Chargers vs. Broncos: Sketching out a Game Plan for Denver

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystNovember 17, 2012

Ronnie Hillman will get more chances if Willis McGahee can't solve his fumbling issues.
Ronnie Hillman will get more chances if Willis McGahee can't solve his fumbling issues.Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

With a win on Sunday the Denver Broncos can basically win the AFC West. The San Diego Chargers would be three games back, but the Broncos would also hold the tiebreaker with six games to play. If the Broncos win, the only way they could lose the division is if they won two or fewer of the final six games and the Chargers won all six. Not impossible, but extremely improbable.

Alternatively, if the Chargers manage to win the game they would be just one game back and still in the AFC West race. The Broncos are still in the driver’s seat, but a win this week would almost assuredly mean they would go to the playoffs as AFC West champions.

The Broncos have to protect against a typical Chargers surge in November. Every year about this time the Chargers get on a roll, and the Broncos can't let that happen. The Broncos have the unique opportunity to make any Chargers’ run irrelevant to the division race with a win, but lose and they might be in for a fight.

The Broncos should come away with a victory if they take care of the football, let Peyton Manning do his thing and make more big plays on defense than San Diego does on offense.

The Broncos are playing good football, but they played a terrible half of football in San Diego before pulling things together and coming from down 24 to win in Week 6. The problem in that game: fumbles. Ball security has been an issue for the Broncos, and they can’t rely on Philip Rivers to aide a comeback attempt in Week 11.


Ball Security

Willis McGahee has five fumbles on the season, and he's lost four of them. The Broncos are 31st in the NFL in fumbles lost with 12, ahead of only the Kansas City Chiefs. For the most part Manning and the offense have been able to overcome the fumbles, but these are the types of issues that come back to bite the team in critical moments.

Good teams will make the Broncos pay for turning the ball over. It’s important to remember the Broncos haven’t beaten the best teams on their schedule. In the playoffs, the Broncos can’t afford to be fumbling the ball away. How disappointing would the season be if Manning got the Broncos to the playoffs quite easily and lost in the first round because of an untimely fumble by McGahee?

McGahee needs to correct his issue, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. McGahee swings his arm away from his body and either moves it away from his body entirely or brings it toward his chest. Both issues expose the football, and with any type of force the ball can come loose.

McGahee’s first fumble is the case of him swinging his arm away from his body. As he brings it back toward his chest a defender hits him causing the ball to bounce off his own chest and go flying. 

McGahee’s second fumble is a case where he’s brought the ball to his chest area, and although he does have three points of contact, he’s not holding the tip of the football and he's sort of cradling it like a baby. McGahee is going through traffic here and needs to cover the top and bottom of the ball.

McGahee’s arm is away from his body on the third fumble, thus exposing it to a well-placed hit from a defender.

McGahee’s fourth fumble is another "arm away from his body" issue. Two points of contact are just not going to be enough to secure the ball when a defender is punching at it.

McGahee’s fifth fumble is another arm issue. As he runs he swings the arm back and toward his chest. Instead of being in contact with three points the ball is only in contact with his hand and arm. The defender still has to make a play, but now that the weakness is known, defenders are going to be clawing and punching at McGahee just about every time he has the ball.

The Chargers have recovered nine fumbles in 2012, which is fourth in the NFL. Just as the Chargers can’t afford turnovers by Philip Rivers, the Broncos can’t afford fumbles by McGahee or any other player. One more fumble and the Broncos might have to give rookie Ronnie Hillman an extended look at running back. The Chargers will be ready. 


The Sheriff

Manning is having an MVP-caliber season after missing all of 2011. The wins are only part of what he’s been able to accomplish. The 35 unanswered points against the Chargers in Week 6 was an important stamp on his season and could prove to be the tipping point for the Broncos.

However, lost among many amazing plays from that game was a 3rd-and-16 play from the 50-yard line to start the fourth quarter. The Broncos were still trailing 24-14 at this point. Had the Broncos failed to convert, the Chargers would have gotten the ball back with a 10-point lead and not a three-point lead.

What’s amazing is that Manning is able to complete a pass for 25 yards on a play in which the Chargers dropped eight players into coverage. The Chargers design their coverage scheme well here, dropping and moving linebackers around so Manning would have to make his primary read post-snap.

Jacob Tamme and the receiver split wide left basically flood the same deep zone, and the cornerback predictably stays with the receiver deep. Tamme runs an out-and-up route and the receiver runs a simple go route. Manning has a high-low concept on the right side and a clear-out on the left side.

Tamme’s out and up leaves him wide open along the left sideline as the receiver took the lone defender out of the picture. The linebacker and safety didn’t have that coverage responsibility, but were forced to come over and try to make a play. The throw to Tamme was perfect, and the Broncos extended a drive that culminated with a short touchdown strike to Eric Decker three plays later.

It was an amazing read and throw by Manning, which may have been the turning point in the first game against the Chargers. This play as well as several other may ultimately propel the Broncos to a division title.

If Manning plays like he did in the second half against the Chargers, there’s little reason the Broncos shouldn't easily win the game. 


Big Plays

The Broncos made big play after big play in the second half against Rivers in Week 6. Rivers has been prone to throwing interceptions when pressured, and the Broncos are second in the NFL in sack percentage (sacks/attempts+sacks).

Left tackle Jared Gaither is doubtful for Sunday’s game with a groin injury, which means rookie tackle Michael Harris will start in his place. The Broncos were lucky enough to see Harris at left tackle in Week 6. Although Elvis Dumervil is questionable to play with a shoulder injury, he had his way with Harris in their first matchup.

Right tackle Jeromey Clary surrendered two sacks to Von Miller coming off the edge. Clary has been one of the poorest pass protectors in the league over the past couple of years, and Miller should have his way with him. Sack fumbles or interceptions are the types of big plays that helped the Broncos come back in Week 6 and the types of plays that will help them win in Week 11.

What the Broncos can’t have is too many big plays by the Chargers. Antonio Gates and San Diego’s other passing weapons are very capable of making big plays in the passing game. The Broncos' safeties need to give help when Gates is drawing a one-on-one match with a linebacker or cornerback.

The Chargers have used the deep tight end cross several times this season with good success, including against the Broncos. The outside receiver clears space for Gates and all he has to do is beat his man on the crossing pattern. Rahim Moore’s job is to cover over the top, but that means he isn’t in position to make a play.

The Broncos could make an adjustment that allows the safeties to take more risks if they see Gates coming across the formation. This would put the pressure on a very solid group of cornerbacks to not get beat deep on the outside and the safeties to make wise decisions on when to gamble.

It comes down to who makes more big plays—Denver’s defense or San Diego’s offense. It starts with Denver’s pass rush, but don’t be surprised if a safety makes a big play by reading and reacting to Gates and Rivers. 


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