A Midseason Look at the San Diego Chargers

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A  Midseason Look at the San Diego Chargers

As much as I love to read the A, A-, B+, report card style of rating usually seen around these types of articles, I just can’t bring myself to go that route.  Instead, let’s look at the various positions of San Diego on a more analytical playing field and see how they stack up sans grades.

Quarterback: Not much to say here, Rivers is presently THE face of the San Diego Chargers.  His yardage and touchdowns are staying at their usual pace while his interception rate has slid down from prior years.  The Chargers have probably the best deep-ball game in the NFL.  Having three 6’5’’ receivers helps, but the canon-arm of Rivers is what puts those balls downfield.

If I can give one caveat it would be a little more touch in the short yardage passing game.  The playcalling doesn’t really showcase that aspect enough to get a major view, but he can occasionally rifle the ball a little more than is necessary on short passes. 

Final Verdict: The guy’s a pro-bowler and easily the team MVP.

Receivers:  Vincent Jackson has established himself as elite this year.  He has had a great vertical game for awhile now, but I am glad that now we are seeing game of five to eight catches for sixty to one-hundred yards.  These less flashy, more stable games show a player rounding out his overall game, that’s something to feel good about. 

Malcolm Floyd has shown flashes, especially with big play potential, enough that Chris Chambers became expendable.  He is putting up a massive 21.5 yards per catch yet for all that he only has 13 catches for 280 yards.  He is a bigger threat than Chambers was, but I feel he’s much better suited to third on the depth chart.  He is great pulling out a jump ball on long tosses, but needs to develop other elements of his game. 

Legedu Naanee is the only other significant receiver on the team, he does not have nearly the yardage Floyd can put up, but to me has more upside.  He is not considered a downfield threat, but is very good after the catch, a good screen-pass runner, and highly versatile.  He has the feel to me of a marquee slot receiver who will have a hard time getting utilized to his full potential because of the capabilities of Sproles and Gates in the passing game. 

Final Verdict: I would like to find a big sure handed No. 2 guy in the offseason so Floyd can assume his more natural third banana role (splitting that gig with Naanee).  If not one more depth guy would be nice since I think Davis is gone in the offseason.  With that said the number two wideout on this team will always be the third option anyway, so the team should perform fine with the troika they have now. 

 

Tight Ends: A couple big drops last game notwithstanding, Gates is on pace to match his career best 2005 season (TDs notwithstanding).  He is presently second among tight ends (behind Dallas Clark) and thirteenth among all receivers. 

Manumaleuna is what he is, a bullmoose of a blocking tight end who doesn’t do much in the passing game.  He has yet to get his one or two surprise TDs he is usually good for, though Kris Wilson snagged one such last game.  The decline of the running game has taken his impact away some, but he is still a monster at the line of scrimmage.

Final Verdict: While they aren’t exactly a big depth team here, the top two are among the best at their respective duties. 

 

O-Line: They have been hampered by injuries, especially another significant one to Nick Hardwick (the guy’s a great anchor if he can ever get on the field).  They have done an acceptable job in pass protection, ranking in the dead middle of the league with 18 sacks allowed, respectable considering Rivers has the mobility of a rusted cement truck and the team likes to go vertical often. 

The running game is a different story.  The inexperience of the line really shows here.  They rarely get any push against opposing defensive lines, and when asked to pull or take on linebackers not immediately in front of them they miss assignments and look to be in a fog.  Mruczcowski is a fine depth guy getting asked to do too much with Hardwick’s time on the sidelines.  Clary is another guy who would make for a fine sixth lineman, but overmatched as a starter.  Vasquez is rough but shows promise, McNeil is the one stabilizing factor. 

Final Verdict: A healthy Hardwick and a starting right tackle are going to top my offseason wishlist.  As long as Rivers has the ball the current line will be adequate, but regardless of who is taking handoffs there are no holes opening up.

 

Defensive Line: The loss of big Jamal and Ryon Bingham sent this unit into a tailspin.  The collection of unsigned and waiver-wire tackles have shown enough to get by, but are still a glaring weakness as opposing running games have put up big yardage on this unit. 

The troika of Castillo/Cesaire/Boone have fared better.  They only have 5 sacks between them, but in a 3-4 they are not looked at to generate the quarterback pressure so much as open up space for linebackers to smash through.  As they have gotten healthy the production from Merriman and Phillips has improved.  As long as they are healthy they are a decent group that serves the 3-4 well, but these guys are more respectable then awe-inspiring.

Final Verdict: Health has decimated this unit more than any other, because of this they are being steamrolled by running attacks.  They have shown signs of progress as of late, but still continue to give up over 100 yards a game on the ground.

Linebackers: Hard to tell with this unit.  The middle linebackers have had a hard time with injuries. However when healthy I feel grouping of Cooper, Dobbins, Burnett, and Siler make for a good quartet.  I was much less comfortable with this group in the offseason, and feel that they have the making of a good steady unit, solid enough that offseason focus can worry about other concerns.

The outside linebackers are much more difficult to peg.  They have now racked up 11 sacks between the big three (or half a sack more than Jared Allen).  Nine of those eleven have come in the last three weeks (and seven in the last two).  Is this a trend of a pass rush finally ‘figuring it out’ or a nice little hot streak that will cool back to normal.  Best guess is somewhere in between. 

Coverage has been a little tighter and the defensive line a little more stable.  This is buying that extra second or so needed to break through.  Merriman is still not the monster of 2007, but is no longer invisible at least. 

Larry English looks good for an unpolished rookie.  He is not quite as explosive as vintage Merriman but does a great job at disruption with a few batted passes to go with his two sacks.  I think unless the price is right English has shown enough potential to make Merriman’s impending free agency weather-able.

Final Verdict: After a terrible start to the year the linebacking corps is shaping back into a solid unit.  If the middle linebackers can get healthy and the outside linebackers make the last few games a trend rather than a stat-enhancing blip on the radar, this unit should be in a good position for the second half.

 

Defensive Backs: As a team the Chargers are middle of the road with eight picks, and the only guy with more than one (Antoine Cason) had both of his after the first two weeks and presently lost the starting Nickel Back position to Steven Gregory. 

Jammer is reliable as always, never a big turnover forcer he is a very good tackler and solid cover guy.  Cromartie suffered through the early stages of the season, and whispers for Cason to take over began to mix into the fold. 

Instead Cason has slipped a spot in the depth chart and Cromartie, while not the dynamo of 2007, is doing well enough to keep his post.  They have not been flashy, but several of the teams recent rash of sacks have come because QB’s have been forced to hold the ball longer having no open receivers. 

The safety position looks much better right now.  Clinton Hart is long gone and will not be missed.  Kevin Ellison is not the next Troy Polomalu, but he is a solid tackler and has steadied one of the team’s consistently weakest positions the last few years. 

Eric Weddle and Steven Gregory round out a troika that has quietly gelled into a nice group.  They don’t instill fear in opposing teams, but are solid enough that the position has slid way down my offseason wish list, affording opportunity for the team to pursue other greater needs.  Paul Oliver, the fourth safety, sees more playing time then he should and is not a particular asset.

Final Verdict: The San Diego defense is presently giving up the fourth fewest passing yards per game.  Some of this is a bi-product of their inability to stop the run coupled with some opponents without passing games (two Raiders and a Dolphins game) and some is genuine improvement. 

If the team can maintain the coverage-pass rush symbiosis of late the unit will continue to look good.  Whether it can be enough to augment the run-defense (without Jamal it will continue to be a weakness regardless of improvement) will be the big question as to how this unit performs.

 

Special Teams: Sproles is a versatile and elusive return man.  While quick he doesn’t have the pure sprinter’s speed of some.  His return game rates middle of the pack on kick returns, but shoots up to fourth in punt return average.  One aspect he will need to work on is the occasional tendency to have trouble with the ball in the return game.  Do date he has not coughed up the ball too much, but those minor slip ups give an extra second or two for coverage teams to get downfield, costing yardage.

The coverage unit on special teams has been far weaker.  Opposing return men have put big yardage up against the team, and a couple Nate Kaeding tackles are the only reason there aren’t more TD’s against on the books.  This unit needs to sharpen its game considerably.  In contrast Kaeding and Scifres have both been their usual quality selves, with Scifres having probably the best location among nfl punters.

Final Verdict:  Scifres and Kaeding are excellent and Sproles is a dangerous return threat, yet overall sloppy play has caused this team to give up far too much field position to opposing return men.

 

Playcalling: This is a weak point on the team to me.  The running game has not executed; this is not entirely on the men with the microphones yet you can place blame that they have yet to adjust the style of run calling.  The offensive playcalling is exceedingly predictable, dialing up a run between the tackles on first down far too often for a team that cannot run. 

The passing game has been successful, yet here they are once again not given anything creative and have put up the numbers they have on pure out-execution of opposing defenses. 

I would love to see this team grant more emphasis on a short yardage passing game to augment the run and open more of the field to the passing game.  A perfect example was the Giants game, where LT began in his usual position, then split wide got the catch and scampered for a first down. 

These plays force defenses into guesswork and try to adjust to what the Chargers are doing.  Right now defenses do not need to make any adjustments from first to fourth quarter because the team does the exact same thing regardless of situation.

Defensive playcalling has improved of late.  They have grown more aggressive on the blitz, after a fairly passive man coverage scheme at the outset of the season.  Ellison’s capacity as a big strong safety takes some coverage speed away, but makes like a smallish linebacker when blitzing in run defense or pass rush. 

I would rather the team continue to be a little aggressive and take chances instead of the passive approach that allowed teams to chip away down the field.  With a mediocre run defense this team needs to be dynamic and aggressive to force takeaways or negative yardage whenever possible. 

Final Verdict: The offense has put points on the board yet had occasional red zone struggles stemming from a poor running game and predictable playcalling.  Should the team open things up and grow more creative they could be very dangerous and keep defenses on their heels.  Ron Rivera on the converse seems to be finally dialing in the right style for this team, ramping up the pressure with more blitzes and better pursuit.  They still have trouble getting off the field on third down, but look to be moving in the right direction.

 

Ultimately:

The team is 5-3, considerable improvement over this point last year despite a critical injury to Jamal Williams and no running game.  If the defense continues to make progress and the offense gets a little more creative good things can come to pass.  That’s the good news. 

The bad news is only one victory against a winning team (and that winning team is in a power slide), as well as a very tough second half schedule with games against the Eagles, Cowboys, Broncos, Bengals, and apparently rejuvenated Titans.  They will need to build on this three game winning streak and continue to improve if they want to make a run and take the division.

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