Ryan Mathews is questionable to play, but the Chargers could use his abilities against the Broncos.
The San Diego Chargers are in must-win mode against their division rivals and also looking for redemption after blowing a 24-point lead in Week 6. A loss to Denver puts the Chargers three games back in the AFC West, which is practically four games because the Broncos would have the tiebreaker. A win puts the Chargers back into the race for the division. As you can imagine, this is the most important game of the season for the Chargers.
The Broncos also happen to be playing great football in recent weeks on offense, defense and special teams. Outside of an improved return game, it’s still basically the same team the Chargers faced in Week 6 and the things that worked the first time around should work again. That’s where the Chargers will have to focus their efforts.
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Unfortunately the Chargers’ 24-point lead was every bit as much the Broncos making errors as it was the Chargers making plays. The Chargers scored 10 points off of a muffed punt and a fumbled kickoff and another seven on an interception return for a touchdown by Quentin Jammer when a Denver receiver didn't make the correct adjustment.
San Diego’s defense did a nice job slowing down Manning in the first half, but he adjusted in the second half and had three touchdown passes. The Chargers had one touchdown drive that didn't come after a Denver turnover. If the Chargers are going to beat a very good Denver team, they will have to replicate the successes they had for a full 60 minutes and avoid the mistakes they made that led to 35 unanswered points for the Broncos in the second half.
Running Backs and Tight Ends
Ryan Mathews is listed as questionable on the official injury report with a neck injury. He did not participate in practice, but could still play on Sunday. The last time these two teams faced each other, Mathews had 22 carries for 74 yards and added four receptions for 19 yards.
Mathews accounted for 25 of the 66 yards on the only touchdown drive that did not come following a Denver turnover. Mathews carried six times on the 10-play drive, which was capped by an Antonio Gates touchdown grab.
A wide receiver didn’t touch the ball on that drive with Ronnie Brown, Randy McMichael and Jackie Battle all getting touches. Rivers finished the game with 10 completions to wide receivers and 15 to running backs and tight ends.
Denver’s cornerbacks are playing extremely well, and it’s going to be tough to get open on the outside. When Philip Rivers tried to throw the ball against the cornerbacks in Week 6, the result was four interceptions. On the other hand, offenses have had success taking advantage of Denver’s linebackers in coverage.
The Chargers should lean on the running game as much as possible, but when they pass they should try to run running backs and tight ends into space behind the blitz. Keith Brooking, Von Miller and Danny Trevathan are all favorable matchups for the Chargers in pass coverage on Brown, McMichael, Gates and Mathews. Using the backs and tight ends crossing short will mitigate Miller’s pass rush to some extent, and if the Chargers are having trouble they can always leave Battle in to chip Miller while Rivers works the opposite side.
These shorter routes will help the Chargers move the chains and avoid costly turnovers.
Danario Alexander is 6’5” and he will draw coverage from cornerbacks who are 5’10” and 5’9”, giving him seven to eight inches on his defender. Champ Bailey is two inches taller than his counterparts and limited Malcom Floyd to just two catches in Week 6, according to ProFootballFocus.
Trailing by seven points in the fourth quarter in Week 10, Rivers threw a flat-footed interception intended for Alexander deep down the left sideline. Alexander never had a chance to make a play on the ball, but the idea wasn’t a bad one.
In man coverage Rivers should give Alexander the chance to make a leaping grab. With a full seven inches on his defender, Alexander should be able to rise above the coverage and pull down a jump ball or two.
If Rivers continues to have poor footwork on these throws, it will not matter that his receivers have a significant size advantage, which is something to consider if he's being pressured consistently. Rivers also has to avoid making the same mistakes he made last time he faced this Denver team.
It’s not easy to defend Peyton Manning. Teams can only hope to contain Manning long enough for the offense to put up points. The three games the Broncos have lost this season have been due to a defense doing just enough to slow down Manning early in the game so the offense can get a lead. It might be harder to preserve a lead against Manning than anyone, but it’s still better than the alternatives.
The Chargers did a good job slowing Manning down in Week 6 in the first half and fell apart in the second half. It’s important to understand what Manning likes to do and try to take that away, just like against any good quarterback. One thing the Chargers defended especially well was the quick screen that the Broncos like to use against man coverage.
The quick screen is a great play against man coverage because it creates natural separation thanks to the screen part of the play. Many teams don’t use it enough. Manning loves the quick screen and has had success with it many times this season. The cornerbacks have to be smart enough to not run themselves out of the play.
Marcus Gilchrist does a wonderful job reading and understanding what the Broncos are trying to do and then getting in the way to break up the pass attempt. The Broncos were forced to punt on the drive, something that the Chargers couldn't accomplish in the second half.
The Broncos adjusted in the second half and forced the Chargers to win more one-on-one matchups. Demaryius Thomas ran a post-corner-post route and beat Jammer for a touchdown with safety help late to arrive. Eric Decker took a quick dump to the right in from seven yards out for a touchdown with three defensive backs unable to get off the blocks of two wide receivers to make a tackle.
The Chargers need better individual performances to stop Manning from throwing three touchdowns once again. A mistake-free offense that focuses on ball control and can score early and often will have a chance; anything less and the AFC West race is over.