Chargers vs. Vikings: What's the Game Plan for San Diego?

Marcelo Villa@@_marcelovillaFeatured Columnist IIISeptember 26, 2015

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 20:  Melvin Gordon #28 of the San Diego Chargers attempts to run past Carlos Dunlap #96  and Dre Kirkpatrick #27, both of the Cincinnati Bengals, during the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The San Diego Chargers are playing the Minnesota Vikings on the road this Sunday and are eager to bounce back from last week's 24-19 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Chargers and Vikings last met in 2011 in the season opener for both teams. Then-San Diego head coach Norv Turner, now Minnesota's offensive coordinator, came away with a 24-17 win to get the season off on the right foot. That Vikings team won just three games in 2011, but you can bet this year's version will be a lot better. 

Let's take a look at how the Chargers stack up against the Vikings in 2015 in this week's detailed breakdown.

Offensive Game Plan

Through the first two games, San Diego's offensive game plan has stayed consistent under play-caller Frank Reich, and I wouldn't expect it to change much here in Week 3 against the Vikings. First-round draft choice Melvin Gordon showed last week against the Bengals some of the more explosive runs he became acknowledged for at Wisconsin, with gains of 20, 26 and 27 yards. And although he was averaging more than five yards per carry, Gordon had just five touches in the second half compared to the 12 he saw in the first half.

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Going into this next game against the Vikings, Gordon's workload should be spread out more evenly over two halves, with Danny Woodhead continuing in his role as the change-of-pace back, which he's been quite good at. Through two games, Woodhead is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 8.8 yards per catch.

The Vikings defense was horrendous at trying to stop the run in Week 1, allowing San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde to rush for 168 yards, but it quickly bounced back in Week 2, holding the Detroit Lions to 38 yards on the ground. According to Pro Football Focus, top performers in run defense for Minnesota included defensive tackles Linval Joseph (+2.1) and Sharrif Floyd (+2.1), safety Harrison Smith (+2.2) and defensive end Brian Robison (+1.2), who through two games is PFF's second-highest rated 4-3 defensive end (+6.8).

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 20: Brian Robison #96 of the Minnesota Vikings rushes the passer during an NFL game against the Detroit Lions at TCF Bank Stadium September 20, 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

Speaking of Minnesota's defensive line, the front four of Joseph, Floyd, Robison and Everson Griffen will be a handful for San Diego's offensive line, which is second-worst in pass-blocking efficiency through two games (69.7), according to PFF. Center Chris Watt has been among the worst at his position in pass blocking (-6.1) followed by left guard Orlando Franklin (-4.3). Together they've allowed a combined 15 hurries and three sacks.

The only players with positive ratings on the offensive line have been left tackle King Dunlap and right guard D.J. Fluker, who missed last week's game with a high-ankle sprain. Fluker returned to practice Thursday for the first time since he was carted off in Week 1 against the Lions, but his status for Sunday is questionable.

In the event Fluker misses a second straight game because of injury, Chris Hairston would get the start at right guard. He made his first career start at guard last week and performed miserably with one sack allowed and three costly penalties. Much of what the offense is able to accomplish will be determined by the play of the offensive line.

And as for what the Chargers may have planned in the passing game, Philip Rivers has thrown the bulk of his passes in the middle of the field and behind the line of scrimmage. He has attempted just three passes of 20 or more yards downfield compared to the 34 he's thrown shorter than 10 yards and the 18 attempted behind the line of scrimmage, according to PFF stats.

The Chargers proved in Week 1 they could win with that variety of passes, and they still can, but at some point they'll need to start going deep. Malcom Floyd, who in his career has averaged 17.3 yards per catch, has been San Diego's least-targeted receiver through two games even though he poses a threat downfield for smaller defensive backs. He beat Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with ease for a 40-yard receiving touchdown last week, and he should be targeted more this week assuming the Vikings match him up with 37-year-old Terence Newman.

Malcom Floyd gets loose for a 40-yard TD against the Bengals.
Malcom Floyd gets loose for a 40-yard TD against the Bengals.John Grieshop/Getty Images

Stevie Johnson, who has caught a touchdown pass every game this season, will be looking at a tough matchup in the slot against Vikings' seventh-year man Captain Munnerlyn, PFF's third-highest rated corner in coverage. And Keenan Allen is in the same boat going up against former first-round pick Xavier Rhodes, whom PFF's Sam Monson wrote in August is close to elite status.

However, San Diego may depend on its receivers in the passing game regardless of the matchups if tight end Ladarius Green is not cleared to play Sunday after suffering his second concussion this month in last week's game against the Bengals. Green has been in good form the last two games, and the Chargers are still without All-Pro Antonio Gates, who will be serving the third of his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

Keys on Offense:

  1. Don't get away from Gordon in the second half.
  2. Be wary of Minnesota's front four.
  3. Stay the course in the passing game but don't be afraid to go deep.

Defensive Game Plan

Minnesota's offense may run through All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, but the ever-improving play of second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is something to watch this season. Through two games, he has completed 74 percent of his passes, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner has him spreading the ball to all parts of the field.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 20:  Kyle Van Noy #53 of the Detroit Lions puts pressure on Teddy Bridgewater #5 of the Minnesota Vikings in the second quarter at TCF Bank Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano will bring pressure at the youngster and force him to make hasty decisions with the ball, but the defense risks him using his legs to pick up first downs and potentially score near the goal line. It helps also that his offensive line has played well thus far, allowing just one sack and 15 pressures.

Now to Peterson, the running back who set a single-game rushing record against the Chargers as a rookie with 269 yards in 2007. The Vikings workhorse didn't look like himself in Week 1, but that's to be expected after a year away from the game due to suspension. However, it didn't take long for Peterson to shake off the rust. The very next week he rushed for 134 yards against the Lions, shouldering a full workload complete with 29 carries.

So how do you stop Peterson, one of the best backs in football?

You don't. You try to contain him and hope he doesn't beat you single-handedly like he did in 2007. The Chargers were not good against the run last week, allowing Giovani Bernard to get loose for 123 yards, and that can't be the case with Peterson.

Vikings All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson
Vikings All-Pro RB Adrian PetersonHannah Foslien/Getty Images

Inside linebackers Donald Butler and Manti Te'o need to be at their best when attacking Peterson in the hole and keeping him from reaching the secondary. All-Pro safety Eric Weddle should also have more than a few run-ins with Peterson when Weddle comes down in the box to help out like he normally does.

In the passing game, San Diego's secondary could be without cornerback Jason Verrett, who has been listed as questionable for Sunday with a foot issue. And with Brandon Flowers coming off a cringe-worthy performance in which he was beaten for three passing touchdowns last week, that could spell bad news for the Chargers defense.

While Minnesota's receiving corps isn't equipped with top-flight talent, speedster Mike Wallace may be inclined to test the Chargers deep, and tight end Kyle Rudolph is a big target for Bridgewater to throw to. 

Keys on Defense:

  1. Get pressure on Bridgewater but don't let him escape.
  2. Slow down Peterson; don't let him beat you.
  3. Don't be fooled by the Vikings' unimpressive receivers/tight end; the secondary could be playing a man down.

Key Matchups and Players to Watch

King Dunlap vs. Everson Griffen

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 20: Everson Griffen #97 of the Minnesota Vikings sacks Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions during the game on August 20, 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Lions 26-16. (Photo by H
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Griffen has been Minnesota's worst defensive player this season, according to PFF ratings, but this is the same Griffen who had 12 sacks last season. He'll be going up against San Diego's 6'9", 330-pound behemoth at left tackle. Dunlap has been an efficient pass-blocker through two games, but he may have trouble against Griffen, who is eager to regain his 2014 form.

Melvin Ingram vs. T.J. Clemmings

Chargers.com managing editor Ricky Henne has this as one of his five key matchups. Ingram, who looked good in Week 1 against the Lions, didn't factor into the Chargers' loss last week. In fact, he came out with a negative grade, per PFF, committing two penalties and achieving a straight zero in pass rush.

Clemmings, meanwhile, is still adjusting to life as a starter on the right side, but so far, he's only been responsible for two hits on Bridgewater and no sacks. Ingram needs a good game after disappearing last week, and he could get it going up against a wide-eyed rookie.

Corey Liuget

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 20:  Corey Liuget #94 of the San Diego Chargers and Kyle Emanuel #51 of the San Diego Chargers combine to tackle Jeremy Hill #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on September 20, 2015 in C
John Grieshop/Getty Images

The Chargers paid Liuget a lot of money in the offseason to not only help them against the run but generate some pass rush up front on an otherwise lackluster defensive line. Through two games, he has the second-worst pass-rush rating on the team, per PFF, but this may be the game he turns his luck around. As an interior-rusher, Liuget will be among those responsible for flushing Bridgewater out of the pocket, giving him less time to look upfield.

Keenan Allen

Allen's first performance on the road didn't go well at all, as he was held to just two catches and muffed a punt in the opening quarter. With Jacoby Jones again missing practice this week, it's looking like Allen will be the fill-in punt returner for a second straight game, and the Chargers need him to be more involved on offense like he was in Week 1. Look for Allen to bounce back from the adversity he faced against the Bengals.

Prediction

The Vikings have won five straight at TCF Bank Stadium dating back to last season, and having the home-field advantage tends to bring out the best in players. I wouldn't underestimate the Chargers being able to pull off the upset on the road, because in reality they should have won that game last week against the Bengals had it not been for all the penalties, turnovers and poor clock management, but this team has yet to prove it can hold a comfortable lead.

San Diego has played from behind in each of the first two games, and that won't fly every time like it did in Week 1. This one stays tight, but Minnesota collects the win, dropping the Chargers to 1-2.

Final Score: Vikings 26, Chargers 22

All Pro Football Focus stats and ratings courtesy of their subscription service.