Chargers Defense Will be Tested by Dolphins' Wildcat, Running Game
What they saw must have seemed like a waking nightmare with Miami featuring an attack that beat the 'Bolts last season.
The San Diego Chargers must put the Baltimore game in the rear-view mirror and focus on the incoming Miami Dolphins for an early season must win game. Front and center will be stopping the Fins' Wildcat offense.
San Diego is among the worst in the NFL against the run. Giving up 139 yards per game rushing and 4.3 yards per carry is no way to get to the playoffs. To make matters worse, injuries on the defensive line are going to make stopping the run tough.
Getting out to an early lead would take the Dolphins out of the running game, forcing them to throw more. From there the Chargers must make Chad Pennington beat them. Even then, he's extremely smart and plays an efficient game.
A strong pass rush is imperative; otherwise Pennington will pick the defense apart. If the Chargers can get pressure, Pennington will make mistakes. With the Dolphins having given up six sacks so far, they seem like a good opponent for the Chargers to finally get their pass rush back on track.
But let's not forget this team won the AFC East last season; they can play.
This is an important conference game for both teams, but winless Miami is in a much tougher division and will be desperate to get a win.
Last year's Chargers loss to Miami, 17-10, was won by a touchdown scored by Ronnie Brown, who ran wild out of the Wildcat offense. He killed Indy Monday night for 136 yards and two TDs in a performance that reminded people how good he is out of that formation.
The Chargers will no doubt be practicing against the Wildcat this week. Hopefully it'll help that they worked it into their offense in training camp.
Brown, Ricky Williams, and a bruising offensive line are designed to beat down opposing defenses, but the team lacks an explosive quick strike attack. The lack of big play ability is a major weakness for Miami, but they more than make up for it on the ground.
Miami is averaging 167.5 yards rushing per game, which should worry San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. The onus will be on Chargers safeties Clinton Hart, Steve Gregory, and Eric Weddle to keep everyone in front of them and make strong one-on-one tackles.
To make matters worse, San Diego is perilously thin on the defensive line with Jamal Williams (triceps) and Ryon Bingham (triceps) gone for the year and Luis Castillo (elbow) dinged up. Hopefully Travis Johnson (groin) and Jacques Cesaire (calf) will be back from the injuries that sidelined them this past weekend.
Now more than ever, youngsters Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Vaughn Martin are going to be counted on to play more snaps and have to step up.
To bolster the depth, nine-year veteran defensive tackle Alfonso Boone, cut by the Kansas City Chiefs, signed with the Chargers Tuesday. The 6'5", 305-lb. Boone had ties to both Chargers defensive coordinator Rivera and defensive line coach Don Johnson from when he played in Chicago.
Facing such an unusual offense is going to be a lot to ask of a defensive line playing together for the first time.
The Chargers linebackers are going to have to know their assignments and stay in their gaps to be effective stopping the multiple looks and misdirection of the Wildcat. Groin injuries to Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman could further deplete the front seven's potency—not that they've done much so far.
On offense, the Chargers should have the upper hand, but like they did to Peyton Manning on Monday night, the Dolphins will try to keep Philip Rivers and his dangerous offensive weapons off the field by controlling the clock with the running game. When San Diego gets in scoring position, they've got to get in the end zone.
The Dolphins secondary is talented but young and has yet to get an interception so far. Up front, the 'Fins try to get after the quarterback but have only amassed a paltry three sacks. Against the run, Miami is allowing 69.5 yards per game, which is among the best in the league.
The Chargers are only running for 65 yards per game, currently last in the NFL. As it was against Baltimore, it will be all about Rivers and the Chargers' passing game. Expect Vincent Jackson to be his regular game-breaking self, but I think that Malcolm Floyd and Chris Chambers can both provide down the field options as well.
Without an effective ground game, the Bolts are going to have to rely on screens and gadget plays to get Legedu Naanee and backs involved in the offense. Antonio Gates should be able to exploit the Miami defense down the middle.
It's not clear whether LaDainian Tomlinson will be back, but expect Darren Sproles to be utilized, as ever, to the max. Center Nick Hardwick (ankle) is expected to miss the game, while rookie Louis Vasquez (knee) is likely to return at guard.
Protecting Rivers from Joey Porter and the rest of the Fins rush will be paramount. The offensive line did an exceptional job in pass protection against the Ravens; they'll be called on to repeat that performance against a Miami unit hungry for their first win.
The rest is just common sense: Force turnovers and play a much more disciplined game. You simply can't average over 10 penalties a game, and a turnover ratio of zero doesn't impress.
As of now, 2,500 tickets remain for Sunday's game. If they're not sold by Thursday, the Chargers will have their first regular season blackout since 2005. Hopefully everyone besides those at Qualcomm will be able to watch.
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