Things haven't always been pretty for head coach Mike McCoy and the San Diego Chargers this season, but the Chargers moved to 3-3 with a gutsy 19-9 victory at home against the Indianapolis Colts Monday night. It's wasn't an exciting victory, but it counts just the same.
The Chargers won the game by grinding—a skill they will need if they want to beat the good teams in this league. Sometimes explosive plays aren't going to be there and the team simply needs to win the small battles and get a close win.
If the Chargers are going to beat the 6-0 Kansas City Chiefs or the 6-0 Denver Broncos, they will need to grind. Maybe some weeks it's offensively and others it's defensively, but grinding is something the Chargers had seemingly forgotten how to do over the last few years.
It was clear Monday night that the Chargers have started to establish a new identity under Coach Mike McCoy as a team that won't quit. The Chargers learned that injuries were no longer an excuse for sloppy defensive play, turnovers or an ineffective ground game. The Chargers learned how to win by grinding.
Offensively, the Chargers ran the ball behind a battered offensive line and controlled the clock, holding the ball for over 38 minutes. The Chargers didn't turn the ball over and Philip Rivers' touchdown pass to rookie receiver Keenan Allen in the second quarter proved to be the difference in the game.
Ryan Mathews rushed for 102 yards on 22 carries and Danny Woodhead added 36 yards on nine carries. In total, the Chargers rushed for 147 yards in a close game after averaging just 91.2 yards per game in their first five games.
The running game was a big part of what the Chargers were able to do offensively, but just as important was the role of Woodhead in the passing game. Woodhead caught five passes for 47 yards and was a key reason the Chargers were able to convert on third down (7-of-14) and sustain drives.
The Chargers put together four consecutive drives of 11-plus plays, with the first such drive starting in the first quarter and the last ending more than five minutes into the fourth quarter. Those drives netted a touchdown, three field goals and no punts or turnovers.
The Colts took away the big plays, so the Chargers gladly took what the defense gave them rather than try to force the ball. It was conservative, but the Chargers executed when they needed to execute and took the ball out of Andrew Luck's hands.
With starting linebackers Donald Butler and Jarrett Johnson out with injuries, the Chargers were forced to start rookie sixth-round pick Tourek Williams and career reserve Andrew Gachkar on defense alongside Manti Te'o and Larry English. The only way the Chargers were going to win was to play tough and smart, fundamental football.
The Chargers stuffed the run, got key stops on third down, and beat the Colts with their own game plan on offense.
The Colts and Chargers came in wanting to do the same things and the Chargers simply better executed. It was a 12-round fight that the Chargers won by decision, out-punching their opponent with jabs rather than haymakers.
Injuries to Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney left the Chargers with a thin group of linebackers and very little pass rush, but San Diego's defensive coordinator John Pagano—brother of Colts head coach Chuck Pagano—dialed up exotic blitzes early to manufacture pressure and confuse Luck. It worked.
Maybe Luck would have adjusted, but he never had the chance because the Chargers held the ball so long.
"We knew we were shorthanded,” safety Eric Weddle said, per Kevin Acee and U-T San Diego. “It wasn’t an excuse. We went out and played team ball."
The Chargers simply did a better job smashing their opponent in the mouth, which is a brand of football we haven't seen in San Diego since LaDainian Tomlinson. Running the ball and stopping the run isn't always sexy, but that's often how teams have to tough out victories in the NFL.
To highlight just the kind of grinding the Chargers did for McCoy, consider this three-play sequence at the start of the fourth quarter with the Chargers leading 13-3.
It's 3rd-and-10 from the Indianapolis 30 and LeRon McClain ran for two yards for the first down, but left guard Johnnie Troutman was injured on the play. Troutman was playing for the injured Chad Rinehart, meaning third-stringer Stephen Schilling would have to come into the game for at least a few plays.
Instead of trying to hide Schilling, the Chargers ran power with Schilling as the pulling guard and lead blocker. Mathews gained only one yard as Schilling missed his block in the hole, but the Chargers tried again.
On the following play, the Chargers ran it right behind Schilling again. This time, Mathews gained nine yards for a first down inside the red zone. A couple plays later, the Chargers extend their lead to 10 points with a short field goal that kept them in control late in the game.
"An outstanding team effort," said McCoy after the game.
The Chargers learned how to grind for their head coach on Monday. Every player, from the quarterback to the third-string guard, learned that they would—and could—contribute. If the Chargers can continue to grind like they did over a very solid Colts team, they will win a lot more football games.