Worried While Winning - The San Diego Chargers

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Worried While Winning - The San Diego Chargers

This weekend bore several tidbits that make the weekend seem like a solid step for the Chargers.

Denver lost for the first time.  The Chargers won two in a row.  Because of this, San Diego is now only two games back and are finally back over .500 again. 

LaDainian Tomlinson scored two touchdowns, both of which were off of actual runs, not just one-yard plunges.  Antonio Cromartie and Shawne Merriman finally did what they were put on the field to do, intercept passes and sack the quarterback, respectively.  

Opposing running backs combined for just over half of what the Chargers defense had been averaging.

However, after watching this game I came away feeling more nervous rather than feeling sated. Several things happened that really served to temper my enthusiasm. 

I know I’ll probably be blasted by fans for not supporting my team, but the reason for the critical analysis is because I genuinely do want success for the Chargers, and want to see this team around in the playoffs. 

Call it realism or negativity, but here’s a few thoughts on this weekend in Chargerland…

 

1. Denver gets stomped

This is one of those ‘a little rain must fall’ items where even before the game I wasn’t completely sure who I wanted to win.  Denver is now sitting at 6-1 two games up, Baltimore at 4-3 with the same record as the Chargers. 

If Denver does not suffer a collapse, and plays .500 ball the rest of the year they go 10-6 or 11-5.  The Chargers are in a position to catch them provided they beat all the teams they are ‘supposed’ to beat, and then take one or two of the tougher matchups. 

In other words, it is still more dependent on Denver faltering a bit then on San Diego’s success.  It would take a major collapse for 9-7 to win this division.

That having been said.   Let us look at the possible wildcard scenario.  With the Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens all lumped together, at least one wildcard team is likely to come from that division. 

The question is, will the second?  The Ravens were in a rut, this puts them back on track for the wildcard spot.  The more human they look, the better it bears for a wildcard spot for the Chargers.

If Baltimore gets back on track, then again we have a situation where 9-7 falls short of the wildcard, even 10-6 might depending on performances.

Overall it is still preferable that Denver being the divisional opponent be the team to lose and Baltimore the one to win. 

It is par for the course however, that even in watching your division rival fall, you have to watch a team you may be competing against for a playoff spot take the win. 

In other words, if the Ravens lost, then that wildcard spot is about the Chargers and the performances they put on the field.  With Denver losing, now taking the division becomes about both the Broncos and the Chargers performances the rest of the year. 

Taking the division beats the heck out of the wildcard, but it’s a little more nerve-wracking to have to scoreboard-watch Denver for the rest of the season.

 

Now onto the actual Chargers game…

2. LT scores two touchdowns

This is all well and good.   He even sprang a couple nice little mid-length runs to go with it.  Unfortunately, the team still can’t consistently run the football. 

The run blocking is not very good for one, whether it be Darren Sproles, Jacob Hester, Mike Tolbert, or LT, every running back is taking contact at or behind the line of scrimmage far too often.  LT of two or three years ago still has trouble running with this kind of protection. 

This is what happens when you go with a fairly young/inexperienced offensive line (yes, some of the issues come from injuries but I’ll counter that before the season even started you could see they needed one more veteran depth guy). 

They have talent and know how to block, as evidenced by relatively solid pass defense (you have to admit the sack totals aren’t half bad for somewhat of Philip Rivers’ mobility), but they are not experienced enough to pull of stunts and schemes. 

When you start asking this line to pull, pick up a linebacker, or push the line of scrimmage back instead of stepping back and picking up the guy in front of him, this team runs into problems. 

While one facet is not necessarily more difficult than the other, run blocking is generally at the very least more complicated, a fact compounded by the team’s lack of a grizzled old bowling ball of a road-paver at the fullback spot. 

I like the way Tolbert looked out of the fullback spot over Hester, but he is still not what I would call an asset.

The other concern I had was off of a few plays where you really felt LT of old could have broken them.  At least three times I saw Tomlinson run an off-tackle or counter tackle type play where he stalled out right about the line of scrimmage. 

There was traffic, but it was a situation where running backs that still have that extra gear bounce off the tackle and go outside.  The difference doesn’t mean thirty yards downfield, but the space was present where a sharp cut turns a two-yarder into a five or six yarder. 

This informs the next play, as you are working off second and five rather then second down with eight or nine to go. 

These types of plays worry me more than the ones where he is dropped in the backfield.  If he’s dumped for a five-yard loss, it’s mostly on the O-line. 

These plays were ones where that extra gear just wasn’t around to turn the play.  You take his two touchdown runs off the books, and he averages 2.5 yards a carry, forty yards on sixteen attempts. 

We don’t need 100-yard games from Tomlinson anymore, but I didn’t see much to show me he’s even an 80-yard a game guy at this point.


3. The Chargers' defense finally bottled up a running game

I will give some credit.  Neither Raider put up four yards a carry or even 60 yards.  That is a good thing.  While he didn’t do anything on the stat line, I think starting Ian Scott over Ogemdi Nwagbuo was of benefit. 

He’s not as athletic, but the extra 12 pounds (being an inch shorter makes it around 15 or 16 pounds bulk-wise) was a bit of lane-plugging bulk that gave the linebacking crew more space to work with. 

That having been said, the running game was churning consistent four or five yard runs in the early goings of the game. 

The progression of the game forced them to try out JaMarcus Russell more.  I think if the middle stages of this game are tighter, you see two or three extra carries apiece for Fargas and Bush, and a team that gave up 99 yards rushing (I’m ignoring Russell’s stat line of a carry for a yard in light of the sacks) gives up around 120, not overly impressive.  The Dobbins injury is also a bit worrisome on the run-stuffing front.

 

4. Special teams

This one is more overtly negative with a small silver lining rather than the toss-up way of looking that the other aspects are. 

The Chargers coverage broke down again.  If Nate Kaeding doesn’t make one of the best tackles by a kicker I’ve seen in a long time (second only to a Darren  Bennett closeline on a busted punt coverage), then the score is 21-14 at half instead of 21-10. 

This takes a game that looks on the cusp of a runaway, and puts the Raiders down by one TD with a big momentum shift to start the second half. 

I think the Chargers still win, but it makes it much more down to the wire.  Despite one really nice return, Sproles even had a less-then sterling game on special teams.  Coughing up a mid-field fumble to Oakland on one punt return, and gaffing a kick return (the results were less costly as it was an offensive penalty that forced the punt from the end zone, not Sproles’ quasi-fumbled return and knee). 

The Raiders should not have been in this game for as long as they were, they had roughly 80 yards of total offense in the first half, and finished the game with 180.

However, because of special teams, the Raiders were spotted great field position repeatedly.

If they were playing against a middle of the pack offense instead of a point-starved Raiders group, they don’t come away with only 16 points given up.  Oakland could have put 24 on the board with about 220-230 yards of total offense.

Note: I will give a caveat.  I know one of those great field position for Oakland scenarios was a Vincent Jackson off-the-hands interception, not a special teams play.  You can account for isolated incidents such as one pick or fumble on offense. 

What stood out on special teams were the multiple instances of giving up field position to the opposing team, paired with some tendency across the season so far for giving up runbacks.

 

5. The Chargers pass rush got back on track.

Five sacks, two each from Shaun Phillips and Merriman sound great.  It is hard to see this glass as half empty, however to stay on topic for the article’s sake I’ll do my best.  The way I see this is a double-edged sword. 

At least three of the sacks were ‘coverage’ sacks meaning Russell had no one to throw the ball to and took four or five seconds to be dropped. 

Bottom line: he was still sacked, and it is actually a positive side note that I thought the Chargers secondary looked pretty good overall (it’s a little easier to cover a teams wideouts when they run into each other and fall down, but that’s a whole different story). 

That having been said, with a more savvy quarterback, do you lose one or two of those coverage sacks to throwing the ball away?

 I think for as long as he held the ball on several plays he should have ended up on the ground a few more times (I don’t necessarily mean they needed seven or eight instead of five sacks, but rather a few more non-sack knockdowns, roughing the passer be damned). 


6. The bad quarter

Sometimes bad half.  In almost every game the Chargers seem to either A.Stumble out of the gate and take awhile to get in synch or B.Get smug when they have a lead and do nothing afterwards.

 For the lopsided final tally in the Kansas City game, they looked very mediocre in the second half (how does a starting uninjured wideout have 140 yards after one half of football, then finish the game with... 140 yards).

Up 21-10 at the half (having given up the 10 off a big kickoff return and a interception/15 yard penalty), they just needed to open strong.

One third quarter TD basically seals up the game, but they were outscored in the second half, granted this was by a score of six to three, but field position aside they had thoroughly outplayed Oakland in the first half. 

It shows that this team lacks a killer instinct.  They don’t go for the throat when the opposition is vulnerable. 

I don’t care what the final score is at the end of the game, I just want to see a game (win or lose) where the team strings together four quarters of solid hard-played football where they looked like the same team throughout the game. 

 

7. The deep ball

I love the Chargers’ success with the deep ball.  With Rivers’ arm strength and Jackson and Floyd able to use their height and hands to snag any jump ball regardless of the coverage, this team should scare just about any secondary in the league.

This does worry me, however.  Throwing the ball way downfield is a low-percentage play that the team has had above average success with.  I would much rather see a drive like the last one of the second half where Rivers carved up Oakland 10-12 yards at a time and just pushed the ball down the field. 

The 40+ yard bomb is something that can go away for a game or two, and cause a key loss.  If the team can consistently pound downfield with mid-range throws, that is a dimension that is much more reliable. 

Put another way let’s look at two running backs. 

One has 100 yards on twenty carries, but one of which was a fifty yard scamper that, taken off the stat line, shows 2.6 yards a carry on the other 19 runs. 

The other has the same stat-line hundred yards on twenty carries, but got his yardage by churning out 4-6 yards on just about every carry, which would you rather have?  I’ll take the second guy’s performance myself. 

I love that they have the deep ball in, but I want to see them win a game where they don’t need to use the deep ball.  You have a lot of guys that can do a lot of things.  Make use of big wideouts, a stud TE and a great receiving out of the backfield. 

If you can’t get 4 yards a carry on the ground, put a drive together where you use a short passing game to augment your running game.  This forces the defense to police four areas of the field (the trenches, short yardage outside the box, middle of the field, and deep).  Right now, you cover the trenches and the deep ball, give respect to midfield, and that’s it. 

The team is still putting points on the board, but they are getting by on pure athleticism as they are a predictable offense that does not make adjustments. 

8. Chris Chambers finally makes a nice catch on a key third down. Chambers showed a little bit of why they swapped a second round pick and are paying the guy $5.7 million. He turned around, picked the ball out of the sun and came up with a big third down catch just when the second half momentum was shifting Raiders way.  They were still dinking and dunking on offense, but stonewalling the Bolt’s attack as well.

What is the downside to this? Chambers was cut this morning to make room to sign another middle linebacker after Tim Dobbins’ injury.  Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee’s a good trio, especially when your TE is Antonio Gates.  That having been said, I’d still love an Ed-McCafferyesque boring, no frills, surehanded possession guy.  That’s what Chambers was supposed to be and fell short. 

Finally we have one more non in-game concern:

9. Schedule-  The Chargers are 4-3, but have played the Raiders twice and the Chiefs once.  The Chiefs again, the Browns, and the Redskins are games that the team should win.  Tennessee is a question-mark team on that front.  Have they started to right the ship and are going to be a bit tougher, or are they still in that ‘should without question win’ bracket like the other three games mentioned?  Even if they are still discussed among the bottom dwellers, that’s four games. 

The other games are the Giants (yes they are on a skid, but are still going to be a tough matchup in New York), Eagles (take the Raiders game away and they look pretty damn good), Broncos (hoping to salvage a split), Cowboys (suddenly looking a lot tougher than three weeks ago),  and the Bengals (what looked like a nice middle of the road opponent before the season is suddenly a tough game).  To make the playoffs they will need to win, at a minimum 2 of those 5 tough games.

To go with this, the Broncos have both Chiefs games, a Raiders game, and a Redskins game.  That means they only need to win one more ‘tough’ game  (Chargers, Colts, Steelers, Eagles, Giants) to go 11-5. 

Essentially both teams have the same number of lesser opponents (assuming the Titans don’t right the ship) and the same number of tougher opponents.  This means the Chargers need to win three of those games just to match the Broncos one, and that’s assuming one of those three wins happens against Denver, if not then tie-breaker mechanics will give the division to Denver.  Push comes to shove, San Diego really needs to take advantage of a skidding Giants team next week.

Final thoughts:  I saw several reasons to be optimistic.  The run defense looked a little more respectable.  The coverage was pretty good.  While none are going to make the pro-bowl, the three headed group of safeties are good enough (as compared with the Clinton Hart days), and the pass rush got itself going. 

That having been said, the Raiders should not have been in this game with only a few minutes left.  Poor special teams play, still no consistent running game, and an anemic third quarter all add up to feeling worried with an upcoming schedule that does the team few favors. 

If the Broncos keep pace well enough to hold onto the division the Wildcard race is gonna be a toughie with the Bengals or Steelers, Ravens, Texans, and Jets all looking to fight it out.  Barring the Bengals return to form I think the loser of the Bengals/Steelers divisional sweepstakes is definitely snagging one wildcard, leaving four good teams to fight for the last spot.  The Chargers are playing like a 9-7 team in a year where it might take 11-5 just to grab a wildcard.

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