How the Chiefs Defense Can Thwart Philip Rivers and Chargers' Explosive Offense

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How the Chiefs Defense Can Thwart Philip Rivers and Chargers' Explosive Offense
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It doesn't matter what else is listed on my program guide: If Philip Rivers is playing, I'm shunning every other channel like it's Sloth from The Goonies

Floyd Mayweather just knocked out Manny Pacquiao? Eh, I'll stick with Rivers. Yeezus interrupted the State of the Union? Insane, but Rivers is playing. The lingerie league switched to water balloons? OK, I have a pulse. Let's not get crazy. 

Why are my eyes glued to the nearest flat screen when the San Diego Chargers are playing? It's not because Rivers is a top-tier quarterback (he is) or that the Chargers always pen nail-biting endings (they do). It's because Rivers is the embodiment of "Come at me, bro!" 

At any given moment, he's one mishap away from leaving his hospitable Southern persona in the dust and morphing into an irate frat kid who thinks he's the second coming of Chuck Liddell whenever "Click Click Boom" comes on. 

One second, he can look like a walking advertisement for tranquility.

Then he gets drilled on third down, and he finds himself tightrope walking the thin red line between "Hulk smash!" and American Psycho

Funnyordie.com

The man once made Jay "I poke at sleeping giants and tell higher-ups to kick rocks (NSFW)" Cutler into a sympathetic figure. And as if quarterbacks taunting bloodlust-ing behemoths isn't comical enough, Rivers does so with a twang that sounds like someone who grew up spouting things like, "I'm hankerin' to serve that gussy a knuckle sandwich that'll knock his no-good yapper cattywampus 'cross his 5-cent mug, Pa."

Seriously, it's borderline cathartic seeing blitzers converge upon Rivers like he punted their beehive. 

All of that being said, he's back to performing like a top-five quarterback again. If you don't believe me, look at the numbers.

 

Statistical Showcase

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Everybody's well aware of the Denver Broncos' potent passing game. However, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Peyton Manning and Co. don't even headline the best aerial attack in their division.

PFF currently rates Philip Rivers' Chargers as the No. 1 passing offense in the league, just above the Broncos and New Orleans Saints.

Blasphemous, right?

After glancing at Rivers' rankings, PFF's grade seems less far-fetched, though.

2013 Passing Leaders: Philip Rivers
Total 2013 QB Ranking
Passing YPG 298.9 4th
Touchdowns 19 T-6th
Interceptions 8 16th
Completion Perc. 70.9 1st
Passer Rating 104.4 6th

Pro-Football-Reference.com

What gives San Diego the edge over Denver? Two things: receiver efficiency and halfback production. 

While Manning, who is PFF's highest-rated passer, dwarfs every competitor not named Drew Brees in the stat department, his receivers' 27 drops is slotted as the fifth most in the NFL. Meanwhile, Rivers' targets have dropped nearly half (14) that amount. 

Also, Chargers running back Danny Woodhead doubles as the league's 20th-leading receiver with 55 receptions.

 

Stopping San Diego

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There are two keys to thwarting San Diego's passing game: taking away the middle of the field and applying pressure.

One look at Rivers' passing distribution tells you that he has an affinity for lobbing the ball between the hash marks, particularly 20 yards or less from the line of scrimmage.  

Philip Rivers' 2013 Passing Chart
Left Middle Right
20-Plus Yards 6-15, 198 YDS, TD 4-9, 138 YDS, 2 TD, 2 INT 5-14, 144 YDS, TD, INT
10-19 Yards 12-17, 217 YDS, 4 TD 40-58, 688 YDS, 2 TD, 3 INT 12-16, 202 YDS, TD
0-9 Yards 23-28, 172 YDS 93-111, 831 YDS, 3 TD, 2 INT 19-25, 128 YDS, TD
Total 68.3%, 587, 5 TD 77%, 1,657 YDS, 7 TD, 7 INT 65.5%, 474 YDS, 3 TD, INT

Pro Football Focus

San Diego's receiving corps is teeming with talent, and Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown arguably account for the most underrated tandem throughout the league. 

However, the passing attack is still predicated around Antonio Gates exploiting seams and Woodhead working in space. 

On this touchdown against the Broncos, the Chargers clear the center of the field by luring the middle linebacker away with a drag route from Gates. This leaves Danny Trevathan one-on-one with Woodhead in space. In terms of coverage, Trevathan's one of the best linebackers in the league, but he doesn't stand a chance when matched against a back as agile as Woodhead

San Diego's ankle-breaker runs an angle route, cutting back inside for Rivers' lone touchdown of the afternoon. 

Now, let's look at why (successfully) defending the interior of the field is pivotal to Kansas City's pass rush and, more importantly, the Chiefs' odds of protecting their perfect home record. 

Philip Rivers Under Pressure
Snaps Completion % YDS/ATT TD/INT Sacked
Under Pressure 130 58.5 7.6 3/3 19
No Pressure 258 76.5 8.7 16/5 0
Blitzed 127 63.9 7.8 9/2 5
Not Blitzed 261 74.9 8.7 10/6 14

Pro Football Focus

Not unlike Manning, Rivers effectively counters the blitz with hot routes. However, he's more susceptible to mistakes if defenses take away his first read and garner an effective four-man pass rush. 

Throughout the bulk of the season, the latter feat was all but impossible versus San Diego. The same hasn't held true over the club's last two games, though, and the bleeding likely won't cease at Arrowhead.

The Associated Press' Bernie Wilson reports that a neck strain will sideline King Dunlap, who has already suffered two concussions this season, for his fourth game of 2013: 

Before Dunlap's most recent medical setback, San Diego's offensive line allowed 1.5 sacks per game. But since his neck strain has forced rookie D.J. Fluker to slide over to left tackle, that number has jumped to 3.5. 

To nobody's surprise, the makeshift lineup has encountered a slew of issues. Jeromey Clary, now starting in Fluker's place at right tackle, gets bulldozed on a routine basis.

Fluker, who spent his collegiate career on the right side, is trying to acclimate to inverted habits—much like Eric Fisher—on the fly, and his inexperience has served as a window of opportunity for edge-rushers.

Miscommunication has proven to be the tallest hurdle, though. There's no cohesiveness.

Here, as the play develops, Rivers tries to dictate the coverage by eyeing the left side of the field. He wants to hit Keenan Allen on a spot route, but to do so, he needs Wesley Woodyard, the middle linebacker, to vacate the middle of the field. Woodyard doesn't take the bait and stays at home. 

Meanwhile, Denver runs a stunt with Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips. The center remains engaged with the defensive tackle, while the right guard and tackle are distracted by left end Von Miller.  

NFL Game Rewind

Being that the Chargers line up in an empty set, Rivers doesn't have a helping hand to block in the backfield, and Wolfe and Phillips are left with one-on-one matchups

Wolfe charges into the wedge and generates enough push to be nearly parallel with Rivers, which collapses the pocket when Phillips whips around.

NFL Game Rewind

The left guard disengages Wolfe to pick up No. 90, allowing the second-year rusher to simply slide laterally and corral the quarterback. 

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

Fast-forward to Week 11.

The Chargers are three yards away from moving the chains. The Miami Dolphins deploy Cover 2 and rush four while Rivers takes the shotgun snap. 

NFL Game Rewind

Due to the down and distance, San Diego banks on Miami deploying blitzers and leaks the running back, Ronnie Brown, out of the backfield to capitalize on any aggressiveness. Instead, the middle linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe, anchors himself directly across from Brown. When the runner releases from the backfield, Ellerbe shadows him and closes any potential passing lane(s). 

NFL Game Rewind

Up front, Cameron Wake bull-rushes Clary into the backfield and clings on to Rivers like a 260-pound leech. 

NFL Game Rewind

In the next example, the Dolphins align in Cover 1 and bracket the split end. The Chargers passer is fixated on Gates throughout the life of the play, again trying to exploit the middle of the field. 

NFL Game Rewind

Once Ellerbe realizes the running back is assigned to block, he bolts toward the interior of the line, demanding the attention of both center Nick Hardwick (San Diego's best lineman) and the tailback. 

NFL Game Rewind

NFL Game Rewind

 History repeats itself as Wake successfully bull-rushes Clary against his will. At the opposite end, Jared Odrick swims past the left guard and harpoons Rivers for the sack.

NFL Game Rewind

In the final sample, the Dolphins deploy Cover 1 and rush four linemen. The stacked receivers space the left third of the field out while their two cohorts carry out a pick play.  

However, again, the middle linebacker roams between the hash marks, negating the shallow cross and sending the play into a state of disarray. 

NFL Game Rewind

Right defensive end Olivier Vernon authored the down's most impressive effort, though. Working against Fluker, Vernon slaps the rookie's outside arm, leading the tackle to assume that his opponent's rounding the corner and rushing outside. 

Vernon then takes advantage of Fluker's momentum by reversing course, gaining leverage under the tackle's inside shoulder and plowing his way toward Rivers. 

NFL Game Rewind
NFL Game Rewind

As the play unfolds, notice how congested the middle of the field is. 

Given Rivers' shoddy protection, you can safely assume that San Diego will tear a page from Denver's game plan and pepper Kansas City's defense with short-to-intermediate routes. 

It wasn't that Chiefs pass-rushers weren't outclassing their opponents—they definitely were. But when Manning is hurling passes 2.17 seconds after the ball is snapped, nobody not named "Usain" is getting within arm's reach.

The Chiefs would be wise to patrol the hash marks by regularly dropping Derrick Johnson into zone. And although there's little doubt that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will dispatch more blitzers than he did last Sunday, Kansas City's four-man rush should streamroll San Diego's blockers as the game wears on. 

 

Statistics provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

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