Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Jets, p. II

Can Philip Rivers continue to play at an MVP level versus Rex Ryan's exotic defensive schemes? Will Brandon Flowers make a young QB pay for a second straight week? Is Antonio Gates in for another big game? To tackle these and other questions, we turn to team experts Michael Lombardo ( and Jeremy Epstein (

To read Part I of this series, where we talk about Rex Ryan, Geno Smith, Eric Decker, Chris Johnson and other Jets, click here.

Jeremy Epstein: Can you talk about the job Mike McCoy has done since taking over as Chargers coach last year? How has the culture of the team changed since he took over for Norv Turner?

Michael Lombardo: McCoy, who was Denver’s offensive coordinator before taking over in San Diego, has made his biggest impact on the offensive side of the ball. He has designed an offense that plays to the strengths of his best player, Philip Rivers. The Chargers run a balanced attack; they throw a lot of high-percentage passes; and they typically dominate time of possession.

But McCoy’s impact extends before the offense. He has made his players accountable for everything they do and instilled a culture in which every player is prepared to step into new or larger roles when called upon. That is why the Chargers have been able to weather this ridiculous rash of injuries so well. He has the players believing that -- if they execute the game plan with precision and tenacity -- they can overcome any opponent.

JE: Rivers has always been considered one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, but this year he is considered by some as the early season favorite for league MVP. What has he done differently or improved upon to play at this high of a level?

ML: Rivers’ improved play can be traced to two factors: a better scheme and an improved supporting cast. As for the scheme, the Chargers let Rivers get to the line of scrimmage early and give him time to read the defense and make the necessary audibles and adjustments. He is also getting the ball out of his hands much faster, allowing playmakers like Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal to rack up yards after the catch.

But the biggest difference is San Diego’s improved talent at the skill positions. People seem to forget that Rivers’ two down seasons coincided with the losses of Darren Sproles and Vincent Jackson, two of his best playmakers. Last year, the Chargers added Allen and Royal, which helped Rivers start to look like himself again. Additionally, don’t forget the progress made by Ladarius Green, a fourth-round pick in 2012. He is now a big-time threat and the likely successor to Antonio Gates.

JE: The Jets are well known for their exotic blitz schemes and, so far this year, Rivers has had good numbers when facing blitzes. Can you talk about what makes Rivers so good against the blitz?

ML: There are a lot of factors that make Rivers effective against the blitz. He is one of the most intelligent quarterbacks in football, so he does a great job of recognizing blitzes and anticipating where they are coming from. He also gets rid of the ball quickly, often using unorthodox throwing angles to get the ball out at the last possible moment. Finally, he is incredibly tough, so he is willing to stand tall in a collapsing pocket -- all the while with his eyes down the field -- to give his receivers every possible chance to get open.

Some credit must also go to his supporting cast, as he has a couple outstanding check-down targets in Antonio Gates and Donald Brown (although he sorely missed the injured Danny Woodhead, who was a beast in this area). San Diego’s offensive line is also a bit underrated and does a nice job of pinching off inside pressure and giving Rivers a pocket into which he can step up and throw.

JE: While many focus on the San Diego offense, the Chargers have one of the better defenses in the league, ranking ninth in total defense, ninth in rushing defense and 11th in passing defense. Can you talk about how well they have performed this season? Also, what impact has offseason acquisition Brandon Flowers had on their defense?

ML: The defense has done well, but there have been a lot of injuries on that side of the ball and San Diego’s lack of defensive depth is starting to show. The injuries that are hurting the most are Melvin Ingram (hip, temporary IR), Manti Te’o (foot, week to week) and Shareece Wright (sprained MCL, out four to five weeks). Those are three starters the Chargers were counting on to play major roles and their absence will absolutely be felt in the coming weeks.

That said, the defense is still much better than it was a season ago, and it is good enough to help the Chargers win games, given how much talent they have on offense. Flowers has been a big boost in the secondary -- intercepting his first pass as a Charger in last week’s win over the Jaguars -- and first-round pick Jason Verrett has provided a boost, as well. The best player on that side of the ball, however, is DL Corey Liuget, who has been moving all over the line for John Pagano’s defense; if Liuget does not make his first Pro Bow this season it will be absolutely criminal.

Liuget, by the way, is questionable for this game due to a concussion.

JE: Antonio Gates is in his 12th season and is still an incredibly productive tight end. What kind of matchup problems does a guy like Gates cause? 

ML: Gates is still capable of taking over a game, as he showed in Week 2 by catching three touchdowns as the Chargers upset the Seahawks, 30-21. But in reality, he is not the dominant player he once was. While he used to command double teams on nearly every play, opponents have shown a newfound willingness to single cover him with a linebacker or safety; when that happens, Rivers is usually quick to take advantage.

While the Chargers do not have a true go-to receiver, Gates is probably third in the passing-game pecking order behind Allen and Royal. But the Jets still must be wary of No. 85, especially on third downs and in the red zone. Rivers and Gates have an incredible connection -- they share more touchdowns than any QB-TE combination in NFL history -- and they are especially potent at Qualcomm Stadium.

Talk more about the Bolts-Jets game inside the Chargers boards or the Jets boards.

Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the team. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 18 years and covered the team since '03. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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