The San Diego Chargers collapsed on Monday night and gave up a 24-point lead in the second half. A big reason for the collapse was the play of Philip Rivers, who threw four interceptions and fumbled twice.
Some will point at the interceptions—29 in the last 22 games—and say that Rivers is regressing. What’s becoming more apparent as time passes is that Rivers is not regressing; he’s the same quarterback just without a supporting cast that can conceal his gun-slinging tendencies.
Rivers’ offensive line has declined; it’s now one of the worst in the NFL. The best offensive weapons in San Diego are 31- and 32-years old; both Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd are past their primes by NFL standards. Maybe Rivers has declined, but nowhere near as much as his supporting cast.
His first two years as a starter Rivers had LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime. In Tomlinson’s last year in San Diego (2009), Rivers transitioned to throwing more frequently to a healthy Gates (age 29), Vincent Jackson (age 26), Floyd (age 28) and Darren Sproles (age 26). The five combined for 4,835 yards and 37 touchdowns and until last season such production from five offensive players was unrivaled.
From 2008 to 2010, Rivers grew accustomed to throwing deep and having his receivers come down with the ball. Rivers led the league in yards per attempt in all three seasons. Rivers continued to throw deep in 2011, but more attempts didn’t equal more production and his stats on deep passes dropped across the board.
Without Jackson this season, the deep pass has taken an even bigger dip in production and that has led Norv Turner to conclude the Chargers need to be more conservative.
“Yes, we are going to limit some things we’re doing, and I’ve got to do a better job and make sure we put things in there, and then we’re calling things that have less risk,” said Turner. “They may not have as big of a reward. We may not be quite the same big-play team, but we’re not going to turn the ball over.” (via Tom Krasovic, U-T San Diego).
It’s safe to say the Chargers are missing Jackson’s ability to stretch the defense and draw attention away from the other receivers. The Chargers now have to force Rivers to throw shorter passes and be more conservative. The strategy isn’t likely to yield positive results because Rivers issues with interceptions have come on short passes just as much as they have on long passes.
Of the two touchdowns that were most damaging to the Chargers on Monday night, one of them was deep and the other was short. The fix is not as simple as not throwing deep passes.
Interception No. 1
Rivers had Gates in man coverage on the safety Jim Leonhard. Leonhard is 5’8” and Gates is 6’4”. In most cases you trust Gates in a one-on-one matchup, and particularly when he has eight inches on the defender. It was 10-0 at this point in the game and no reason to start being conservative.
Rivers is hit as he releases the ball and the result is an underthrown pass. It was very poor protection by Mike Harris and Derek Wolfe gets by him with relative ease.
Gates interferes with Leonhard as the ball is in flight, which impacts his ability to get two hands on the football. Instead, Gates has to make a one-handed grab and Leonhard is able to rip it from his grasp on the way to the ground.
Rivers will take this shot nine times out of ten, but he needs better protection to execute it properly. Even with poor protection Gates had a chance to make a play and wasn’t able to hang on.
Harris gets most of the blame on this one, but Turner has to adjust his play calling to the deficiencies of his offensive line. Rivers gave Gates a chance to make the play because he remains the best option in the passing game, but he’s on the decline. This is an instance where being more conservative might have been beneficial.
Interception No. 2
On its face, Rivers’ second interception was the most damaging. The Denver Broncos would get the ball near midfield and Peyton Manning would throw a touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley to take the lead 28-24.
The pass came on 3rd-and-8 and had the pass landed incomplete the Chargers would have still given the ball back to Manning. With the way Manning had surgically sliced through San Diego’s defense, it probably didn’t matter where on the field he got the ball. The pass was the equivalent of a short punt.
It’s notable that the Chargers were only up 24-21 and a touchdown would have made a huge difference in the outcome of the game.
Rivers knew he had man coverage on the outside and no safety help on Meachem. Again, it was an opportunity for his receiver to make a play in a one-on-one situation. Rivers just needed a well-placed deep throw so neither the cornerback Tony Carter or the safety Rahim Moore charging hard from the other side would have a chance to make a play.
Rivers had a receiver open to his right for the first down, but he never came off his deep read. The Chargers didn’t protect Rivers for most of the day and the result could have been reluctance by Rivers to move to his secondary reads when his initial read looked promising.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad read or decision, just a short throw and a great play by the defensive back. Rivers was expecting the cornerback to play the receiver and stay to the outside and that didn’t happen.
Maybe Rivers was also expecting Meachem to break off his route at the 40-yard line. There are variables we don’t necessarily know, but a deep pass is almost always a lower percentage play than one only seven or eight yards down the field.
Being conservative here has nothing to do with the play call. The Chargers need Rivers to be more conservative and take the shorter completion, but he’s been conditioned to make the long throw for the past four years.
Interception No. 3
The third interception can be blamed on Eddie Royal, but Rivers should at least share part of the blame. Royal has to cross the face of the defensive back, that’s his job on the play. Rivers has to trust that his receiver is going to be able to get inside the defensive back.
Gates ran a drag route to clear out the extra defender in the center of the defense so Royal doesn’t have to worry about a linebacker crushing him as he comes across.
Royal didn’t get the job done, but Rivers also didn’t make it easy. Rivers stares at Royal and the defensive back does a good job of being physical and reading Rivers. Chris Harris knew exactly what the Chargers want to do and made it a difficult play for the Chargers. Even if the pass had been completed, Harris was in position to make the tackle short of the first down and force a punt.
Rivers was staring at Royal and has to realize he didn’t get a clean release and isn’t going to be able to get yards after the catch to extend the drive. This is another case where Rivers has to abandon his primary read. There is nothing risky about this play and therefore no way it can be avoided by being more conservative.
Interception No. 4
The final interception of the game sealed the win for the Broncos. The Broncos are in Cover 2 Man which just means man coverage with two safeties playing deep halves.
The play is designed to get the first down with the two slot receivers running short out routes and the outside receivers running deep corner routes. The route combination is not a perfect fit for press coverage because the cornerback is going to follow his receiver and there isn’t much buffer space.
Rivers is going to throw the ball as Royal breaks toward the sideline. To be completed the pass needs plenty of zip and be low and away from the defensive back.
Rivers throws the pass off of his back foot, it hangs a little in the air and the defensive back is able to undercut the route and make the interception. It was a low-risk, high-reward decision by Harris because he had Champ Bailey and safety help behind him.
It was a poor play for the situation and Rivers didn’t make a good throw. This is the type of play most elite quarterbacks are able to avoid.
The Chargers need Rivers to play more conservatively, but that’s not something he has ever had to do in his career. Rivers has been and will likely continue to be a gunslinger. Even if successful, the conservative approach could hurt the offense as much as it helps.
What's wrong with Rivers?
The supporting cast in San Diego is the worst it has been since 2007, but without a great defense and a running back like Tomlinson. As such, Rivers will continue to throw a lot of passes and is likely to continue to have issues with interceptions.
The only thing that will help Rivers now is an effective ground game and a deep threat. The Chargers should spend the bye week trying to get Ryan Mathews more involved in offense with the hope that he can produce like Tomlinson did early in Rivers’ career.
The Chargers will eventually get Vincent Brown back from injury and his presence could significantly help the deep passing game that makes Rivers so deadly. The signing of Meachem has been a complete bust because he was supposed to be the guy that the Chargers could depend on in the deep passing game. There’s still hope for Meachem, but the fact that the Chargers are going conservative instead of trying to get him involved could be an indication that the team has abandoned the plan for him.