Reasons for Guarded Optimism in San Diego

Paul PreibisiusAnalyst INovember 9, 2009

There’s a lot to come away with from this last Charger’s game, some good, some bad, and some floating around somewhere between.

That having been said, the bottom line most important thing is this: the Chargers beat their first significant team on the road yesterday. The Giants are in a bit of a slide and did some foot-shooting to help out. However, this is the first time San Diego really has something to hang their hat on.

They are now two games over .500 for the first time since 2007, and despite the Dolphins still holding a losing record, the Miami win looks a little better on paper now. To go with this, QB Phillip Rivers showed continued leadership skills and quality in directing a game winning touchdown drive with little time to work with after having been suffocated the entire second half.

Vincent Jackson also showed his quality, with a five catch two touchdown performance.  Yardage is great, but I like seeing some of these less flashy, more stable games where he doesn’t have a forty yard snag to inflate things. True fantasy owners may not care for the showings as much, but it bears witness to a rounded go-to-guy instead of a pure deep threat. Jackson looks more like a franchise guy every time I see him.

You can also take away from this game five more sacks on QB Eli Manning: with a team that had struggled to get pressure on the quarterback all last year and the first five games of this year—that is significant. This is a true pro-quarterback, and getting him to the ground is a better achievement then putting a slow-firing Jamarcus Russell in the dirt. To go with this, no runner went over 70 yards this game, something else to take away.

Now for the mixed bag look. I came away with more concerns then confidence following the Raider game. This one leaned closer to the favorable side; however you still have to look at a few major concerns:

Running the Football

LT was given a few well-earned cheers for his two TDs against Oakland. That having been said, he averaged 2.5 yards a carry when you took those two runs off his byline. This game, without a pair of significant runs to help his stats, he averaged 1.8 yards with the football. I don’t put all of the blame on him: the line has done a poor job run-blocking regardless of who’s in the backfield and this game it was a fairly significant D-line stacking up against him.

With that said, what worries me more are the few plays where he had space and couldn’t capitalize. One came off the left tackle where he made a cut and gained five yards. The cut was a bit slower and less crisp and there were enough defenders in the way that he never would have taken it for a monster gain; a quicker, sharper cut makes it an eight yarder.                                                                                         

The other, coming off the right tackle, showed a decent amount of space and he tripped himself up. The effort was there: he managed to stumble his way to six on the play.  But if he keeps his footing, it is 10-plus yards of space. I understand these types of things happen to all running backs, they don’t take every minor opportunity and convert to a double-digit run, yet these "could have gone for…" type moments present more often then "he went for…" nowadays by a significant margin. He can still put 70-80 yards a game behind good blocking, but everything I have seen this year tells me a return to form is unlikely. 

2. Getting to the Quarterback

This one is a mixed bag. I like that we put five sacks on the board. I like that Merriman’s sack total the last two games equates to about what I thought he’d end the whole season with. I also like what I see of Larry English when he is on the field.  He has yet to do much that will show up in a box score, but even without sacks he’s flushed passers and tipped balls. The athleticism is there and with some time to develop technique, he should be a solid guy (regardless of performance I have a hard time seeing Merriman re-signed.  Pass rushers are too in-demand and some team will overpay for him). 

The other item I liked that I came away with on the pass rush is Rivera’s willingness to use more blitzes and be a little more creative with them (i.e., more defensive backs running around behind the line of scrimmage). I’ve always favored the gamble on over-aggressive defense rather then playing it safe and going man coverage. N’awlins is a prime example. They have given up their fair share of points overall, but they also do things that help the team win games. 

Now that we’ve extolled the good of the new found pass rush, keep in mind a few things. One is that Jaques Cesaire’s sack was a bit of luck.  Eli was called for stepping out of bounds before he threw the ball away. Giants coach Tom Coughlin attempted to challenge, but the play was ruled unchallengeable. Looking at the replay, had it been reviewable it probably goes down in New York’s favor. 

Another of the sacks went on the board because Eli went for the scramble and was stopped for no gain. Like the out of bounds sack it was still pressure on the QB, but if the ref spots the ball a foot further and it isn’t classified a sack. The box score would also have looked even better if the team had been better able to finish its pursuit in some cases. When it forces Eli to throw the ball away, it is still a good thing; the incompletion came because of the pressure. 

With that on the books, Eli also came up with a few big completions where he wiggled out of the pocket, evaded the guy on his tail, and put a big completion on the board.  He was badgered plenty in the game, but not enough to prevent a 76 percent completion rate for two TDs and no picks.  Much of that was on Eli, and I have to send a bit of begrudging respect his way for the way he played.

Unfortunately, some also goes to the issue of "close but no cigar."  When you gamble on a blitz you leave space in the defensive backfield. They paid a few times for getting hands on Eli without getting him down, both in big first down completions, and screen/short passes aided by over pursuit taking guys out of the play.

Good job starting to get pressure and make the quarterback work for his completions, now just work on a little more finishing ability on those plays.

3. Stopping the Run

Bradshaw was bottled up for less than three yards a carry, even with a significant number of carries. Brandon Jacobs was a different matter. Getting taken out of the game for a quarter or so kept his total yardage from going too high, but the over-sized bowling ball still rumbled for 6.1 yards per carry, and as a team New York went over 100 on the ground.

San Diego is not getting scorched as bad as they had been, but they still have to face Marion Barber (not as big as Jacobs, but still in that hard to bring down over speed mold that the team has trouble with), Cedric Benson, and Chris Johnson in three consecutive weeks. The team needs to keep improving at stunting the run, or these guys will gouge them big time.

4. Defensive Backs

I am not sure what to make of this. On one hand, coverage hasn’t looked that bad overall the last few games. This has had a big impact on the improved pressure being put on opposing quarterbacks. Especially significant is the three man coalition at safety with Clinton Hart gone and Ellison’s boost to playing time. Better depth at corner is still a concern. Oliver should be a depth-guy in case of injury, but sees playing time because the team essentially has three cornerbacks on roster (Dante Hughes is on the active roster but not seeing the field barring an injury).

In the same breath, Eli had himself a good game. The yardage was respectable but nothing special. However, paired with two TDs, no picks, and a tremendous completion percentage, you can’t say they really choked off the passing attack.

Since they haven’t done enough to laud their performance, nor have they given up too many significant big plays, I will end it at this: they are presently doing as well as the team needs them to do. They have never been a team to smother opposing wideouts and force the opposition to the ground game. What they are now, is a team that will cover well enough to open up a bit more blitzing, and give the front seven some time to harass the opposing quarterback. 

5. The Passing Game

While San Diego had more drops than normal this is one area I am not too worried about. One drop credited to Floyd was a pretty tough catch. If he had pulled it out it would have been great, but it wasn’t a butterfingers play. The Gates drops were, however. He should have snagged both of those and both would have been for solid yardage, yet he is a reliable guy who’s played long enough and proven himself. You have to include it when reviewing the the game but, it seems more an aberrant instead of a trend. It isn’t something to stress over.

On the same note, I think of Rivers and the occasional games where he coughs up the ball more than once as a byproduct of his style. He isn’t quite the "gunslinger" cliché that gambles and pays for it. After all, he holds a 14-6 TD-INT ratio. As long as it stays over 2:1 it’s mostly a non-issue. Bottom line he tried to do too much a couple of times and paid for it. With no running game and jump-ball receivers that instill the confidence to gamble on throws, you have to accept he will cough up the ball here and there.

The one thing I have harped on multiple times that I do hope gets addressed in the offseason is the wide receiver position. With an excellent passing game on paper, multiple additional tools like Sproles and Gates, it is not a dire need. I do think the team could use one more guy however. I think Floyd and Naanee are best suited splitting time as the third wideout. Both are quality guys but I don’t think either are particularly well suited to the No. 2 spot.

Floyd gives them the luxury of a massive lineup and a great vertical game.  Naanee is a great spark-plug guy who can take a screen pass twenty yards (ultimately I think Naanee actually has a better chance than Floyd at developing into a great complimentary No. 2 guy).  Neither one I look at to make a big third down catch.  Floyd can go downfield and pluck the ball away from the guy defending him; he is not a soft handed route runner who you can throw a timing route on third-and-five to pick up that first in the face of a big blitz. He could still develop, as he has had all of two games as the starter; he does however, have several years in the system already and to me is that 2-3 catches for 40-60 yards guy. Compared to other needs this one slips down the list, especially since Gates takes up a lot of that void, but I can’t help but feel that is the one piece of the receiving corps missing.

6. Play-calling

I try to steer away from coaching-based criticism too much, simply because it is the focal point of most posted concerns. It does worry me though, and I’ll tack it on to go with the rest. Yes, teams can go the Andy Reid route and get too creative for their own good sometimes.

The Chargers are not one of those teams. I am a Joe Schmo who played a little high school football, reads a good bit on the subject, but will never be mistaken for anything beyond a somewhat versed fan. 

If I can successfully predict the play as frequently and often as I do, the opposing defenses that make a living at this sort of thing can probably do so even more frequently. When the team actually does some creative things, good things can happen (such as when they started with LT in the backfield, then split him out wide and snagged a first down or the fake goal line plunge toss to the third TE on the depth chart).

No, you aren’t going to bootleg and roll-out our big moose of a QB. Rivers has a great arm but no wheels. You can augment that with a greater emphasis on the short passing game. You have big wideouts, a great tight end, two running backs with good hands; make use of them to keep defenses thinking.

You can play the Chargers with a safety deep and linebackers at the line of scrimmage. Very few quick slants, crossing routes, screen passes, or comeback routes are used. Instead the team stays fairly simple in the patterns they run, and rely on the ability to out-athleticize (yes I know not a real word) opposing defenses. 

More variety means linebackers and safeties have to consider more options.  This can help to open up the actual running game as well as augment it with mid-yardage catches. Allow Gates to start to block, then release (granted they have done this some, but it has worked well enough that it should be put to better use).

This offense can eats gobs of field in a hurry, but they can’t pound out first downs and eat clock that well. This keeps the defense out on the field longer, and gives more opportunity for opposing offenses.

It won’t be as flashy, but it could help keep defenses honest. 

So what does all this boil down to?

San Diego beat a team with a winning record on the road, gave themselves their best winning percentage in a year and a half, and proved their mettle by churning out a two-minute drill victory.

These are all building blocks to work from, just don’t go overboard. It was not a perfectly executed game, and said winning team is in the middle of a slide. In addition, several tough opponents remain. Tennessee seems to be finding itself again. Dallas is gaining momentum right about the time they usually start losing it, the Bengals are a monster that I never would have predicted when the schedule was first announced, and we still have to play Denver in Denver.

All this while still chasing the Broncos who have a schedule that should not result in the same type of collapse as last year (they have both KC games, an Oakland game, and the Redskins).

Good luck Chargers, keep improving and churn your way into the playoffs.


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