San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers’ efficiency helped the offense control the flow of games last season, which was the primary reason for the team’s overall success. The slow pace helped protect a lackluster defense, but Rivers couldn’t truly dominate many games.
It’s not that Rivers wasn’t capable; head coach Mike McCoy just couldn’t trust his defense to get many stops. It makes sense to try to give Rivers more opportunities, but to do so, the Chargers need the defense to improve significantly.
In Sunday’s preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, the defense finally played like an above-average unit. It’s no coincidence that Rivers and the offense looked great despite wasting two opportunities in San Francisco territory on three drives. If the Chargers are going to push for a playoff spot again in 2014, the defense must continue its competent play to give Rivers and the rest of the offense a chance to capitalize.
The starting defense allowed just three points in almost two quarters of play Sunday, held quarterback Colin Kaepernick to 59 yards and 50 percent passing and forced two fumbles. The officials blew one of those fumbles dead, but since there was no clear recovery, the 49ers retained possession upon review.
Notable was the play of defensive end Corey Liuget, who blew past 2012 All-Pro offensive guard Mike Iupati to sack Kaepernick and force a fumble. Liuget had several other pressures on Kaepernick and was a determining factor in the defense’s overall performance.
Corey Liuget looks like an All-Pro player today. He's absolutely owning Mike Iupati off the snap.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 24, 2014
Even when Liuget and the rest of the front seven didn’t manage to get pressure, the secondary was able to cover long enough that Kaepernick had to bail out of the pocket several times. First-round pick Jason Verrett played for the first time this preseason in a nickel role, and his presence may have taken the burden off the rest of the secondary.
The defense also did a good job stopping the run. 49ers running backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde had just one rush longer than three yards against the starting defense. Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney made a tackle for a loss, something Chargers fans have been waiting to see from the veteran pass-rusher.
|Frank Gore||-2||Corey Liuget|
|Colin Kaepernick||8 (Fumbled, ruled down)||Kendall Reyes|
|Colin Kaepernick||5||Eric Weddle|
|Carlos Hyde||1||Kavell Conner|
|Carlos Hyde||2||Marcus Gilchrist|
|Carlos Hyde||2||Melvin Ingram, Eric Weddle|
|LaMichael James||3||Eric Weddle|
|LaMichael James||-2||Dwight Freeney|
|Carlos Hyde||9||Corey Liuget, Shareece Wright|
|LaMichael James||-4||Corey Liuget|
It was the kind of showing the Chargers need from their defense in 2014. Rivers was nearly perfect, but the Chargers wasted opportunities on their first two drives because they couldn’t convert on 3rd-and-2, 3rd-and-3 or 4th-and-1 in San Francisco’s territory. Last year, the Chargers finished No. 1 in the league on third down with a 49 percent conversion rate and No. 2 in the league on fourth down with an 83 percent conversion rate.
On 10 pass attempts, Rivers completed nine for 85 yards and a touchdown. Rivers’ only incompletion was a deep pass intended for tight end Ladarius Green that fell a little short. It was only incomplete because cornerback Chris Culliver was able to knock it out of Green’s hands.
While the Chargers can still be efficient on offense, their struggles in short yardage against the 49ers underscore the need for them to create more opportunities in 2014. The defense is the key to making that a reality.
San Diego’s defense promptly held the 49ers to 14 yards and forced a punt after the offense failed for the third time on two drives to convert in short yardage. Last year, the defense often allowed the opposition to flip the field, at least, under similar circumstances.
With the ball for the third time in the first quarter, Rivers drove the Chargers 71 yards and capped it with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Antonio Gates. Rivers actually had to throw two touchdown passes on the same drive because wide receiver Keenan Allen made an illegal block at the San Francisco 10.
Rivers looks great...Seeing the field, making quick decisions and placing the ball beautifully.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) August 24, 2014
The offense wasted two good opportunities, but it didn’t matter because the defense played so well. Failure to convert on third and fourth down last year would have been disastrous, but instead, the defense gave Rivers another chance, and he didn’t waste it.
No one is expecting the Chargers to have a great defense in 2014, but even an incremental improvement should be enough to ease some of the onus on Rivers. Instead of relying on their league-leading 6.6 plays per drive in 2013, the Chargers can take more risks because they trust the defense to make a stop. Instead of being overly dependent on a league-leading average drive time of 3:13 in 2013, the Chargers can score quicker and not worry about how many times the opposition is getting a crack at their defense.
If the Chargers are going to make the playoffs again in 2014, they need their defense to step up as it did against the 49ers. Rivers is primed for a big year, but as good as he is, expecting him to carry the defense on his back again probably won’t get the job done.