The 2014 San Diego Chargers season begins Monday night versus the Arizona Cardinals. Although San Diego faced Arizona just one week ago in preseason action, neither team showed their cards in anticipation for the regular-season opener.
Now in a real game with real stakes, let’s figure out what the Chargers game plans on offense and defense are, and what they need to do to pull out the win versus the favored Cardinals.
San Diego’s offense is the clear strength of the team, and quarterback Philip Rivers should be able to identify plenty of holes in a Cardinals front seven that lost Karlos Dansby to free agency, Daryl Washington to suspension and Darnell Dockett to injury. Sounds like a recipe for success, right?
Arizona’s deficiencies up front doesn’t mean the Chargers are going to be Broncos-lite on Monday—the Cardinals’ talented secondary, featuring Pro Bowl corner Patrick Peterson, dynamic playmaker Tyrann Mathieu, steady veteran Rashad Johnson and potential free-agent steal Antonio Cromartie, will do everything in its power to keep the San Diego passing attack off its game.
With the Chargers’ lack of options at wide receiver after Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd, a quiet day for their pass-catchers would not be surprising. It would also severely hurt their chances at winning. If only San Diego had a 6’6”, seam-stretching tight end who can sky above the Cardinals’ athletic secondary.
Wait a minute…
Ladarius Green’s Long-Anticipated Breakout
The Chargers will finally use Ladarius Green heavily, warming the hearts of fantasy football players and San Diego fans everywhere.
They really don’t have much of a choice—Allen will be blanketed by Peterson all night; Floyd is exactly the type of player Cromartie thrives at covering, and Mathieu will spend time on both San Diego tight end Antonio Gates and receiver Eddie Royal.
Usage doesn’t always equal productivity, but the Cardinals struggled mightily against tight ends last season. Arizona gave up 70.6 yards per game to tight ends in 2013, the most in the NFL per Football Outsiders. Their schedule didn’t do them any favors. Mismatch creators Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Zach Ertz all had big days against Arizona.
Arizona’s tight end weakness isn’t due to a specific concept in their defensive scheme—it simply doesn’t have anyone outside of Peterson that can defend really big and fast dudes. Mathieu is certainly a great athlete, but his height (5’9”) doesn’t make him an appealing candidate to stick to Green the entire game. Cromartie is best as a boundary corner, where his team doesn’t have to worry about him sticking his nose in on run defense. There certainly isn’t a linebacker on the Cardinals who can keep up with Green.
Arizona doesn’t have an answer for Green, and San Diego doesn’t have another player with Green’s playmaking ability against this secondary. Now it’s all up to Green to show why this offseason he has been such a hyped figure.
Get Running Backs to the Second Level
The Chargers need to use Arizona’s weakness at linebacker to their utmost advantage. Simple flat routes and screens are a good place to start, as the Cardinals’ outside linebackers, Matt Shaughnessy and John Abraham, are better at engaging offensive linemen on pass rushes than they are at tackling in space. Receiving backs Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown should fare nicely here.
The next step is to maximize the effectiveness of the inside running game, where the inexperienced Kevin Minter and the past-his-prime veteran Larry Foote await.
That’s easier said than done—Cardinals defensive lineman and destroyer of galaxies Calais Campbell can easily wreck the Chargers inside, especially considering their issues at right guard.
The Chargers can counteract Campbell with good play-calling. First-year offensive coordinator Frank Reich has largely kept Ken Whisenhunt’s offense in place, but showed off some changes to San Diego’s running game in the preseason.
“Last season, running inside was the biggest struggle for the Chargers,” Stephen Hwang of SB Nation writes. “[Whisenhunt] had a tendency to run a lot of draws, but success was rarely found through draws. In the preseason, Reich has applied more iso-type interior plays, and with them Bolts backs have found success.”
Straight-ahead football should suit big running back Ryan Mathews much better than draws ever did. If the offensive line can handle the pesky Campbell, the Chargers running game should be able to thrive both inside and out.
Make the Wide Receivers a Threat
If Allen is shadowed by Peterson and Floyd is adjusting to his first real game action since Week 2 of 2013, what are the wide receivers going to provide for San Diego? It’s obvious that the running backs and tight ends will get most of the targets—when Arizona keys in on this, the line of scrimmage will be packed.
That’s why San Diego needs to make sure the Cardinals don’t take its wide receivers lightly. An early shot deep to Floyd or a screen for Allen would let Arizona know that the Chargers won’t ignore their receivers entirely.
Note that “threat” does not mean Allen must have 100 yards receiving. In this context, threat means the Arizona corners can’t slack off their men and commit to the run. Threat also means defensive coordinator Todd Bowles won’t feel too comfortable in sending his corners on blitzes, like he did with Mathieu so often last season.
Forcing the Cardinals to tighten up their coverage early in the game will help give the tight ends and running backs more room to work. That gives the Chargers the best opportunity to score and puts pressure on Arizona’s offense to strike back.
How can San Diego’s defense prevent this Monday-nighter from becoming a shootout?
Keep Andre Ellington Highlights to a Minimum
Much like Green, running back Andre Ellington is his team’s projected breakout star for 2014. Also like Green, Ellington is a highlight reel waiting to happen. That could be a problem for a Chargers defense that isn’t known for its tackling prowess.
Ellington has game-breaking ability as a running back, wide receiver and a slot receiver. The Cardinals will be just as committed to getting him in space as the Chargers will be with their running backs.
Safety Eric Weddle is perhaps the only player the Chargers can trust to take on Ellington one-on-one, as he is easily their most sound player on the back end. However, Weddle did miss a career-high 15 tackles last season, per Pro Football Focus, and will be spending some time deep to help slow down Arizona wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. If Weddle is spying him the whole game, that limits the Chargers defense as a whole.
Ultimately, the Chargers will have to corral Ellington as a team, which means Te’o and Butler need to take proper angles in their pursuit. One long touchdown from Ellington could be demoralizing, and that big-play scenario is absolutely possible.
Generate Traditional Pressure
I doubt that there isn't a team in the NFL that wouldn’t want to generate pressure with only their standard pass rushers. But this is a realistic goal for San Diego, as defensive coordinator John Pagano isn’t known for his complex blitzes and the Cardinals aren’t known for excellence in offensive line play.
Defensive end Corey Liuget played like an All-Pro in the preseason, and that bodes well versus Arizona. Ted Larsen, Lyle Sendlein and Paul Fanaika will start on the interior for the Cardinals, and none of them can consistently handle Liuget’s explosiveness as a pass-rusher.
Liuget and fellow defensive end Kendall Reyes are better rushing the passer than stopping the run, which is fine versus an Arians offense that constantly tries to pass the ball downfield. That means they can key in on Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who had Pro Football Focus’ sixth-highest grade from a clean pocket, but its lowest grade when pressured. Getting to him without any blitzes would stymie an Arizona offense full of playmakers.
If Liuget and Reyes can’t dominate the Cardinals’ weak interior offensive line, the Chargers don’t have much else to go on. The hope is that third-year linebacker Melvin Ingram will break out, but that is no guarantee, especially versus veteran left tackle Jared Veldheer. Dwight Freeney could offer some pass-rushing juice, albeit in limited snaps. Pagano’s favorite double A-gap blitz is nothing new for the Cardinals—Arizona employs it just as frequently, if not more so.
Reliable pressure by Liuget and Reyes will give San Diego’s cornerbacks a much easier time handling Arizona’s giant wide receivers.
Speaking of which…
Small Corners vs. Big Receivers
San Diego’s top two corners: Brandon Flowers (5’9”) and Shareece Wright (5’11”).
Arizona’s top two receivers: Larry Fitzgerald (6’3”) and Michael Floyd (6’3”).
While most NFL teams are desperately trying to recreate Seattle’s gigantic secondary, the Chargers are doing the exact opposite, picking up Flowers in free agency and drafting the 5’10” Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft. Smaller cornerbacks can do just fine in the pros, but they aren’t exactly playing with the lead versus big, physical players like Fitzgerald and Floyd.
The Chargers need to prevent this difference in size from becoming an issue. While the San Diego cornerbacks often play in a 7x1 off/in scheme, mixing it up with some press coverage will serve them well here. It will prevent Palmer from getting the ball out quickly when Liuget is breathing down his neck.
Isn’t that asking the Cardinals to wreck the Chargers down the field? Fortunately, no. Fitzgerald and Floyd can go deep, but Palmer’s questionable accuracy past 20 yards and Arizona’s weak offensive line prevents them from truly showing off that part of their game. In other words, the Cardinals are not the 1998 Vikings.
Making Flowers press after struggling in Kansas City’s press-man scheme may seem ludicrous, but it looks like the Chargers are going to do that, anyway.
San Diego’s game plan should focus on all of these factors, but the NFL is a fluid game, especially in Week 1—there will be adjustments, there will be unexpected substitutions and there will be at least one player who will take everyone by surprise. That is what’s great about football, and for the Chargers, those unexpected moments will start Monday night.