Know Your Enemy
The Denver Broncos have had this game circled on their schedule since it was released. These two matchups vs the San Diego Chargers will likely decide the AFC West, once the dust settles. And with how proficient Phillip Rivers and company have been thus far, the Broncos face a stiff task this week.
The Chargers are banged up on a short week and they're coming off of a disappointing home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Vegas currently has the Broncos favored by 7.5, which isn't surprising. The Broncos dominated the San Francisco 49ers and this matchup will be in Denver. As a Bronco, Peyton Manning is 4-1 vs the Chargers (including playoffs).
The 2014 Chargers and their 5-2 record can be summed up by two words: Phillip Rivers. The 11-year pro out of North Carolina State has enjoyed a renaissance under the tutelage of head coach, Mike McCoy.
Remember, we're talking about a coach in McCoy who turned Tim Tebow into a quarterback who won a playoff game and a Pro Bowl alternate in 2011. As a former quarterback himself, McCoy has a special insight into what it takes to play the position.
And Rivers has soaked up every last ounce of wisdom that McCoy has produced. One of the reasons that Rivers has turned the ship around, over the last 23 games, is McCoy's commitment to the running game. This is an offensive philosophy that he gleaned, working as a John Fox assistant for the majority of his pro coaching career.
It has served to put the Chargers in manageable 3rd down situations. And Rivers has killed it, as a result. San Diego trails only the Dallas Cowboys, converting a whopping 51.5% of their 3rd down opportunities.
The Broncos defense, which is only allowing conversions on 3rd down at a rate of 37.1%, good for 8th in the league, will have to limit the Chargers on 1st and 2nd down. Force Rivers into 3rd-and-long situations and watch that conversion percentage drop.
The key to accomplishing that will be stopping Branden Oliver, the Chargers shifty undrafted rookie free agent running back. The Chargers have lost their top 3 running backs to injury, Danny Woodhead, Ryan Matthews, and Donald Brown. Woodhead is done for the season, but Matthews (knee) and Brown (concussion) are not expected to play Thursday.
As the Chargers featured back, Oliver has been a revelation. Over the last 3 weeks, he's rushed for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. His diminutive 5'7, 209lb frame can make it difficult for down-hill linebackers to see him behind his offensive line. Oliver sports the same jersey number as Darren Sproles (43), but that's not the only similarity the two players share.
As usual, the Chargers biggest weakness on offense is their offensive line. Only one player has earned a positive cumulative grade via PFF, and that's left tackle, King Dunlap, with a +0.4. The remaining linemen are all well into the red. Rivers has only been sacked 11 times thus far, which is more of a testament to their down-and-distance situations and Rivers' quick release, than the offensive line.
Make no mistake, this offensive line is a unit that can be exploited by the Broncos front seven. Currently, the Broncos are the 2nd ranked run defense in the NFL, allowing only 74.3 rushing yards per game. If they can continue that dominance and force Rivers into 3rd-and-long situations, they'll swarm and add to their team sack totals.
A lot of people thought that 2014 would be the year that Antonio Gates would be put out to pasture and Ladarius Green would be the focal tight end. That hasn't happened because Gates hasn't allowed it to. On the season, he's caught 27 balls, for 363 yards and 7 touchdowns. He trails only Julius Thomas for the league lead in receiving touchdowns. His signature performance came vs the Seattle Seahawks in week 2, when he caught 3 touchdowns.
At receiver, the Chargers have a nice triumvirate in Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal and Malcolm Floyd. All three have earned a positive cumulative grade via PFF. Allen leads the team with 34 receptions, but has yet to see the endzone. Floyd leads in receiving yards and has notched 3 touchdowns. Royal has been a redzone animal, scoring 5 touchdowns already.
Last year, the Broncos secondary had a difficult time containing Allen. But with the way this unit is playing right now, led by the dominant Chris Harris, Jr, I don't see Allen having the same level of success this time around. Over the last few weeks, the Broncos defense has gelled, to become one of the best in the league. The Chargers will be hard-pressed to put up points.
It's looking like the Chargers will be without their highest rated defender via PFF, Brandon Flowers (+11.8). He suffered a concussion in the first half of their loss to the Chiefs. On a short week, it's doubtful he makes it through the protocol in time.
The Chargers 1st round pick, cornerback, Jason Verrett, missed last week with a shoulder injury and has been limited in practice this week. There's a chance he could suit up on Thursday night. With Flowers likely out, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Chargers force the issue and start him vs the Broncos.
As always, safety, Eric Weddle, has been the team's defensive stalwart. On the season, he leads the team in tackles (36) and has nabbed one interception. This has earned him a +9.2 overall grade via PFF. He is one of the league's premier matchup safeties, meaning, he can cover.
As a former cornerback for the Utah Utes, Weddle is proficient in coverage and is excellent at reading the route in front of him and baiting the quarterback. And in the box, he is a missile, rarely missing a tackle and always around the ball.
One of the big storylines you're going to hear on Thursday night is Dwight Freeney vs Peyton Manning. The former teammates with the Indianapolis Colts will finally get the opportunity to face off against one another as opponents. Last year, Freeney missed out on the opportunity to sack Manning, as he was on injured reserve all year long.
Freeney has notched 2 sacks on the season and earned a +6.8 overall grade via PFF. He's been excellent at creating pressure, with 21 hurries and 6 QB hits. Left tackle, Ryan Clady, will likely draw Freeney's assignment. Clady has yet to allow a sack all season. This will be one of the key matchups of the game.
The Chargers aren't just wounded in the secondary. They're missing some studs in their front seven too. Melvin Ingram, Manti Te'o, and rookie, Jeremiah Attaochu are banged up and missed last week's game. Without these playmaking linebackers, the Chiefs possessed the ball for more than 40 minutes, which explains how they were able to pull out the 23-20 win.
In three games vs the Broncos last season (including playoffs), the Chargers held the NFL's best offense to an average of 24 points. Duplicating that success will be key in stealing a game on the road this week.
The Chargers defense is currently ranked 13th in the league in rushing yards per game, with 106.9. With how banged up they are in their front seven, the Broncos resurgent running game, fueled by Ronnie Hillman, should be able to continue their trend of 100-yard rushing days.
It's important to understand that under Mike McCoy, a former Broncos assistant, the Chargers have always played Denver tough. Even though they're banged up, don't expect that to change on Thursday.
I expect this to be a relatively close game in the 1st half. But the Chargers injuries will eventually catch up to them in the 2nd and the Broncos will pull away and win this game handily.
Broncos 38 Chargers 20