San Diego’s banged up offense racks up astonishing yardage totals despite a plague of injuries up front. Dave Archibald looks at how the Chargers are getting it done.
The San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders have combined for just four wins in 11 games, but neither is out of the playoff picture in an AFC that features just five teams with winning records. The winner of this divisional showdown in San Diego is back in the playoff picture, while the loser may find its season slipping away. The contest also has fantasy implications, with the Chargers’ #1 offense (in total yards) squaring off against Oakland’s 26th-ranked defense.
Call It a Comeback
The Raiders play a lot of vanilla zone coverage, which is an unfortunate formula against San Diego and savvy veteran quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers threw for 500 yards against the Green Bay Packers, doing most of his damage on short, quick routes, such as slants and comebacks:
Keenan Allen (#13) lines up wide left against Packer cornerback Sam Shields (#37). Shields plays Cover 3, shuffling to stay on top of any vertical routes while keeping his eyes in the backfield. That means he has to swivel his hips more than 90 degrees to drive on Allen’s button hook.
This is a very difficult route for a Cover 3 corner to defend. Allen does a fine job getting an outside release at the snap, increasing his separation, and attacking the pass so Shields can’t break it up. Allen has a hip flexor injury and is questionable to play Sunday, but his route-running and short-area quickness will pose a problem for Oakland’s zone schemes – if he can dress.
Veteran Stevie Johnson could also excel in this area, particularly if Allen can’t go, but Johnson is just returning to practice this week after missing two games with a hamstring injury. Other teams have had success using short patterns against the Raiders:
Emmanuel Sanders (#10) of the Denver Broncos lines up wide left and runs a similar route, a 10-yard comeback, against the same Cover 3 scheme. Oakland cornerback David Amerson (#29) is a big corner at 6’1”, and he struggles to cover quicker receivers like Sanders and Allen on routes that rely on change-of-direction. Sanders is wide open, and Amerson misses the tackle, as the speedy wideout picks up a first down.
Allen is a tough matchup for all of Oakland’s corners: Neiko Thorpe has a similar skill set to Amerson, Travis Carrie is injured, and D.J. Hayden hasn’t consistently demonstrated the talent that made him the 12th pick in the 2013 draft.
The Gates Are Open
The Baltimore Ravens line up with a bunch formation right. Second-year tight end Crockett Gillmore (#80) angles from the center of the bunch to the middle of the field. As he approaches Oakland linebacker Curtis Lofton (#60), Gillmore stops, presenting a target to quarterback Joe Flacco (#5), who zips a pass to Gillmore for a 6-yard gain.
The Chargers have the perfect weapon to attack these holes in the middle zone: eight-time Pro-Bowl tight end Antonio Gates:
Gates (#85) lines up in a two-point stance a little off right tackle Kenny Wiggins (#79). He angles towards Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons (#94), then suddenly turns and whips back to the outside. Rivers hits him in stride for a 10-yard pickup.
At 35, Gates may not have the deep speed of his younger days, but he still has the ability to rack up a bunch of catches Sunday. If healthy, he’s a great fantasy play, particularly in point per reception (PPR) leagues, and a fine option in daily fantasy.
Like Allen, however, Gates has been unable to practice this week with an injury, a tweaked knee suffered late against Green Bay. Backup Ladarius Green filled in competently during Gates’ four-game suspension to begin the season and is a solid option if Gates can’t go.
The Mack Dad’ll Make Ya
In seasons past, San Diego had an explosive downfield passing game, but poor protection means the Chargers are mostly sticking with the short stuff these days. Rivers was able to complete the pass to Gates above, but subpar offensive line play made things tricky. Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (#97) put left guard Chris Watt (#65) on skates and bull rushed him back into the pocket, forcing Rivers to move to his right. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt (#91) got the best of Wiggins (#79), fighting off the tackle’s hands and knocking him off balance.
Wiggins, signed after 2014 starter Johnnie Troutman was placed on injured reserve, has also seen time at guard, but he hasn’t fared any better there:
Wiggins lines up at left guard across from Heyward. The defensive tackle feints to his right and then cuts back left, a move that leaves the lineman off-balance and punching at air. Wiggins loses his feet as Heyward charges in and places a lick on Rivers.
The Raiders don’t have a dominant pass rush, particularly with still-effective veteran Justin Tuck on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle, but they do boast troubled talent Aldon Smith and one of the games’ emerging stars in second-year defensive end Khalil Mack, who leads the team with three sacks:
Mack (#52) lines up in a wide 9 look, which gets him a one-on-one matchup against Chicago Bears right tackle Kyle Long (#75). Long has to respect Mack’s speed rush around the edge, but he overcompensates and winds up with his feet in front of each other rather than square to Mack. Mack converts his speed to power and delivers a blow to Long’s inside shoulder, toppling the third-year lineman. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (#6) gets rid of the ball before Mack can tally the sack, but this play shows just how much of a handful Mack can be for blockers.
The Chargers didn’t have an elite offensive line entering the season, and injury has depleted it further. Troutman is on injured reserve, free agent addition Orlando Franklin has missed three weeks with an ankle injury, reserve Chris Hairston is nursing an ankle injury of his own, and Watt and left tackle King Dunlap are in concussion protocol. Getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quickly could minimize the danger from Mack and the rest of the Raiders pass rush against a patchwork O-line.
Just about every indicator for this matchup dictates that San Diego is going to attack early and often with the short passing game – Oakland’s vanilla zone defense and cornerbacks that struggle with quick routes, the skill sets of Allen and Gates, Rivers’ ultra-quick release, the Chargers’ suspect and injury-depleted offensive line, and some dangerous pass-rushers for the Raiders.
Sometimes things don’t go as intended – injuries to Allen and Gates could throw a monkey wrench into San Diego’s plans, and Oakland might decide to go to a more man-heavy approach to counter the Chargers’ attack. Still, the smart money is on Rivers and company marching down the field with a relentless short passing game, piling up the yards and completions and keeping San Diego in the playoff picture with their third win.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.