When I watched Chargers offensive game tape from last season, two things were readily apparent: this was an explosive offense, and most of the damage was done from two formations.
It's all about getting the most out of your personnel, and the Chargers have a playbook that did just that. Well, at least until the wheels came off against the Steelers in the second round of the playoffs.
Whether it was LaDainian Tomlinson off left tackle or Philip Rivers deep to Vincent Jackson, the shotgun and I-formation were the primary formations utilized by a Chargers playbook that proved quite successful in maximizing the myriad of weapons in the offense.
The offense rolled through the regular season, finishing ranked second in NFL with 27.4 points per game and was held under 20 points only four times all season. Most game days they were either in a shoot-out, with mixed results, or they blew the doors off opposing squads.
How they did it usually came down to how effective they were running plays out of their two favorite sets.
An ability to run the ball is critical in the NFL, and the Chargers have found a way to get it done despite waning production from LT. The I-formation was used to run the ball most of the time, but it was also very effective in play action situations.
Often they lineup in an off-set I to the weak side, which can help disguise where the play is going along with creating matchup problems for defenses. This is highlighted in the play action passing game.
While seemingly not as effective a rushing team than in previous years, the Chargers had nearly the same average yards-per-rush using things like an unbalanced line.
It's safe to say Rivers simply loves playing out of the shotgun. Defenses can't focus on one receiver due to Rivers' ability to read the situation and distribute the ball with great balance. No player had more than 60 receptions but five players had four or more touchdown catches.
Lining up in the shotgun also helps with protection by giving Rivers more time to survey the defense. Another benefit of the shotgun is it stretches defenses, which creates space for weapons at each level from the flat to intermediate and deep.
Here are five plays from last season that showcased the strengths of the offense and the versatility of the formations:
I-form off tackle: It didn't matter if it was LT or Darren Sproles in the backfield, both produced throughout the season. But injuries forced their hand led to a signifigantly weakend running game in the playoffs.
LT's 12-yard touchdown run in Week Four against the Raiders was out of an off-set I, where he made a great cutback to reach the end zone. This play is the staple of their running offense and blends as a good mix of power and finesse.
In the second quarter of the divisional playoff game against the Colts, LT scored on this play with a strong push off left tackle to punch it in from the three. In overtime, the game was won using this play, called "ISO", when Sproles burst through the left side for a 22-yard touchdown. A bread-and-butter play for the Chargers.
Chris Chambers for the first: Chambers is aging, but had more touchdown catches than last season despite fewer catches and yards. He is still a good possession option, which was evident in the playoffs where he made some big catches to keep drives alive.
Out of a four-wide shotgun set in the second quarter of the divisional playoff game, Rivers hit Chambers on the sideline for questionable completion but got the call. He followed up with an 11-yard gain to Chambers over the middle on 3rd-and-9 that produced a new set of downs, which led to an eventual six points to answer the Colts opening score.
Antonio Gates over the middle: A big play for the Chargers was play action out of the I-from in the second quarter of the Colts divisional game. Rivers fired a strike to Gates on the slant. He was lined up wide giving him an very favorable matchup against a Colts corner. He broke two tackles and brought it to the three after a 30-yard gain.
Also, in the closing minute of play, Rivers found Gates over the middle to pick up first down, keep the clock moving and to get into solid field goal range. Gates' rare skill makes him very versatile and an integral element to the offensive play calling.
Deep to Vincent Jackson: Jackson had a poor playoffs with only two catches, but he's vital to the offense stretching the defense. He had seven receptions of 40+ yards, which tied him for second in the NFL last season, but it's funny that the fullback had the longest reception of the year.
Jackson only had two catches in the playoffs, but one was a play action 41-yard touchdown on the opening drive against the Steelers. That is what he did all year. His deep threat is what opens up other receivers and pulls safeties off the line of scrimmage, which helped the running game.
Special Teams: I know special teams is more than one play, but how this unit performed had a great deal to do with the Bolts' playoff success and failure.
Sproles' returns of punts and kickoffs set-up multiple Chargers scores, especially in the playoffs. There will be a temptation to try and get more out of the mighty-mite in other areas, but he's too valuable a returner to overwork elsewhere.
Mike Scifres' coffin corner punting, with seven to 12 postseason punts inside the opponents 20, was another bit of mastery that went largely unnoticed. But in the end, it was a Santonio Holmes 67-yard punt return for a touchdown and a muffed punt off Eric Weddle's helmet that highlighted the special teams for the wrong reasons.
The Bolts will need to continue to execute successfully as they'll face top defenses in Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Baltimore and the New York Giants this season. The running game will need to get tougher in crunch time and the passing game must continue to stretch defenses. I bet these plays will be used to do just that.