The San Diego Chargers head into the bye week with a disappointing 3-3 record. If not for two second-half collapses, the Chargers would be 5-1 and have a two-game lead in the AFC West. Fortunately, the Chargers still share a lead in the AFC West.
At this point last year, the Chargers were 4-2 and had avoided a slow start, with the only losses coming against the New England Patriots and New York Jets on the road. The Chargers were feeling good about themselves, and then they fell on their faces by losing five games in a row.
Maybe the two collapses will help the Chargers avoid a midseason slump, or maybe it was the beginning of the end of the A.J. Smith and Norv Turner era. In either case, the bye week is a good time to take stock of the team, where it has been and where it is going.
Previous Progress Report
Perhaps the most concerning development this season has been the Chargers' inability to beat elite quarterbacks. The Chargers lost to Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. Losing to elite quarterbacks is not embarrassing, but getting blown out and losing huge leads to them suggests the Chargers are not a playoff-caliber team.
The teams that make the playoffs are the ones with elite quarterbacks with few exceptions. The Chargers can’t stop elite quarterbacks and might not have one of their own. Instead of rebounding, Philip Rivers is on pace to exceed his 2011 interception total. Rivers also isn’t able to test the defense deep without Vincent Jackson.
Rivers’ play has been reminiscent of 2011. At this point last season, Rivers had nine interceptions, which is the same total he has this season. Rivers has also fumbled six times this season compared with four at this time last year. On a positive note, Rivers has thrown three more touchdowns than last year at this time on 223 fewer yards passing.
A big problem has been the protection of Rivers. He’s been sacked 18 times, which is the third-worst total in the NFL. The Chargers signed Jared Gaither, but he’s only been able to play in two games due to injury, and the team did almost nothing else to solve their woes on the offensive line.
It’s possible to adjust when just one offensive tackle is a liability by having a running back or fullback chip on that side, but when both tackles are a liability, it becomes very difficult to protect the quarterback.
The Chargers passing game is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The passing game is able to move the ball and put the ball in the end zone like an elite offense, but then they turn the ball over. The Chargers have 12 fumbles to go along with the nine interceptions and are just lucky to have lost only five of them.
Defensively the Chargers have been one of the best defenses at stopping the run and one of the worst at stopping the pass. It should be no surprise then that the Chargers' wins have come against rushing teams and losses have come against passing teams.
Combined, the offense and defense have been extremely average. The team is 14th in points per game, 15th in points per game allowed, 11th in third-down conversion percentage and 24th in third-down conversion percentage allowed. The stats seem to support the 3-3 record.
The Injury Report
The bye is always a good time to get players a little extra rest who are dealing with various physical ailments and injuries. The Chargers have actually been pretty healthy as a team this season and only had seven players on the injury report last week.
The most notable injury is to left tackle Jared Gaither, who missed several games with an ailing back and is sidelined again with an injured groin. Gaither was given a big contract in the offseason to solidify the offensive line, and without him, it has been producing a lot like it was prior to his arrival in 2011. Hopefully the bye week does Gaither’s groin some good and he can return sooner rather than later.
Cornerback Shareece Wright has been sidelined since the season-opening kickoff with a high-ankle sprain, and the Chargers’ pass defense could sure use another quality player.
According to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, Wright is targeting a return after the bye week. A healthy Wright will compete with Marcus Gilchrist as the slot cornerback and might also push Antoine Cason for playing time on the outside.
Nate Kaeding is also still on the mend, but Nick Novak has done a good job in his place. It seems odd that the Chargers would use two roster spots on kickers, but that’s what they have chosen to do. The Chargers must have a lot of confidence in Kaeding or very little in Novak, or they wouldn’t be wasting the roster spot.
Scheme and Approach
The Chargers have not had the same success throwing deep passes in 2012 as they did in 2011 and prior, and that could prompt changes. Robert Meachem hasn’t come close to resembling a Jackson replacement, and the Chargers could be shifting away from the approach that seemed to favor his abilities.
Norv Turner said he will call plays that have less risk even if it comes at the expense of big plays, per Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego. The result could be more reliance on the running game and fewer deep shots.
The conservative approach might not benefit the Chargers, because Rivers is struggling just as much on short throws. It seems that Rivers realizes that the deep pass is not the only problem, and he placed the blame on himself:
“It's not a risky play call. It's a poor decision, a poor throw. Was the route combination risky on the interception for a touchdown at the end of the game? That's about the simplest thing you can call. But (Eddie Royal is) not open. Can't throw the ball.” (via Michael Gehlken, U-T San Diego)
It remains to be seen if Turner is serious about making adjustments to the offense or if he’d simply like Rivers to make better decisions when deciding whether to uncork a deep pass or take a safer, shorter completion.
On defense, the Chargers have to figure out a way to stop the pass more effectively than they have. The front seven have been good at stopping the run, but in today’s NFL, they also need to help the secondary in coverage and rush the quarterback. The Chargers have 10 sacks and have allowed quarterbacks to complete 66 percent of their passes.
Opposing offenses have been picking on Cason and Gilchrist, and until Wright returns, there’s really no good alternatives on the bench. The Chargers might need to start getting more aggressive with the linebackers to try to create more pressure.
One possible adjustment would be giving more snaps to Melvin Ingram and Antwan Barnes and letting them rush a little more. So far, the two have split the pass-rushing snaps opposite Shaun Phillips at outside linebacker. Such an adjustment would come at the expense of Jarret Johnson, who is a solid run defender but has been disappointing in coverage as a rusher.
The Chargers have three very winnable games coming out of the bye week in the Browns, Chiefs and Buccaneers. Starting in Week 11, the Chargers' schedule gets tough, with games against the Broncos, Ravens, Bengals and Steelers before a late-season reprieve against the Panthers and Jets. The Chargers finish with a home game against the Raiders.
Provided the first six games were a representative sample of what can be expected from these teams going forward, the Chargers should win at least four more games. There are several other games that should be competitive including three more division contests that are very hard to predict.
At 3-3, the path to the playoffs certainly got more difficult. 9-7 might get the Chargers in, but they might risk having to win a tiebreaker. That means the Chargers can lose no more than three games and still have a legitimate shot at the playoffs.