1) The Schedule
After playing the Raiders this weekend, the Chargers travel to New York to play the Giants, host the Eagles and then play at the Broncos. If they can get past that rough stretch with at least one win, the Chargers have a schedule that is favorable for a playoff run. San Diego should be favored in five of its final six games. Those three games will be the key to the Chargers season. If they lose all three, they could be in a hole they might not be able to get out of.
The win over the Chiefs was their only complete game this season. In the previous two victories, they struggled. In wins over the Raiders and Dolphins, the Chargers weren't able to put the game away until the fourth quarter. Against Oakland it took a Darren Sproles touchdown with 18 seconds remaining to win the game.
Although the Chargers dominated the Chiefs, a closer look reveals that San Diego's struggles have remained the same all season.
2) The Running Game
LaDainian Tomlinson has arguably been the best running back in the 21st century. His backups, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles have been two of the better reserve running backs during the same time frame. Since LT's first season in 2002, the Chargers finished in the top ten in the NFL in rushing until 2007.
Since their magical 14-2 2006 season the Chargers running game has been in steady decline. San Diego fell from seventh in the league in rushing in 2007 to 20th last season and now 31st in 2009 (they were last before the game against the Chiefs). Sunday represented the team's first 100 yard rushing game of the season. LT has gone 12 consecutive games without hitting the century mark on the ground. They went from a team high 161.1 Rushing Yards per game in 2006 (2nd in the NFL) to only 70.5 RuYPG this season.
3) Inability to Finish in the Red Zone
The decline of the running game has made it more difficult for the Chargers to finish drives. They have one of the most prolific passing games in the NFL. The lack of a running game has clearly been a detriment in the Red Zone. This is not a new problem for the Chargers. In the 2007 AFC Championship game, the Chargers four scoring drives all finished with Field Goals. They have had to settle for Field Goals this season as well. In just six games in 2009, Nate Kaeding has nine field goals of less than 30 yards.
Earlier this season, in their loss to Baltimore, the Chargers were unable to convert on fourth and two late in the fourth quarter. Ray Lewis dropped Sproles behind the line of scrimmage, ending any chance for a Charger victory. Four drives in the loss to Baltimore ended in Field Goals.
Even in their victory against the Chiefs, the Chargers failed to get in the end zone on three trips inside the five yard line. Without an improved running game, the Chargers woes in the Red Zone will continue.
4) Lack of A Pass Rush
When the Chargers dominated the NFL in 2006 and advanced to the AFC Championship game in 2007, big plays on defense were a huge part of their success. They led the NFL in sacks with 61 in 2006. In 2007, their opportunistic defense led the NFL with 30 interceptions and finished fifth with 42 sacks. The last two seasons, the Chargers defense has slipped to 22nd in sacks. Their ability to rush the passer was the key to their defense.
The ability of Sean Merriman and Shaun Phillips coming off the edge and Jamal Williams, Igor Olshansky (since departed as a free agent to Dallas) and Luis Castillo on the line was part of one of the best front sevens in the NFL. Their constant pressure on the opposing Quarterback allowed the San Diego secondary to take more chances. In Cromartie's second year in the league in 2007, he led the NFL with ten interceptions. He has had only two since.
Much of the downfall can be traced to Merriman's torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament suffered during the Chargers' 2007 playoff run. He chose to try and rehab the injury during the 2008 off season, instead of having surgery.
Merriman hasn't been the same player since suffering his injury. He has no sacks this year after missing all of the 2008 season. From 2005-2007, his first three years in the league, Merriman terrorized opposing offenses with 39.5 sacks. The Chargers pass rush has clearly suffered because of Merriman's injury.
5) Inability to Stay Healthy
Merriman, Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers have all suffered Injuries in the past few years that have limited their effectiveness. The Chargers haven't played a game at full strength in a few years.
The loss of Nose Tackle Jamal Williams and Center Nick Hardwick have created huge holes in the middle of the line on both sides of the ball.
Williams suffered a torn triceps and was placed on Injured Reserve ending his season. Hardwick had ankle surgery following the opener and was originally expected to miss eight weeks. The running game on both sides of the ball have suffered as a result.
The offensive line misses Hardwick opening holes and Williams is considered one of the best run stuffers in the NFL.
Williams loss has allowed opponents the confidence to run between the tackles. This trickles down to the entire defense. Without Williams, Phillips and Merriman have to respect the inside running game more. This takes away from the pass rush and the safeties also have to help out against the run. When the safeties move up, opponents are able to throw deep more often. This is another contributing factor to the Chargers decrease in interceptions.
Tomlinson missed the majority of the playoff snaps the last two seasons. In 2008, LT was limited to five carries in their wild card win over Indianapolis because of an injured groin. He missed the divisional round against Pittsburgh the next week. During the 2007 playoff run, Tomlinson missed the majority of the last two playoff games with a knee injury.
Gates has played through his own injuries. He finished with 13 catches for 146 yards in last year's playoff run with a high ankle sprain. During their 2007 playoff run, Gates was severely limited by a toe injury. He wasn't much more than a decoy. Gates had six catches for 60 yards and no touchdowns during that playoff run. Rivers torn ACL limited his mobility against New England in the AFC Championship game.
Tomlinson has scored one touchdown in each of the last two post seasons.
When the Chargers are at their best, Gates and LT are getting into the end zone. In contrast to the post season, the two Charger perennial pro-bowlers combined for 47 touchdowns in 32 games during the 2007 and 2008 regular seasons. In 2009, they have three combined touchdowns through six games.
As a result of the injuries in key positions, the Charges have been forced to draft players as insurance in those positions instead of improving their weaknesses.
Outside Linebacker Larry English was drafted in the first round to improve the Chargers pass rush. The past five seasons have been one of the Chargers' greatest eras. The possibility exists that this could be the last year with the current core of players. LT and/or Merriman could be replaced after this season. Gates is in his seventh season and will turn 30 next off-season.
With Rivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd, the Chargers passing game looks good for years to come. The rest of the team is going to need to be rebuilt on the fly. The Chargers should remain a good team over the next few seasons. In order to return to the NFL's elite, they are going to face some key personnel decisions over the next couple of off-seasons.
Rebuilding both lines and finding a running back will be the priorities in free agency and the draft.
1) The Schedule