The San Diego Chargers are headed in the wrong direction. At 4-7, the Chargers will be eliminated from the AFC West race with a loss or a win by the Denver Broncos. When the Chargers lost to the Broncos two weeks ago it was only a matter of time.
The Chargers will square off against the surging Cincinnati Bengals, who have won their last three games by a margin of 93-29 to put themselves back in the hunt for a playoff spot with a 6-5 record. The Bengals need to keep winning to keep pace in the race for a wild-card spot.
Primary Talking Point for Week 13
It’s time to take stock of the roster. It’s clear now that Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal were very bad free-agent signings. Danario Alexander, who was basically picked up off the street, has done far more to fill Vincent Jackson’s shoes than Meachem or Royal.
The Chargers have basically three glaring weaknesses: the offensive line, the pass rush and the coverage. It will be up to this coaching staff to give the younger player more playing time so the team can prioritize draft needs and free agents that might help put the Chargers back in the playoff hunt in 2013 and beyond.
Jared Gaither was placed on injured reserve prior to last week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens. Gaither has battled multiple injuries this season and was able to play in just four games. Gaither was credited with salvaging the Chargers' season in 2011, but the team exacerbated their mistake by giving Gaither an extension. Gaither has a history of injuries, and the team only brought in an undrafted rookie as a reserve.
Atari Bigby also had a long injury history and was placed on injured reserve after suffering a groin injury against the Ravens. Eric Weddle was also knocked from the game after being brutally blocked by Anquan Boldin on Ray Rice’s conversion on 4th-and-29. Weddle was limited in practice on Wednesday and will have to complete concussion tests before being cleared for contact.
Donald Butler injured his groin and did not participate in practice on Wednesday along with Royal (hamstring) and Darrel Stuckey (hamstring). Butler has been a keep player on defense for the Chargers and would be a big loss if he’s unable to play on Sunday. Stuckey’s injury leaves the Chargers with just two healthy safeties.
Antwan Barnes (hamstring), Larry English (calf), Tyronne Green (hamstring) and Dante Rosario (hamstring) were also limited in practice. Green is a starter, and the Chargers offensive line is weak with him in there and even worse if he can’t play. Barnes and Rosario are key role players.
The Chargers have a lot of key injuries, which is testing the depth of the offensive line and secondary and slowing down what little pass rush they have.
Players on the Rise
For the second straight week, cornerback Marcus Gilchrist played in more than 70 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Gilchrist has only gone over 70 percent a total of three times in 2012.
It’s clear that the Chargers are starting to trust their young cornerback more and more. He didn’t quite reward them with back-to-back great performances, but he did enough to continue to earn significant playing time.
Kendall Reyes got an opportunity to play more snaps in Week 11, and he performed by recording two sacks. In Week 12, he continued to show that he deserves more playing time. With the season almost lost, it’s probably time for the Chargers to give Reyes an extended look over the veteran Vaughn Martin.
Martin has just three career sacks, and the Chargers didn’t draft Reyes to continue to be a part-time player. Corey Liuget at the other defensive end spot isn’t going anywhere.
Stat Trends – Offense
There are several interesting statistical shifts this week for the Chargers on offense. The Chargers aren’t turning the ball over as much and are improving in both interception percentage and fumbles. It’s clear the Chargers are playing it safe, and that has resulted in a drop in production from the passing game and running game.
This play-it-safe mentality could also be messing with their ability to convert on third down, as the Chargers converted on third down just three times on 15 attempts against the Ravens.
A lot of this can be attributed to the protection issues. On third down, the offensive line often doesn’t have the added benefit that the defensive line might be expecting a run. The Chargers aren’t protecting Rivers enough to make deep passing plays possible.
According to ProFootballFocus data, Rivers has averaged 4.4 attempts over 20 yards per game. On Sunday against the Ravens, Rivers attempted no passes over 20 yards. Rivers has forced a lot of throws when he is pressured in 2012, but it appears that he’s made an adjustment to play is safe because of the protection issues.
Stat Trends – Defense
The Chargers played a pretty solid defensive game against the Ravens, save the final four minutes of the fourth quarter. The Chargers allowed a lot of yards, but only allowed 16 points in an overtime game, and the stats reflect the performance.
Overall, the Chargers have a top-five run defense and a pass defense ranked in the 20s that still equates to a very solid defense.
A lack of pass rush has really hurt the Chargers pass defense. The Chargers haven’t been able to stop teams on third down and keep them out of the end zone. Teams have also been able to move the chains with the passing game.
The strong run defense is forcing more teams to go to the air on the Chargers, and that is putting the pressure on an average secondary. Without a pass rush, that secondary has had their issues. With five sacks of Joe Flacco last week, the Chargers allowed fewer touchdowns, but it didn’t help them limit yardage or stop the Ravens from converting 50 percent of their third-down attempts.
There’s a defined problem, and first-round draft pick Melvin Ingram hasn’t solved anything for the Chargers in 2012.
How many wins will the Chargers have at season's end?
Since the bye week, the Chargers are 1-4. Since Week 3, the Chargers are 2-7. The Chargers have only defeated the Raiders, Titans and Chiefs twice. The Chargers are not a good team and their 3-3 record at the Week 7 bye was deceiving.
This team continues to regress under the leadership of Norv Turner. It’s not his fault the team isn’t as good as advertised, but incremental improvement from week to week is what coaching is all about. Turner won’t even be able to look back on the 2012 season and hold his head high because his team is spiraling down the drain fast.
Maybe the Chargers will have one of their typical late-season surges, but that's certainly not looking likely at this point.
The Chargers wanted to be a playoff team, but they haven’t played like a playoff team all season. A 7-6 loss to the Browns after the bye was really telling about the kind of team the Chargers had in 2012, with faint hope lasting until the Chargers lost to the Broncos for the second time in Week 11.