dante Rosario as a complimentary receiver to Gates. McMichael tends to get more opportunities than Rosario because he’s always on the field as a blocker.
Turner also still likes to use the fullback, and Le’Ron McClain has gotten a good number of snaps as a blocker. McClain has basically replaced Jacob Hester and will get occasional touches in the passing game and also take a handoff or two.
The one notable difference this season is, the Chargers don’t have as many wide receivers getting work and have given those snaps to the tight ends. That could change once Vincent Brown returns from injury.
The defense under Turner has changed slightly from one defensive coordinator to the next, but the biggest changes have really been the personnel. Pagano has used Ingram, Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes as the primary pass-rushers this season, which is basically the same as last season; the notable difference being Ingram has taken the place of Travis LaBoy.
One notable change has been the linebacker that drops into coverage. Donald Butler has been dropping into coverage about twice as much as Takeo Spikes from the linebacker position, which is a role reversal from last season. Spikes is also now the linebacker sharing snaps, and Butler never comes off the field.
The Chargers have split the snaps evenly between Vaughn Martin, Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes at defensive end. Liuget and Martin are the starters, but that could change in future weeks if Reyes’ strong play continues and Martin’s play drags.
Any change in approach or scheme in future weeks will likely be minor. The Chargers would be wise to lean more heavily on Mathews on offense and give Reyes more snaps on defense, but any other changes are likely to be the result of injury rather than trying to extract more performance from the players.