In spite of an 8-8 record, the San Diego Chargers' 2008 season had its share of big plays. Some allowed the team to make it to the playoffs and reach the AFC Championship game in spite of a 4-8 start. Five plays stood out in the contribution they made to the team's success.
1. Run LT up the middle - This goes against the intuition of Charger fans used to seeing LaDainian Tomlinson go off to the races for so many 70+ yard touchdown runs the first few years of his career. In the last two seasons, however, LT did not have a single carry for 50 yards or more.
Tomlinson found paydirt most often in 2008 by running up the middle. Usually in a power I formation, sometimes with an offset fullback. There's nothing fancy here; the offense is effectively saying to the defense, "Here it comes, try to stop it." Great blocking by Nick Hardwick and Kris Dielman made it possible for LT to score seven of his 11 rushing touchdowns during the regular season on this play.
2. Screen to Darren Sproles - The departure of Michael Turner and LT's sore toe opened up opportunities for Sproles to expand beyond his original role of a kick return specialist.
It also opened up the Charger playbook as Norv Turner sought to take advantage of Sproles' quickness and speed in the open field. The screen to Sproles has limitations, however and has to be used selectively because the presence of number 43 is going to alert defenses to that play, and if you go to the well to often, the play loses its effectiveness.
Having said that, it was an effective play for the Chargers as five of Philip Rivers' 34 touchdown passes came on screens to Sproles, who played mostly in a backup role.
Two of the touchdown passes came on identical plays in consecutive weeks. Against Tampa Bay and at home against Denver, the Bolts ran a screen pass to Sproles to the right for a touchdown. The alignment of the backfield was in a diamond-like formation with Rivers behind center and Sproles in the usual tailback position. Two other players lined up at fullback depth, but with one to the left and another to the right to form the diamond.
The other touchdown passes came on screens to the left, two of which had a formation with a single wideout split to the left.
3. Throw a short pass to a tall guy over the middle - When you have a receiver who is 6'4" and played college basketball and two others who are 6'5", it sets up mismatches with the defenders.
Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson are going to win a lot more jump balls with defenders than they will lose. It puts less pressure on Rivers when he has a pass rush when he knows he can throw the ball high and one of those receivers will come down with it.
Gates' basketball skills give him an additional advantage as a tight end. No only is he one of the most athletic 6'4" 260 pounders you'll ever see, but the skills that make him an effective rebounder allow him to establish body position and prevent a defender from making a play on many passes thrown to him.
Six of Rivers' 34 touchdown passes came on passes of 10 yads or less over the middle. The formations that these plays were run out of varied, but one effective tactic was to use a power I alignment. It forced defenses to commit some resources to watching LT and left receivers open.
4. Attack the middle of the field at medium range. - You see a theme emerging here? The Chargers made a lot of great plays in the center of the field. Medium range passes were no exception.
Although it did not account for as many touchdown passes as other plays mentioned here, many passes in the 18-30 yard range were critical to the success of many scoring drives. Typically the play was run with two or three wideouts with either a regular or offset I, although a couple of times it came from the shotgun.
Chris Chambers joined Gates, Floyd and Jackson in making these plays happen. With Chambers, his speed is what burns the defense, while the other three are more inclined to jump.
5. Deep pass to the right - Although the Chargers attacked the middle of the field for big plays, on several occasions, pass plays of 40 or more yards came from the right side of the field. Of all the big plays mentioned in this article, this one had the most variation, which maybe helped its effectiveness--it was harder to read from simply looking at alignments.
Originally intended for Chambers, who would miss several games with injuries, Jackson was the most frequent target of this play. Although not known for having great quickness, once Jackson was downfield, he was deceptively fast with the long strides he took, allowing him to outrun defenders. As mentioned earlier, his height allowed him to grab some passes where defenders couldn't.
Everyone who is enough of an aficionado of the game of football and not just someone who finds it entertaining should take some time to look at the plays their team runs. It may annoy your friends, but replaying a given play forwards and backwards shows a lot about positioning and where a play broke down.
Occasionally watch the game from the end zone seats as you have a better angle for observing how and why a play develops a certain way. No one will ever watch more film than a coach or player, but analyzing plays gives you a greater understanding of the game and make watching football a more rewarding experience.
It will be interesting to see what differences to the playbook the Chargers will use in 2009 and how their opponents react. Once you take an analytical look at what plays a team runs, you'll never watch a football the same way you did before.