Match-Ups to Watch: Chargers vs. Broncos

The Chargers wrap up their home schedule on Sunday with a rematch against the division-leading Broncos. San Diego has a tentative hold on the No. 6 seed in the AFC and needs a victory to maintain that positioning. We examine a half-dozen match-ups that'll be critical to making that happen.

Jarret Johnson vs. Louis Vasquez

If the Chargers are to have any chance of stopping Denver's offense, it starts with slowing down red-hot running back C.J. Anderson. That means John Pagano cannot spend the bulk of the game in his nickel defense, as he typically prefers to do when facing Peyton Manning. That also means more playing time for Johnson, who will be charged with setting the edge and funneling Anderson back into the heart of San Diego's defense.

"They've got a good system in place," head coach Mike McCoy said of Denver's running game. "You can see that with the guys who've rolled through there the last couple weeks. Even the last time we played them, Ronnie [Hillman] ran the ball efficiently against us. It all starts up front."

Johnson will put in work against Vasquez. The former Charger made the Pro Bowl last season at right guard and has since switched to right tackle. Vasquez has struggled some in the passing game -- he gave up a sack to Justin Houston a couple weeks ago that resulted in a Manning fumble -- but his play in the running game is a big reason for Anderson's success.

Eric Weddle vs. Julius Thomas

Weddle showed what he can do last week, when he provided consistently tight coverage on Rob Gronkowski. He will have to replicate that effort this week, as Denver's Julius Thomas is every bit as dangerous. Weddle has a long history of performing well against Manning; he has intercepted No. 18 three times in his career and nearly had a fourth when the teams met earlier this season, as his one-handed interception was negated by a holding penalty.

Julius Thomas (ankle) expects to contribute this week for the first time in about a month. He is a major weapon in the red zone, with nine touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line. That will put a lot of pressure on a Chargers defense that ranks No. 21 in red zone efficiency.

Shareece Wright vs. Demaryius Thomas

Opponents have not been shy about targeting Wright since Jason Verrett went on injured-reserve with a shoulder injury. With Brandon Flowers playing lights-out on the other side of the field, teams are coming at Wright time and time again and finding a lot of success. To Wright's credit, he has a short memory and is extremely competitive. He has eight pass break-ups over the last six games.

"[Denver] has three of the most explosive players playing the position right now at wide receiver," said Pagano, referring to Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Wes Welker. "They have a tight end that's coming back who's caught many touchdowns and they have a much improved running game. When you put all those things together, it's a big challenge for us."

Demaryius Thomas figures to give Wright fits, especially if San Diego's pass rushers struggle to get home. He is dealing with an ankle injury, which may give Wright some hope of slowing him down, but this is a tough cover no matter how you slice it. If Wright can keep Demaryius Thomas out of the end zone and hold him under 100 yards, it would be a major victory.

Keenan Allen vs. Aqib Talib

Allen was completely shut down last week in his match-up against Darrelle Revis, finishing with two catches for 3 yards. This is an opportunity for him to prove he can get it done against an elite corner corner. He did well in his meeting with Talib and the Broncos earlier this season, catching nine passes for 73 yards and a score. In four career games against the Broncos (including playoffs), Allen has 285 yards and five touchdowns.

Talib has 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions in his first season in Denver. While he has lived up to his reputation as a shutdown corner, he may not even be the best defensive back on his own team. That honor could arguably go to Chris Harris, who is holding opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 46.9 on passes thrown in his direction. No matter which corner lines up across from Allen, he will have to be at his best to help San Diego's offense get back on track.

D.J. Fluker vs. Von Miller

Fluker is never going to be an elite pass protector, but he is struggling mightily in that realm right now. He has already allowed five sacks and been called for six false starts as he tries to avoid being beaten by speed rushers with quick first steps. The Chargers will need to do something for Fluker this offseason -- maybe flank him with a more established player at right guard, maybe ask him to move to guard himself -- to help him reach his full potential.

In the meanwhile, Fluker and King Dunlap will battle this week with Denver's dominant pass-rushing duo of Miller and DeMarcus Ware. The star edge-rushing pair has combined for 23 sacks, led by Miller's 13. Miller will line up all over the field, so it is vital Fluker and his fellow linemen keep track of him at all times. The Chargers cannot afford a repeat of the protection breakdowns that plagued them a week ago.

Donald Brown vs. T.J. Ward

Ryan Mathews is listed as questionable with a knee injury, but regardless of whether he plays, the matchup between Brown and Ward is critical. Brown, San Diego's third-down back, will be charged with picking up Ward when Denver's powerful safety comes on the blitz. Jack Del Rio has been sending Ward after the quarterback more often over the last few weeks and has been rewarded with a sack and a handful of hurries.

"Donald's been what we wanted him to be," said offensive coordinator Frank Reich. "He's a very smart player. He hasn't had to carry the load running the ball, but for the role we put him in, he plays smart, he gets the job done and he grades out high week in and week out."

When Ward stays back in coverage, Brown must make the most of his touches as a check-down receiver. And if Mathews is unable to start -- or finish -- Brown must spell Branden Oliver as needed and help the offense stay on schedule and control time of possession.

What are the keys to beating the Broncos? Talk about it inside the message 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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