The Los Angeles Chargers might be 0-2 right now, but you can hardly blame quarterback Philip Rivers for their winless start. The veteran QB followed up his opening night game against the Denver Broncos (where he completed 22 of 33 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns against one interception) with a very strong game against the Miami Dolphins, completing 31 of 39 passes for 331 yards and a score. In both games, Rivers got his team into field goal position for an attempt at either a tie or win at the gun, but both times the Chargers fell short. Rivers has started strong, and two plays against the Dolphins illustrate how he wins at the mental game and with his ball placement, particularly on the out route.
The first example comes from late in the first half, with the Chargers holding a 10-3 lead. Facing a 3rd and 7 on the Miami 35-yard line, Rivers (#17) and the offense break the huddle with 11 offensive personnel. They align pre-snap in a 2×2 formation. Keenan Allen sets up as the inside receiver on the right. Miami shows Cover 1 before the play and sugars the A-Gap with both linebackers showing blitz:
Rivers sends wide receiver Travis Benjamin (#12) in motion across the formation, and none of the defenders trail him. Normally, this means the defense is in some type of zone coverage scheme. But this is the NFL, and things are not always what they seem. Benjamin takes his spot in the middle of the newly-created trips formation and the slot cornerback slides over him, leaving Keenan Allen (#13) uncovered:
The Dolphins are indeed in a man coverage look here, but defensive end Cameron Wake (#91), aligned in a four-point stance at the snap, will drop off the line and cover Allen.
This is one of those instances where the post-snap look does not match up with the pre-snap look, but Rivers reads it immediately and knows he has a matchup advantage. He then drills in a throw to Allen with perfect placement on the out route:
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Processing speed is such a critical component to playing the quarterback position, particularly in situations like this when the defense throws you a curveball. Here, Rivers puts the hanger into the cheap seats.
The second example comes later in the game, with the Chargers now clinging to a 17-16 lead. Facing a 3rd and 2 in their own territory, the offense lines up with Rivers in the shotgun and 11 offensive personnel on the field. Three receivers, including Allen, align to the left with tight end Hunter Henry (#86) alone on the right. Miami’s 4-2-5 nickel defense shows Cover 1 in the secondary, with three defensive backs over the bunch:
Rivers then sends Allen in motion to the other side of the formation, and here is where the chess game comes into play. As the receiver crosses the football to the right, defensive back Reshad Jones (#20) trails the WR:
Jones seems to be indicating something to teammate Byron Maxwell (#41), who now has dropped down over Henry in a man coverage look. By sending Allen in motion Rivers has accomplished two things: He has confirmed man coverage and seems to be generating a bit of confusion in the secondary.
Right at the snap, Jones is well inside of Allen and seems to be pushing on Maxwell to get him into position. Meanwhile, Allen is about to run another flat route. Advantage: Offense.
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The throw is low, but it is in the perfect spot for Allen to secure the catch past the sticks and get the first down. Plus, as the video indicates, it seems the quarterback did cause some confusion, as Jones gets up screaming about … something. Looking at the end zone angle, it seems Jones wanted the cornerback to slide outside and pick up the receiver, leaving Jones to matchup on the tight end. That matchup would make more sense for the defense. But with Maxwell sliding down, Jones is left to cover Allen and the receiver has a big head start at the snap, given the leverage and respective alignments of WR and safety.
And Rivers sees all of it, and takes advantage.
Yes, the Chargers are 0-2. But Rivers is playing the quarterback position particularly well, especially when it comes to the mental components of the position. Whether they get back on track in a tough division remains to be seen, but the veteran QB seems to be off to a good start on his own.