Chargers vs. Broncos: Who Has the Edge at Every Position
Despite much different paths to the postseason, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos are very similar teams. Both teams are from the AFC West and have a great quarterback that has carried their respective teams throughout the season.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning shattered multiple passing records in 2013, but playoff success has always been an issue for him. Likewise, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has struggled in the playoffs but during the regular season was arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the league behind Manning.
Since the Chargers and Broncos are so similar, the position-by-position matchups are going to be very important. The team that does the best job exploiting matchups is going to emerge victorious on Sunday.
Both teams have lost their best pass-rushers to season-ending injuries and have weak defenses as a result. There is also a lot of familiarity between the two teams that go well beyond just being division rivals.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was the offensive coordinator of the Broncos from 2010-2012, and long-time Chargers Louis Vasquez, Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer joined the Broncos in the offseason. The connections don’t end with the players and coaching; they also extend to the front office.
The Chargers’ first-year general manager Tom Telesco started with the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 as an area scout—the same year Peyton Manning was drafted there. Telesco and Manning basically grew up together in Indianapolis.
Despite the similarity and familiarity of the teams, they are polar opposites when it comes to style. The Chargers like to control the clock to protect their defense, and the Broncos simply think they can outscore any team no matter how bad their defense plays.
The two teams split the season series with the Broncos winning in San Diego and the Chargers winning in Denver. The result of the third game between these two teams is going to be highly dependent on the following matchups.
Philip Rivers vs. Broncos Pass Defense
In the first game against the Broncos, Philip Rivers was a pedestrian 19-of-29 for 218 yards and a touchdown. The Chargers had a lot of trouble scoring in the red zone as three of their five first-half drives ended in a field goal attempt.
The Chargers took their game plan to control the clock to the extreme and didn’t really let Rivers take advantage of a weak secondary until near the end of the first half when they were down two scores. The Broncos were efficient on offense and got a big lead. From there, they were able to key on the pass. Rivers didn’t really have a chance.
Outside linebacker Von Miller, defensive end Derek Wolfe and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson all disrupted Rivers during that game, but Miller and Vickerson are out for the year, and Wolfe is highly doubtful to play Sunday with what the team is calling an illness.
The Broncos don’t have a very good secondary, but they did get cornerback Champ Bailey back from injury a few weeks ago. It’s probably a good thing, since Rivers was able to take advantage of his replacement—rookie Kayvon Webster—when the two teams played in Week 15.
Along with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris Jr., the Broncos have a secondary that knows how to play with a lead. The question will be how much pass rush they can generate with Shaun Phillips to take some of the pressure off it.
The biggest weakness for the Broncos is at safety. Rahim Moore is out with a foot injury, and the Broncos have been forced to use veteran Mike Adams. The Broncos have also received uneven play from strong safety Duke Ihenacho, who was briefly benched late in the season.
In the game in Denver, Rivers was much more effective early in the game. While Rivers was only 12-of-20 passing for 166 yards, he also threw two touchdowns in the second quarter to give the Chargers a lead and hit wide receiver Vincent Brown for 32 yards to set up a third score at the start of the second half.
While the Broncos have been able to keep Rivers from putting up big yardage numbers, they struggled to keep him from completing big passes and throwing touchdowns in the red zone in Week 15. The Broncos have also failed to get an interception against Rivers. Without Miller, it’s hard to believe that Rivers will not be effective.
Peyton Manning vs. Chargers Pass Defense
There aren’t many, if any, pass defenses in the league that can go toe-to-toe with Peyton Manning. The Chargers have a poor secondary and a lackluster pass rush, so Manning should have his way with them.
In the first game between these two teams, Manning did have his way with the Chargers. Manning and the Broncos scored touchdowns on four of their first six offensive drives. The four scoring drives were from 85, 80, 73 and 78 yards out, and the longest drive lasted less than three-and-a-half minutes.
Manning went 25-of-36 for 330 yards and four touchdowns in that first meeting. Manning was just protecting a 28-6 lead after opening the third quarter with a touchdown drive—the Broncos had 17 of their 20 rushing attempts in the second half.
In the second game between the two teams, Manning went just 27-of-41 for 289 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It was an obscene number of pass attempts considering the Broncos had the ball just nine times. It seemed to be a similar game plan as the first game except Manning didn’t have slot receiver Wes Welker at his disposal.
The Broncos started fast with two scoring drives, but so did the Chargers. The Broncos went cold in the second and third quarters with four consecutive drives that ended in a punt. Three of those drives were three-and-outs, and the other lasted just four plays.
The key to slowing down Manning in the second game was the play of cornerback Shareece Wright. Manning tried to pick on Wright using backup slot receiver Andre Caldwell, but Wright had his best game of the season.
For the Chargers to win, they are going to need another great performance from Wright and also cornerback Richard Marshall. The Chargers also need to apply pressure on Manning without committing extra defenders, which means outside linebacker Melvin Ingram needs to have his best game since returning from an ACL tear last month.
Knowshon Moreno & Montee Ball vs. Chargers Run Defense
The Broncos barely tried to run against the Chargers this season, combining for just 31 designed runs in the two games. Presumably, the Broncos didn’t plan to run until they had a sizeable lead in the first game and were playing from behind in the second game.
The general idea for the Broncos was probably not to help the Chargers shorten the game by chewing up clock with the running game. One of the many strategies to beat Manning is to simply limit the number of times he gets the ball.
The Chargers have one of the worst run defenses in the entire league and finished the season allowing 4.6 yards per carry. However, that was against the third-fewest rushing attempts in the league. It just doesn’t make sense to attack the run defense when the pass defense is so bad.
Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have combined to form a solid rushing attack. It’s not spectacular, but it doesn’t need to be against this defense. Moreno and Ball will likely be used as a change of pace again, but if the Broncos need to lean on them, they should be able to get the job done.
Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead & Ronnie Brown vs. Broncos Run Defense
Ryan Mathews has had the best season of his young career, but he couldn’t make it all the way through Sunday’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Mathews is nursing a sore ankle according to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego.
Danny Woodhead played his normal role and took a few additional carries while veteran Ronnie Brown got a lot of action. The Chargers might not be the most effective rushing team in the league, but they are perhaps one of the most persistent.
Central to the Chargers’ ball control offense that limits exposing their weak defense is the running game. Only five teams had more rushing attempts than the Chargers in 2013, and all of them had a higher yards-per-carry average.
Until defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe and outside linebacker Von Miller went down due to injury, the Broncos were well-equipped to halt a top rushing attack. The Broncos front seven is now quite thin, and it’s showing.
The Broncos allowed just 81.5 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry on the ground over the first eight games but have allowed 121.8 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry since. The cracks in the Broncos' run defense first started to show when the Broncos faced the Chargers in Week 10.
Mathews rushed 29 times for 127 yards and a touchdown when these two teams last met, and the Chargers effectively controlled the clock and only let Manning have nine offensive drives. If Mathews can’t play or is otherwise severely limited, the Chargers may have to shift their game plan.
Giving more carries to Ronnie Brown doesn’t seem like the best course of action, but Danny Woodhead is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Even with a limited Mathews, the Chargers should still have the advantage on the ground.
The range of possible results is vast in this case. Even if Mathews isn’t 100 percent, the Chargers should be able to get decent yardage on the ground, but they need to get first downs to keep the chains moving.
Chargers Offensive Line vs. Broncos Defensive Line
Probably the biggest surprise this season for the Chargers has been the play of their offensive line. The additions of King Dunlap at left tackle and rookie D.J. Fluker at right tackle highlight an offensive line that carried over just two starters from last season.
Even when center Nick Hardwick was knocked out of the game last week, they had quality depth in Rich Ohrnberger to fill in. According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Ohrnberger was actually the Chargers’ best offensive player last week.
The Chargers offensive line thrives when it can run block. If it has to pass block too frequently, it can be exploited—especially Fluker, whose lack of foot quickness can get him into trouble against speed rushers. Von Miller had his way with Fluker when the teams met the first time, but there’s no guarantee Shaun Phillips will be as effective with Miller out even if the Chargers have to pass to win.
Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has done a good job anchoring Denver’s defensive front, but Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams, Robert Ayers, Jeremy Mincey and Mitch Unrein are still a pretty lackluster group.
Broncos linebackers Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving will get involved in run defense, but the initial push at the line of scrimmage should be heavily in the Chargers’ favor—especially at both edges.
Broncos Offensive Line vs. Chargers Defensive Line
Despite losing left tackle Ryan Clady for the season, the Broncos still boast a solid offensive line. Manning certainly does a good job getting rid of the ball quickly to help the offensive line, but that doesn’t take away the accomplishments of this unit.
Chris Clark has stepped in nicely for Clady at left tackle, and Manny Ramirez has played well at center. The notable strength of the entire unit is right guard Louis Vasquez, who is equally good pushing the pile in the run game and in pass protection.
The Chargers have Cam Thomas, Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget anchoring their defensive front. If the Chargers are to be effective slowing down the Broncos’ passing attack, they need some help from their front three.
Unfortunately for the Chargers, their defensive line has been somewhat of a disappointment. Their best hope to generate some pressure without blitzing is to get good production from outside linebacker Melvin Ingram along with a good push from Liuget.
Broncos Receivers vs. Chargers Secondary
The Broncos have wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Andre Caldwell to go along with tight end Julius Thomas. Manning broke records not only because he is great but because he has dynamic receivers and a good receiving tight end.
Very few teams have the personnel to match up with the Broncos, but the Chargers especially don’t. The Chargers don’t even have one cornerback they can trust. Shareece Wright has been a liability at times, and the Chargers are now using special teams ace Darrell Stuckey in a key role on defense.
With the incorporation of Stuckey, the Chargers will use four different safeties including Eric Weddle, Marcus Gilchrist and Jahleel Addae.
The Chargers don’t really have the personnel to slow down one great receiver, so slowing down five will be virtually impossible. Weddle can’t cover everyone, so the other players in the secondary will need to have the best games of their young careers.
Chargers Receivers vs. Broncos Secondary
Rookie Keenan Allen should win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he isn’t the only good receiver on the Chargers. Tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green are weapons in the pass game, and wide receiver Vincent Brown has also been solid.
Even if the Broncos get great games by cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris Jr., the Chargers should still be able to find players open. Wide receiver Eddie Royal has been good for a big play or two as attention shifts to the Chargers’ other targets. The Chargers have a lot of different pass-catchers that can help them if the Broncos take away their primary options.
Both Gates and Green are tough to cover for linebackers and safeties. Gates does most of his damage on short routes, and Green stretches the defense vertically. Denver’s safeties will have to do a good job tracking the tight ends as they come across the formation—especially if they get behind the linebackers.
Even if the Broncos cornerbacks have a great game, the Chargers simply have too many good receiving options to cover. Running back Danny Woodhead is basically like an extra receiver and provides Rivers with a safety valve in case the defense is successful taking away all his passing options on a particular play.
Broncos Special Teams vs. Chargers Special Teams
One aspect of a game that is often forgotten but almost always becomes a factor is special teams. With teams so evenly matched, special teams can sometimes break a stalemate directly or by indirectly sparking an offense or defense.
Downing a punt deep in your opponent’s own end can be a game-changing play. A big return just before the end of the half or end of the game can also be a game-changing play if it sets up a scoring play. Tons of games have come down to which team can make a clutch field goal late in the game.
Both teams have a solid kicker and punter, so neither team has a significant advantage when it comes to the kicking game. Matt Prater was slightly more accurate than Nick Novak on field goals this season, but the Chargers have the slightly better punter in Mike Scifres.
Whatever difference there is between these two teams on special teams will come in the return game. The Chargers are not particularly good at returning punts or kicks, but the Broncos have also been below average in terms of kick and punt coverage.
The Broncos have been better on kick and punt returns than the Chargers, but San Diego’s coverage teams are also better than the Denver’s cover units. Safety Darrell Stuckey made two great special teams plays last week against the Bengals that went mostly unnoticed, but they were huge plays in the game.
With Trindon Holliday returning kicks, the Broncos have the more dynamic return man between the two teams. The potential for a big return is what gives the Broncos the very slight edge in the area of special teams.
It’s clear when looking at the Broncos vs. Chargers position-by-position matchups just why the two teams traded victories this season. Neither team has a significant advantage, so it will come down to which team executes better.
If the Chargers can control the clock and not settle for field goals, they will force Manning to be very efficient on offense because he will not get many opportunities. If the Broncos score early and often, that will force Rivers to try to keep pace with the passing game.
While it’s possible Manning will be just as efficient with fewer opportunities, or Rivers will be just as productive in a high-volume passing attack trying to keep pace with Manning, that’s not likely how either team is drawing up its game plan.