Chargers-Chiefs Gameday Primer

The Chargers and Chiefs, two playoff teams from last season, will play a virtual elimination game this Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. The winner will be tied for the division lead (assuming the Denver Broncos lose on the road to the Indianapolis Colts); the loser falls to 1-3 and faces a tough uphill climb back to the playoffs.

OFFENSE

Philip Rivers has thrown at least one interception in each of the last five games, dating back to the 2006 regular-season finale. He must do a better job protecting the ball against a Kansas City Chiefs defense that has intercepted at least one pass in six of the last seven contests. The last time the teams met, Rivers was limited to eight completions for 97 yards, the lowest numbers of his career in both categories.

Like Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson has historically struggled against the Chiefs defense. He was held to under 70 yards rushing in three of the last four meetings. However, Tomlinson made that fourth game count, going off for a season-high 199 yards rushing and two touchdowns.

This is an important game for peripheral blockers Lorenzo Neal and Brandon Manumaleuna. Outside linebackers Donnie Edwards and Derrick Johnson excel at sifting through traffic and sliding off blocks, making it difficult for the offensive linemen to pick them off at the second level. If Neal and Manumaleuna can seal off those ‘backers and hold a crease, it will be key in getting Tomlinson back on track.

One player whose season is on the fast track to the Pro Bowl is Antonio Gates. Project his current numbers over a 16-game season and you get 144 receptions, 1,584 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 144 receptions would be a new single-season record.

Although it is difficult to sustain such numbers, Gates does save his best for when he shares the field with Tony Gonzalez. Gates has eight touchdowns in six careers games against the Chiefs. He also enjoyed his best day as a pro against Kansas City in 2005, when he set career highs in receiving yards (145) and touchdowns (three). Gates has caught a touchdown in four of the last five home games.

The Chiefs will use a combination of Edwards and Jarrad Page to slow Gates down. Page enjoyed some success in their last meeting, keeping Gates out of the end zone. Edwards and Page are both ballhawks but will struggle to pick off a pass aimed for Gates, who does a great job of becoming a defender on uncatchable balls.

As Rivers proved in week three, he is making a concerted effort to get the ball to players other than No. 85. Vincent Jackson had his best game of the season against the Green Bay Packers, finishing with 98 receiving yards and a touchdown. Craig Davis contributed as well, scoring his first professional touchdown.

In week four, it will be a classic match-up of youth versus experience. Jackson, in his third year, and Davis, a rookie, will be matched up with Ty Law, 33, and Patrick Surtain, 31. Both Law and Surtain have lost more than a step since their Pro Bowl days and will be exposed by the younger receivers if Rivers has time in the pocket.

That time will be tough to provide because the Chiefs have a pair of elite pass-rushing ends in Tamba Hali and Jared Allen. Marcus McNeill is the Chargers' best lineman and will be asked to handle Allen, a Pro Bowler, with little or no help. That is because Shane Olivea will need some help with Hali on the other side. Olivea is battling a balky back and will be hard pressed to keep up with the speedy Hali.

The offensive line is dealing with some nagging injuries on the inside, as Kris Dielman has a sore foot and Mike Goff a bruised knee. Nonetheless, both are expected to play and should be able to handle the Chiefs' journeymen defensive tackle rotation.

DEFENSE

The chief objective is containing Larry Johnson. In his last three games against the Chargers, Johnson has racked up 347 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The run-stopping efforts start up front with Jamal Williams, who will try to push center Casey Wiegmann back into the backfield. Williams has more than 60 lbs. on Wiegmann and will be pivotal in anchoring against the run.

"You have to realize that this is the type of group that they have there that likes to run," Williams said. "They have a strong group there to get their running game going with guys like Tony Gonzalez and Larry Johnson and the guys up front who can get the job done so it's going to be a great challenge for us this week to establish ourselves and stop the run."

Stopping the run hasn't been the issue this season. The defense ranks No. 9 against the run and has allowed just 3.7 yards per carry. Where the Chargers have struggled is against the pass, particularly quick-hitters over the middle.

Those struggles are due in part to the loss of Edwards, who in his final season in San Diego finished second on the team with three interceptions. His replacement, Matt Wilhelm, has missed most of the last two games with a calf injury and is expected to be sidelined against the Chiefs as well. He will be replaced in the starting line-up by Carlos Polk, although Tim Dobbins will see extensive playing time.

Both Polk and Dobbins are stronger against the run than the pass. However, Kansas City may be unable to take advantage due to its tepid passing attack; Huard has averaged only 6.1 yards per attempt. Rookie Brandon Siler will see some time in short-yardage and goal-line situations while fellow rookie Anthony Waters may be activated for the first time if his knees feel up to it.

No matter which players make up San Diego's second level, Head Coach Herm Edwards is certain that the Chargers defense won't be as easy to score on as Tom Brady and Brett Favre made it seem.

"They've got a very good defense," said coach Edwards. "They're big inside and the core of their defense is solid. They do a good job against the run and don't give up a 100 yards against the run. A little bit of their deal to date is they've played two pretty good quarterbacks, two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, actually. They've been hot and they hit passes on them."

If the Chargers want to keep Huard from looking like a Hall of Famer, it starts with the pass rush. The Chargers will blitz much more against the Chiefs than they did against the Packers because they aren't as worried about the Chiefs burning them for big plays downfield. The Bolts will try unconventional blitzes with Marlon McCree and Drayton Florence to keep Huard guessing.

Of course, the primary pass-rush culprits will be Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. Merriman will be matched up with former Charger Damion McIntosh, a powerful and nimble blocker who has improved every year he's been in the league. Phillips will be working against Kyle Turley and is licking his chops at the opportunity. Phillips has too much speed and agility for the 32-year-old Turley to handle.

San Diego is hoping the rest of its front-seven gives Merriman and Phillips some help. Luis Castillo and Marques Harris are still seeking their first sacks of the season, while Igor Olshansky has just half a sack to his name.

If the pass rush can flash the ability it showed last season in leading the league with 61 sacks, it will make things much easier on the secondary. The primary concern for the defense backs is Gonzalez, who will have zone coverages rolled his way all afternoon. Merriman will attempt to redirect Gonzalez off the line before Clinton Hart or Eric Weddle picks him up in coverage.

If Gonzalez proves too much to handle, Ted Cottrell will not hesitate to put Quentin Jammer on him. Otherwise, Jammer will likely be matched up with Samie Parker. The Chiefs will put Parker on Jammer's side of the field because he has the quickness to beat Jammer off the line and the speed to challenge Jammer deep.

On the opposite side of the field, Florence and Antonio Cromartie will both take their shots against Dwayne Bowe. The rookie leads all Chiefs receivers with 10 receptions and 135 yards. He has also caught the team's only two passing touchdowns.

Bowe played college football at LSU along with the Chargers' Davis. Both were first-round picks, only the third time in NFL history that two receivers from the same team were taken in the draft's opening stanza. It will be up to Florence and Cromartie to assure that Davis wins round one of the rookie rivalry.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Chargers and Chiefs share a similar distinction: their punter is their best special teams player. Mike Scifres ranks No. 12 in net average (39.3 yards) and Dustin Colquitt ranks No. 12 in gross average (45.6 yards). Those are modest numbers, reflective of two modestly talented special teams units.

Nate Kaeding made his first field goal season in week three, a 44-yard attempt. He is hoping the offense gives him some more opportunities against the Chiefs or he will have zero chance to defending his Pro Bowl position.

The Chargers kick returners have yet to do anything special. Darren Sproles replaced Michael Turner as the kickoff returned in week three and averaged 25 yards per return. It is only a matter of time before the Chargers' most explosive kickoff returner, Cromartie, gets his shot at the wheel. Norv Turner has indicated that Cromartie will return kicks at some point this season and it could happen as early as week four.

Sproles will maintain his punt returning responsibilities at least for the week. He had better start making some plays before Eric Parker comes back or the Chargers will have a hard time justifying Sproles' spot on the roster.

The Chargers will kick to Eddie Drummond, a former Pro Bowler who replaces Dante Hall as the kick and punt returner. With Kassim Osgood, Polk and Cromartie covering kicks, there is little chance that someone of Drummond's ilk breaks a big return.


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