Though the Dolphins will face the challenge of a short week after having played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football, the Chargers will face the challenge of a West-to-East cross-country trip.
Here we will focus on what the Miami Dolphins will face on both sides of the football as they attempt to avoid plunging deeper into losing territory.
When the Chargers Have the Ball
The Chargers have undergone some interesting changes in 2013 with head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt running the offense.
Philip Rivers had been known as a particularly effective deep passer. Using data gathered from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), we find that in the three seasons preceding 2013, Rivers threw the football 20-plus yards downfield 202 times out of 1,509 "aimed" passes. He completed nearly 39 percent of those passes with an average of 12.7 yards per attempt.
In 2013, he has completed 14 of 33 deep passes for 448 yards, out of 304 aimed passes. The percentage of his passes going deep has dropped, but the effectiveness of those deep passes has risen.
Rivers is getting the football out of his hand a lot more quickly in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2012, Rivers held the ball an average of 2.66 seconds before his throw attempts. In 2013, he is getting the football out of his hands on average within 2.43 seconds of the snap.
Using the same data, we see that the percentage of Rivers’ dropbacks in which he holds the football 2.6 seconds or longer has dropped dramatically, from about 54 percent in 2012 to about 44 percent in 2013. On the other hand, his passer rating on those occasions when he does hold the ball longer has gone from 68.8 in 2012 to 102.1 in 2013.
All of this suggests a smarter, more efficient passing strategy in 2013. Unsurprisingly, the result of the strategy is that Rivers is getting less pressure in the pocket. In 2012, he was pressured in the pocket on over 38 percent of his dropbacks. In 2013, that number is down to just over 32 percent.
Thanks to the addition of tailback Danny Woodhead, there has not been much of a drop-off in how much Rivers utilizes backs out of the backfield in the passing game. Former San Diego head coach Norv Turner put a large emphasis on throwing to backs. However, backs catching passes for the Chargers in 2012 were not very effective.
It is interesting that despite the departure of Turner, Rivers still targets RBs in the passing game quite a bit. According to data gathered from various places on the Pro Football Focus website, Rivers has targeted his backs 76 times in 2013 on his 304 aimed passes. That figure of 25 percent is down from 30 percent in 2012, but the drop-off is much smaller than it could have been. A much higher percentage of those passes are now going to Woodhead, as opposed to a more even distribution in 2012.
The Chargers are not big on play-action. According to Pro Football Focus only 12.6 percent of his dropbacks involve a play-fake. Part of the reason for this is because Rivers prefers to pass the football out of the shotgun formation, and head coach Mike McCoy has obliged his quarterback to an alarming degree. According to data from CNNSI.com, over 92 percent of Rivers’ dropbacks have come out of the shotgun formation.
Typically, a team could worry about tipping off a defense with such an overreliance on the shotgun formation in the passing game. However, the Chargers have done an excellent job preventing this by developing a strong running game out of the formation as well.
Using the above data along with other player data from CNNSI, we find that nearly 26 percent of all of San Diego’s shotgun snaps end up in running plays. The Chargers have gained 4.0 yards per carry on such runs. Running this often and this effectively out of the formation is atypical of NFL offenses featuring pocket passers. Approximately half of San Diego’s rushing offense (109 out of 233 carries) occurred on snaps out of the shotgun.
One issue to keep an eye on with respect to the San Diego offense is the health of left tackle King Dunlap, who left the team’s Week 10 game with a neck injury and has not practiced this week, according to the San Diego's official NFL injury report.
The Chargers may be forced to move rookie tackle D.J. Fluker to left tackle, which would put starting right guard Jeromey Clary back on the field at the right tackle position he manned for years in San Diego. However, the last time Clary faced Dolphins star left end Cameron Wake, he allowed five hurries and was flagged for two penalties.
When the Dolphins Have the Ball
Based on what transpired in Week 10 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the San Diego Chargers may be expecting the Miami Dolphins to redouble their focus on a ground game, which produced one of the worst rushing totals in franchise history.
However, the Dolphins should move in the opposite direction.
Miami needs to take advantage of a poorly ranked San Diego Chargers pass defense in this game. Though the Dolphins should always maintain a commitment to the ground game, this week the team should place a greater emphasis on opening up the passing game.
Spending too much time and energy trying to fix the ground game against San Diego would only let the Chargers’ porous pass defense off the hook. The Chargers have allowed the sixth-most passes of 20-plus yards in the league. They are worst in the league in yards allowed per attempt as well as passer rating allowed.
Miami has shown a tendency, especially on first down, to focus on shorter depths in the passing game as opposed to trying to make bigger plays. To fix this, the team needs to reach back into the playbook it used against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2.
Receiver Mike Wallace is not performing well in 2013. He has scored only one touchdown all year. He is on pace for fewer than 800 yards receiving. His best game of the season came in Week 2 against the Indianapolis Colts. Here is a diagram of the routes he ran in that game:
One effective thing the Dolphins did during the game to free up Wallace and exploit his speed was to stack him with other receivers. This made it more difficult for defensive backs to get their hands on him and to stay tight to his hip.
The spacing disadvantage at the start of the play puts a lot of pressure on the defensive back to nail the transition from back pedal to break, which is made all the more difficult by Wallace’s incredible acceleration. Here is an example of this plan in action:
The pressure of defending Wallace from a stacked pre-snap position can also lead to mistakes committed by the corner. Below we have a perfect example of this, as Greg Toler loses Wallace during a double-move.
Unfortunately, in recent weeks Miami has been happy to use Wallace on routes meant to clear out an area of the field, opening up a passing option underneath.
Part of the blame for this lies with Wallace himself. According to data from Pro Football Focus, there have been moments throughout the season when a combination of lazy route-running, drops and poor communication have frustrated the Dolphins, as they attempt to figure out how Wallace should fit into the offense.
This has led the coaches to marginalize Wallace in the game plan at times, using him in the same manner that most teams would use a Ted Ginn Jr.
However, the coaches and Wallace need to patch up their relationship in a hurry, because they are leaving opportunities on the field by not being on the same page.
The San Diego Chargers have arguably the worst pass defense in football. The player on the Miami Dolphins capable of creating the biggest and most impactful individual plays in the game is Mike Wallace.
After a fast start, the San Diego Chargers have lost three out of their last five games. They must now travel cross country and play the Dolphins in their home stadium, and history has shown that West Coast teams can struggle playing in the Eastern time zone.
Theoretically, the Miami defense should have its hands full with the renewed, efficient San Diego passing game. However, the cross-country trip may interfere with the chemistry and rhythm of the Chargers' passing game.
Any stumbles by the San Diego offense in this game could prove costly, as Miami looks to take one of the fastest and most dangerous play-making wide receivers in the league off his leash.