Gates' 4th quarter TD was the nail in the coffin.
The San Diego Chargers were depleted on the offensive line because of injuries heading into the game against the Dallas Cowboys, a team with a formidable defense and front seven. San Diego (2-2) scored 20 unanswered points to beat Dallas (2-2), 30-21.
The slapdash line of backups and castaways proved capable of protecting quarterback Philip Rivers to the tune of 401 passing yards and three touchdowns, and opened holes so running backs could gain 112 yards rushing.
The much criticized defensive secondary was able to hold Tony Romo to 244 yards through the air and did not allow a 100-yard receiver for the first time this season.
It was a team effort, but some of the team's units outperformed others.
Philip Rivers was outstanding.
He completed 35 of his 42 pass attempts for 401 yards and three touchdowns. It was the fifth 400-yard passing game in his NFL career and the second one this season.
He did have an interception returned for a touchdown, but it would be hard to blame Rivers for the pick. He was hit as he threw, the ball popped into the air and linebacker Sean Lee snagged the ball and ran 52 yards for a touchdown. Maybe Rivers should have felt the pressure and taken the sack, but that is an easy assessment in hindsight and a harder one in reality.
At one point Rivers completed 13 straight passes, tying his career longest streak.
His three touchdowns were masterful, making adjustments to get linebackers covering Danny Woodhead twice and Antonio Gates for the third.
His passes were on the mark, and his decisions were masterful.
It is hard to imagine how he could have played better, unless he takes a sack and avoids the pick-six.
Danny Woodhead had two touchdown receptions and averaged 6.4 yards per rushing attempt (32 yards on five rushes). Woodhead finished with 10 total touches for 86 total yards with two touchdowns. He continued to look like the best running back on the team in terms of following blocks.
Ryan Mathews was the team’s leading rusher gaining 62 yards on 19 carries. He also had four catches for 41 yards to finish with 103 total yards on 23 touches. He ran hard and seemed to always fall forward on rush attempts.
What was most impressive about Mathews’ game was how the coaches (and Philip Rivers) trusted him with the game on the line.
San Diego ran 14 offensive plays in the fourth quarter. Mathews touched the ball 10 times during those 14 plays.
On more than one occasion, however, it looked like a running lane was to one side, but Mathews would cut to the other side, whereas Woodhead followed where the blockers created seams.
As a whole, the running backs gained 112 yards on the ground and 95 yards through the air.
The wide receivers caught 15 of the 18 passes targeted toward them, but it is difficult to remember any drops or passes that should have been caught.
Vincent Brown was targeted nine times, catching a career-high seven passes.
Eddie Royal caught all three passes thrown his direction.
Royal and Brown both have 15 receptions on the year, tied for most among wide receivers.
Rookie Keenan Allen had a breakout performance, hauling in five receptions for 80 yards. Only Dez Bryant’s 81 receiving yards were more for wide receivers in the game.
Allen had a great grab in the first quarter, making an adjustment on a fade route and jumping over the Dallas defender to come down with the first down.
Allen and the other receivers were also noticeable on run plays shielding off defenders.
There still lacks a playmaker on the roster—a go-to receiver when the team needs a big play. But maybe a playmaking receiver is not necessary when there is a Hall of Fame tight end with the squad.
Antonio Gates caught everything thrown his direction, finishing with a game-high 10 catches for 136 yards. His 56-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was the emotional back-breaker for Dallas and made it a two-score game. Even if the Cowboys would not have fumbled on the goal line, Dallas would have needed to convert an onside kick to get the ball back (there was 2:42 left at the time of the fumble).
Gates continued to be Rivers’ go-to receiver. Gates leads the team with 25 receptions for 364 yards this season. No other NFL tight end has more receiving yards than Gates this year, and only Jordan Cameron (30) has more receptions.
Gates is also underappreciated in the running game as a blocker.
John Philips also caught a pass for seven yards, and he was also a big part of the run game.
Three starters were out with injuries and a fourth was coming off a concussion.
It looked like it was going to be a long day for San Diego’s offense, but the O-line did a very good job keeping Rivers upright and providing lanes for running backs.
It was not a perfect day, however.
Right tackle D.J. Fluker got beat on the first play from scrimmage for San Diego.
Left tackle Mike Harris got pushed into Philip Rivers’ feet on the second play from scrimmage.
Center Nick Hardwick missed blocks on screen passes.
Right guard Rich Ohrnberger’s man is the one who hit Rivers on the Sean Lee’s interception.
Left guard Johnnie Troutman was called for offsides.
Reserve guard Steve Schilling fell down while pulling, resulting in a loss of yards on the run.
But Rivers was only sacked once, the team ran for 112 yards against a defense that was giving up less than 80 a game, and the team totaled 506 yards of offense.
Particularly impressive was Troutman. He was pushing defenders around and played with a mean streak. He located and attacked defenders when pulling.
Troutman could see more playing time if he can maintain that level of performance.
For the first three games of the season, the defensive line has been virtually invisible. No one on the D-line had made any big plays to speak of, and none had any sacks.
On the second play of the game, Kendal Reyes recorded a sack.
On the next series, Corey Liuget pushed back an offensive lineman on a run play, and on the series after that, he registered a sack.
Cam Thomas made a nice play in the second quarter, scraping down the line and making the tackle for a short gain.
There were still times when the line got pushed back, particularly when Liuget was pushed back nine yards on Dallas’ first play of the second half.
But this was by far the best outing for the defensive line this season.
Manti Te’o made his regular-season debut, and it started well enough.
He made the tackle on the first play of the game, was right there when Tony Romo got sacked on the next play, and blitzed and caused pressure on the third play.
But that first series was about it for the rookie. He finished with three tackles.
Donald Butler finished with a team-high eight tackles, but he was also called for multiple penalties. The 12-men-on-the-field flag was a result of Butler not running to the sidelines quickly, his unnecessary roughness kept a drive alive, and defensive pass interference brought the Cowboys close to the goal line.
Reggie Walker played well, recording two solo tackles.
Jarrett Johnson recorded a sack and applied pressure from the outside.
Dwight Freeney created pressure, but left the game with a leg injury.
It was a serviceable, not solid, outing by the linebackers.
The defensive backs did a great job of containing the Dallas wide receivers.
Richard Marshall actually had pretty good position on Dez Bryant’s first touchdown catch. The problem is Marshall is 5"11" and Bryant is 6"2".
Bryant’s second touchdown was an embarrassment with missed tackles and poor pursuit angles.
But, for the most part, Dallas receivers were tackled as soon as they caught the ball.
Eric Weddle had big pass deflections, but the biggest play of the game may have been when Weddle tackled rookie Terrance Williams at the goal line, Crezdon Butler jarred the ball loose, and Marshall recovered the fumble in the end zone at the end of the fourth quarter.
Kicker Nick Novak was perfect on the day, nailing all three of his three field-goal attempts and all three of his PATs.
The only knock on Novak is his kickoffs are returnable. Half of his six kickoffs were returned.
Punter Mike Scifres had three of his four punts inside the 20.
The kick returners did not see much action. Eddie Royal returned one punt and Danny Woodhead returned one kickoff. Three of the kickoff returns resulted in touchbacks.
The coverage units allowed a 38-yard punt return in the second quarter and allowed 28.3 yards per kickoff return.
The Chargers were also called for holding on a kickoff return and a punt return.
Head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt devised a masterful game plan letting Philip Rivers get to the line of scrimmage quickly, review what the defense was doing and then change the play to challenge the defense.
Quarterback coach Frank Reich deserves credit as well for getting Rivers to know all of his options for every play.
Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris and offensive line assistant Andrew Dees should get recognition for the work they did to get the offensive line ready for the game despite missing three regular starters.
Defensively, John Pagano mixed up man coverages and zone coverages and had the team tackling better. Still, there were lapses, including Bryant’s second touchdown.
The defense did a good job at disrupting Romo and the Dallas offense with various blitzes. The team stopped blitzing and the Cowboys had some success. San Diego went back to the blitzes, and Dallas looked flustered again.