Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers v. Rams, Part I

The Chargers came off their bye week with a home win over the Raiders. The victory pushed the Bolts to within one game of first place in the AFC West, thanks to the Rams' upset of the Broncos. Now, San Diego gets to try its luck against the giant killers from St. Louis. To set the table for this week's game in San Diego, we check in with experts Nate Latsch and Michael Lombardo.

Nate Latsch is a reporter for Michael Lombardo is the publisher of To read Part II of this series, where we talk about St. Louis' stifling defense and questions at quarterback, click here.

Nate Latsch: How did the Chargers go from being one of the NFL's best teams at 5-1 to the team that lost three straight games (against the Chiefs, Broncos and Dolphins) and barely beat the Raiders? Which team are they?

Michael Lombardo: The schedule had a lot of do with San Diego's early success and its recent struggles. The final four wins in San Diego's 5-1 start came against the Bills, Jaguars, Jets and Raiders, teams with a combined 8-32 record. The three losses you mentioned came against teams with a combined 20-10 record.

I almost throw out both games against the Raiders, because divisional games are a different animal altogether. The Raiders have always played the Chargers close, even when San Diego was at its most dominant.

The Chargers are still very much in the AFC playoff hunt. Philip Rivers is a top-five quarterback and he has a lot of weapons to work with on offense. The defense is not dominant, but as it showed last week against the Raiders, it can be a stingy unit when healthy. The Super Bowl buzz has died down, and rightfully so, but the Chargers are good enough to hang with any team in the league ... and bad enough to lose to any opponent, as well.

  NL: Philip Rivers' health will obviously be a hot topic this week. How much do you think the rib injury has bothered him lately and how much of a factor could that be in this Sunday's game?  

ML: More is being made of this rib injury than need be. Antonio Gates was the one who brought it to the media's attention, but he did so only to make a point that his QB is extremely tough.

Rivers is sore, no doubt, and is battling through the pain during games, especially after he takes a big hit. But he has yet to miss a practice rep this season, let alone a snap in a meaningful game situation, so he is definitely good to go.

"Philip got hit a few times in the game," Head Coach Mike McCoy said. "It's a physical game. This time of year, everybody has a bump or bruise somewhere in the game."

There is a chance the injury could affect his performance, especially if he is under frequent duress. It could also limit him a bit on deep throws or improvisations where he has to throw across his body. But overall, I don't think it will have much of an affect on his performance unless he takes a big hit that makes it worse.

"[The Rams] have a great pass rush," McCoy said. "We know that and can see that on film."

  NL: The Chargers had one of their best running games in the win against the Raiders, racking up 120 yards on 32 carries, after gaining just 111 yards on the ground the previous two games. Did the return of Ryan Mathews make the difference or was it the Raiders' poor run defense?

ML: I know it's the easy answer, but the truth is, it was a little bit of both. When the Chargers played the Raiders in Oakland in Week 6, Branden Oliver ran for 101 yards and a touchdown, so San Diego can run on the Raiders regardless of whether Mathews is in the lineup.

That being said, Mathews' return definitely provided a spark. He is a bigger, more physical runner who can wear down opponents as the game progresses. He runs with better vision and patience than Oliver (things that come with experience), so having him back makes San Diego much more efficient on the ground.

The biggest benefit of having Mathews back is that Donald Brown and Ronnie Brown have both been pushed almost entirely out of the rotation, which is great news for Chargers fans. Donald Brown has been a bust since joining the team on a three-year, $10.5 million deal in free agency, while Ronnie Brown (32) is well past his prime.

  NL: San Diego had one of the worst pass defenses, statistically speaking, last season (258.7 passing yards allowed per game) and now have one of the better pass defenses in terms of yards allowed per game (222.4). What's been the big difference from last year to this year?

ML: San Diego made major upgrades at the cornerback position by adding Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett, although the Chargers were forced to put Verrett on injured-reserve last week with a shoulder injury (a loss that really hurts the secondary). Also, Shareece Wright is playing much better in his fourth season (whether that is because he has more experience or because he is in a contract year is debatable).

Also, as alluded to above, an easy early schedule played a role in this statistic. San Diego has gone against Blake Bortles (in his first ever start), E.J. Manuel (since benched), Geno Smith (since benched) and rookie Derek Carr (twice). That will help any pass defense climb the rankings.

  NL: What are some of the keys for the Chargers to pull out a home victory this week and start up another winning streak?

ML: On offense, the Chargers need to make some more big plays in the passing game. A lot of things go into that -- blocking up front, running the ball to keep the defense honest, etc. -- but San Diego has too many talented pass catchers to be so muted in the passing game. Keenan Allen is due for a breakout game, as is Ladarius Green.

On defense, it is all about the pass rush. With Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu back healthy, the Chargers must put some heat on Shaun Hill and force the Rams into a couple of turnovers. Corey Liuget and Dwight Freeney need to apply steady pressure too, which will give Flowers and Eric Weddle chances to make plays on the ball.

I expect the defense to pick up where it left off last week against the Raiders. If San Diego can score 17 or more points (no easy task, considering the Broncos scored just seven points against the Rams last week), I expect the Chargers to win.

Talk all about the Bolts-Rams game in the Chargers boards or the Rams 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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