Norv Turner’s job is safe for the time being, but fans in San Diego still need to ask the tough questions about their team. Do the San Diego Chargers and Turner have what it takes to win in the playoffs? Can they even get there? If fans are being honest and considering all the factors, they will realize that this team is seriously flawed and will need a huge turnaround in the second half.
When you look at these Chargers versus the Denver Broncos, it’s hard to imagine the Chargers will be able to make the playoffs over them. The Broncos have Peyton Manning and have a clearly superior team around him. The Chargers have a sputtering offense and a defense that can stop the run, but not the pass.
The Chargers did get a much-needed win over the Kansas City Chiefs, but that’s nothing to brag about. The Chiefs are the worst team in the NFL and it’s not even close. The Chargers beat the Chiefs by being the same flawed team they have been all season. Philip Rivers turned the ball over at a crucial moment by making a poor decision and the Chargers let the Chiefs hang around until the fourth quarter.
The real test starts with week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road. If the Chargers can get a win against a solid team on the road, then maybe people will start to believe in them again. The Chargers have a pretty tough schedule in the second half of the season, so they need to start playing good football sooner rather than later.
Rivers is the centerpiece of the offense in San Diego, and until the running game can prove they can be more productive that isn’t likely to change. The Chargers are a team that will go as far as Rivers can take them, but he needs actual support from his supporting cast.
One of the biggest issues has been the protection for Rivers. The Chargers have a sack percentage of 7.1 percent, according the Pro-Football-Reference.com, which is 22nd in the NFL; that has directly or indirectly impacted his interception percentage of 3.8 percent, which is 29th in the NFL.
Rivers is also missing playmakers; the Chargers have just 24 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season (19th in the NFL), when last year they finished the season with 69 (third in the NFL). Vincent Jackson‘s departure is a big part of that slide. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone from 27th in the same statistic last year to eighth in 2012. The Chargers led the league in pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2009 and 2010.
The Chargers improved in this area against the Chiefs with four such pass plays. Two were passes to Danario Alexander and one was to Seyi Ajirotutu, neither of which was with the team just a few weeks ago. The combination of Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal have been a bust for the Chargers to this point, and if Alexander and Ajirotutu can help Rivers then they are the ones that need to be playing.
The running game is underperforming compared to last year through eight games, but only by about seven yards per game. Over the final six weeks of the 2011 season, the Chargers averaged 140 rushing yards per game to really improve the team’s season average. The Chargers lost two of the final six games—one in overtime—and the other was the only game where the Chargers didn’t rush for 139 or more yards.
Perhaps the addition of Jared Gaither did make a huge difference in protection for Rivers down the stretch, but the other reasonable conclusion was that the running game got going and made life a lot easier for him. Maybe Gaither was more valuable to the Chargers as a run-blocker than a pass-blocker.
The Chargers have proved week after week that they have a very good run defense. It’s a run defense that ranks in the top five in the NFL in every statistic but rushing touchdowns allowed (eight). Against the Chiefs in Week 9, the Chargers shut down Jamaal Charles and allowed him to rush for just 3.3 yards per carry on 12 carries.
While the run defense can shut down even the best running backs, the pass defense has had trouble preventing completions and touchdowns. The pass rush isn’t helping and has a sack percentage of just 4.3 percent (25th in the NFL). The pass defense has been able to prevent the big play and teams from converting on third down, which is a big reason why it hasn’t come back to haunt the Chargers as much as it could have in the first eight games.
The progress of the defense this season has been one of the bright spots. The Chargers rank in the top 10 in both points and yards allowed in 2012, when last season they ranked 22nd and 16th in the same categories. John Pagano deserves some credit for the way his defense is playing—and if he can get the pass rush on track in the second half, he will deserve even more credit.