Know Your Enemy
No NFL team is immune to the injury bug. At this point in the season, each team has been hobbled by injuries. For 14 weeks, players have put their bodies through the ringer, having endured repeated stress and trauma, all in an effort to eventually hoist the Lombardi Trophy. This week, the Denver Broncos will travel to take on the San Diego Chargers. Both teams are banged up.
Often, down the stretch, whichever teams have been able to weather the injury storm by making great personnel decisions, many of which have taken place months and years ago, tend to rise to the top of the standings. The Broncos are one of these teams. They've taken their share of lumps to the starting lineup, but have been able to withstand them, due to having great depth throughout their roster. Brandon Marshall and C.J. Anderson come to mind.
Defensive tackle, Terrance Knighton, knows how grueling a 16-game season can be on the body. He's lived it for six seasons. When asked about the state of his health, Knighton offered up this insight.
“Everything’s good," he said via the team. "It’s late in the season. Everybody’s going to be banged up, but our coaches do a good job of taking care of us. We had a short lift, allowing guys to get a lot of rest, a lot of regeneration and I’m pretty sure practice Friday will be a little lighter. The pads have been off so our coaching staff and our strength coach do a good job of taking care of us.”
The Chargers are banged up themselves. But heading into a game with stakes that include the fate of their season, they'll come out swinging and give the Broncos their best shot. Last week, they lost at home to the New England Patriots. Had they won that game, this week's matchup would have been for all of the marbles in the AFC West.
Now, they're fighting just to stay alive. If the playoffs started today, the Chargers would be the No. 6 seed in the AFC and in the playoffs. If they lose to the Broncos, they also risk losing control of their own postseason destiny. The odds of them winning the division might now be slim-to-none, but they'll fight hard to earn a seat at the NFL-tournament table. They have their work cut out for them, as the Broncos are the only team to rank in the top 10 in both total offense (4th / 405.6 ypg) and total defense (4th / 311.0 ypg).
We took an in-depth look at the Chargers, back in week 8. Let's reevaluate where they stand seven weeks later.
Phillip Rivers started out this season with a bang, leading the Chargers to a 5-2 start. For a time, they were converting a whopping 51.3% of their third down opportunities. They've since slipped to 46.3%, which ranks them No. 4 in the NFL. Rivers knows how to get it done on the "money down".
On the season, Rivers has gone 302-of-441, for 3,407 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and just 11 interceptions; good for a 100.6 QB rating (5th). In 2011, Rivers threw 20 INTs, but he's only thrown 22 over the last two seasons combined. Mike McCoy has made a huge impact on Rivers. I wouldn't quite say that he's saved Rivers' career, but he has helped to turn it around.
Rivers has been battling a rib injury, the severity of which has been kept under close wraps. He was limited in practice today (Wednesday). When last we examined the Chargers, wide receiver, Keenan Allen, had yet to find the endzone. He's since scored 4 TDs, including the one he caught vs the Broncos in week 8, and is back to being Rivers' favorite target.
Were I Jack Del Rio, I'd put my best cover artist, Chris Harris, Jr, who leads all NFL cornerbacks with a +22.8 cumulative grade via ProFootballFocus, on Allen and let the chips fall. But as we saw last week vs the Buffalo Bills, Del Rio doesn't scheme that way. The Bills best receiver, Sammy Watkins, had a very productive day (7, 127) going against Bradley Roby. Kyle Orton picked on the rookie and found great success in doing so.
As usual, arguably the biggest threat to the Broncos No. 4 defense is tight end, Antonio Gates. In week 8, Gates caught 5 balls for 54 yards and 2 TDs. All season long, the Broncos have struggled to cover the tight end. With the possible return of linebacker, Danny Trevathan, this week, Del Rio has another weapon he can deploy to help bracket Gates.
Over the last few weeks, T.J. Ward has been used in the box more frequently and it has paid off. He's notched a sack and 3 QB hurries. With Trevathan's possible return, it'll be interesting to see the defensive juxtaposition of Ward, Trevathan and Brandon Marshall. No doubt, Marshall will be kept on the field, likely at middle linebacker, while Trevathan resumes his role on the weakside.
In the Broncos nickel sub-packages, it will be interesting to see how Del Rio schemes. Will he continue to insert Ward as the other nickel LB? Or will he keep him at safety? Whichever direction Del Rio goes, the top objective must be taking away Gates. Between these three players, there has to be a way.
Following their week 10 bye, the Chargers got their most dangerous runner back from injury; Ryan Matthews. Matthews missed these two teams' week 8 matchup, but since week 11, he's rushed for 259 yards and 2 TDs, while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Like Gates, Matthews has traditionally done very well against the Broncos.
However, only allowing an average of 72.8 rushing yards per game, the Broncos are much more equipped to limit Matthews this time around. In week 8, the Chargers could only manage 61 rushing yards, mostly coming from Branden Oliver (36). Matthews did not participate in practice today (ankle), but I'd be shocked if he didn't suit up on Sunday.
The Chargers were also without Donald Brown in week 8, so the complexion of their offensive backfield will likely look very different this time around. One of the areas the Chargers have been hit hardest is at center. They are now on their fifth starting center this season. 2014 3rd round pick, Chris Watt, now mans the middle of the Chargers offensive line.
He's a rookie, and thus, he's inexperienced. He hasn't had enough time to gel with Rivers. This is a matchup the Broncos can exploit. Last week, Watt was credited by PFF with giving up two sacks and a hurry. He's been starting at center since week 12. As a starter, he's earned a -1.7 cumulative grade. Knighton and his brothers on the Broncos interior defensive line, will be looking to get their own licks in on Watt's rookie learning curve.
On the Chargers entire offensive line, only one player has earned a positive cumulative grade via PFF; left tackle, King Dunlap (+1.0). However, he has allowed 3 sacks and a whopping 32 hurries. And yet, he's been their best O-lineman thus far.
The Chargers O-line might be beat up, but if they excel at anything, it's physicality. The Broncos will have to not only match them in that respect, but exceed them. Right tackle, D.J. Fluker (-14.9) is a mauler in the run game, but can be exploited by quick-twitch pass rushers, like Von Miller. Fluker has allowed 6 sacks and 27 hurries on the season.
All in all, the Chargers will try to duplicate the success they had in week 15 of last season. They want to control the clock, by running the ball and getting themselves into manageable third down situations that can be more easily converted. Rivers will not hesitate to check the ball down in such situations. He's completed 67 passes to running backs this year.
The Broncos are hoping to have Trevathan back this week. He and Marshall must be aware of this tendency and limit the Chargers running backs' runs after the catch. We've landed on all of the players the Broncos must game-plan against. Stopping them is much easier said than done, however.
Like their offense, the Chargers were missing some key starters when last they played the Broncos. Brandon Flowers (+12.1), Manti Te'o (+2.0), and Melvin Ingram (+2.3) all missed week 8. The Chargers were also without rookie outside linebacker, Jeremiah Attaochu (+4.5). He and Ingram have only combined for 4 sacks on the season, but are very talented edge players.
The Chargers hoped that Dwight Freeney (+6.1) would become one of their most productive pass rushers, but he's only managed 2 sacks so far. However, he has been credited with 34 QB hurries, so Ryan Clady will have to duplicate the results he produced in week 8 and take Freeney out of the game.
In his second season, Te'o has begun to show signs of becoming the play-maker at LB the Chargers hoped he'd be, when they drafted him in the 2nd round. Last week, he only notched 3 combined tackles, but he picked off Tom Brady and swung the momentum (momentarily) in the Chargers favor.
Next to Te'o at inside linebacker is Donald Butler. He currently ranks second on the team with 71 combined tackles. He's also managed to snag one INT. Together, these two young(ish) LBs have the potential to be very good and excel in down-hill pursuit. It will be imperative that Orlando Franklin, Will Montgomery and Manuel Ramirez get to the second level in their run blocking and take these two out of the play.
Just like last time we previewed the Chargers, their defensive MVP is still safety, Eric Weddle. The former Utah Ute is a versatile virtuoso, who can do anything his defensive coordinator, John Pagano, asks him to. He leads the team with 90 combined tackles and can be a menace both behind the line of scrimmage and in the secondary. Peyton Manning will check to see where Weddle's lined up before each snap.
Pagano is one of the few defensive coordinators who has a reputation throughout the NFL of knowing how to stop Manning. He's a very cunning coach, but I'm not sure where the rep he's gained comes from. After all, Manning is 5-1 (including playoffs) against him as a Bronco. However, there's no doubting that he excels at disguising his coverages and intentions pre-snap, which can confound a QB like Manning at times.
In the trenches, the Chargers feature three behemoths who can stuff the run and get after the QB; Corey Liuget (+5.5), Sean Lissemore (-5.4) and Kendall Reyes (-20.2). Last season, Liuget was responsible for giving Manning a high ankle sprain that lingered all season long.
None of them are All-Pros, but Liuget plays at a Pro Bowl level. However, unless your name is J.J. Watt or Muhammed Wilkerson, it's not easy for a 3-4 defensive end to earn a trip to the NFL's all-star game. This trio is well-coached and they play with intensity. In stopping the run, the Chargers are middle of the road, ranking No. 14 in the NFL (108.4 per game). But against the pass, they're much better, ranking No. 8 (228.4).
The Broncos have displayed a new-found penchant for running the ball, riding the hot-handed, C.J. Anderson. They've succeeded and in no small part, due to their revamped offensive line. It's not easy to change the complexion of your offense, 3/4 of the way through the season, but Adam Gase has managed to pull it off.
It's come at the right time. Down the stretch, the Broncos offense is playing physical football, while the defense is aggressively flying around, taking the ball away to the tune of 6 times over the last two games. Last week, Manning only threw the ball 20 times, which may have been the reason why it seemed he had a difficult time getting into a rhythm.
Against the Bills, the Broncos ran the ball 29 times. The flow of the game dictated that many attempts. It won't always go that way. Some games, Manning could throw it 30 times or more. What matters is that the Broncos have reached the point where they can confound the opposition and keep them on their toes by imposing their will. They've proven that they can run the ball with authority and when they want to, light up the scoreboard through the air. Balance. But, let's not forget that Manning still leads the league in passing TDs, with 36.
Broncos 27 Chargers 23
As always, Brandon Perna has his own take on how this week's AFC West battle will go down.