Chargers - Broncos Primer

The Chargers and Broncos will fight to distinguish themselves in the muddled AFC West when they do battle at Invesco Field. The Chargers will be the first team Jay Cutler has faced twice and hope to give the sophomore gunslinger a bad case of déjà vu.

OFFENSE

The offense and will run through LaDainian Tomlinson. The reigning MVP has increased his rushing totals every week this season (25, 43, 62 and 132) and aims to carry that upward trend into Invesco Field. In Tomlinson's last trip to Denver, he rushed for 105 yards and scored four touchdowns. If he can rush for four scores on Sunday, he'll tie Jim Brown for fourth place on the all-time rushing touchdowns list. With two scores, Tomlinson will match John Riggins for fifth place.

The running game will be expected to carry the load against a Denver Broncos defense allowing 181 rushing yards per game, No. 31 in the league. On the flip side, the Broncos passing defense is the best in the league by a large margin, allowing just 114.5 yards per game, more than 30 yards fewer than the second-ranked Miami Dolphins.

The Chargers will struggle to throw the ball outside the hashes against cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dré Bly. The best opportunity is to get 6-foot-5 Vincent Jackson matched up on the 5-foot-10 Bly. Jackson should be able use his size and physicality to win some jump balls along the sidelines and shield Bly from the ball.

Philip Rivers will still rely on Antonio Gates as his primary read on most passing plays. Gates is tied for second in the NFL with 33 receptions and his 376 yards are the most by any tight end. However, Gates has never scored a touchdown or topped the 100-yard mark in Denver.

Rivers has a great challenge in front of him, as Denver is a tough place for young quarterbacks to play. The Broncos have a 0.72 winning percentage at Invesco Field and boast the sixth-best home record in the NFL since 2001. Nonetheless, Rivers is excited for the opportunity.

"It's always been one of my favorite places to play," Rivers said. "Knowing what's at stake this week for us trying to get back on the right track and with Denver coming off a loss to Indy, it'll be a great atmosphere.

"If you look at all the history there that Denver has with the championships that they won when (John) Elway was there and just the whole atmosphere. Their fans are into it from the start and just the whole setup of the stadium, it's a neat place to play."

It will take a gutsy performance by the offensive line to afford Rivers time to throw. Several of the linemen are banged up, including Marcus McNeill (knee), Mike Goff (knee) and Shane Olivea (back).

The match-up to watch is McNeill against speedy sophomore Elvis Dumervil. The sack specialist had 8.5 sacks as a rookie and has four already this season. McNeill has given up two sacks this season, as many as he did all last year, and will have to use his long arms to force Dumervil to take wide angles to the quarterback.

DEFENSE

The Chargers' run defense will face its toughest task of the season against Travis Henry, the league's leading rusher with 433 yards. Fortunately, this is likely the only time the Chargers will see Henry this season, as he faces a one-year suspension for yet another violation of the league's substance abuse policy. His suspension is tied up in the appeals process and will not take effect for another couple of weeks.

In addition to the suspension distraction, Henry is battling a knee injury suffered last week against the Indianapolis Colts. He missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday and was limited on Friday. He expects to play on Sunday and will face a Chargers run defense that ranks No. 12 in the league, allowing 98 yards per game.

If Henry is limited, head coach Mike Shanahan is confident that rookie reserve Selvin Young can step in and help carry the load.

"I can't say that it surprised me that he's been doing a good job for us. He's made some big plays," said Shanahan of Young.

The goal for the Chargers is to stop Henry and Young, forcing Jay Cutler into obvious passing situations. That will allow the Bolts to unleash some exotic blitz packages and bolster this season's modest sacks numbers. After the first month of the season, the Chargers are on pace to finish with just 36 sacks, 25 fewer than least season's league-leading 61.

Part of the reason for the disturbing decline is that Ted Cottrell is bring pressure from predictable places. Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips have combined for 6.5 of the team's nine sacks. Also, no inside linebacker has picked up a sack this season, after 7.5 sacks came from that spot in 2006.

The pass rush will have to be intense to protect a struggling secondary. The cornerbacks receive a slight reprieve in that Javon Walker has been ruled out for Sunday's game. Unfortunately, Brandon Marshall is very much active and leads the Broncos with 20 catches for 290 yards and two touchdowns.

Marshall is a physical receiver with speed and tackle-breaking ability. He is comparable to two receivers who have torched the Chargers over the last two weeks, Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers and Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs. Both Jennings and Bowe scored touchdowns of 50-plus yards against the Chargers and the secondary must take better angles to the ball to keep Marshall from doing the same.

Marlon McCree will be charged with providing help over the top against Marshall, while Quentin Jammer, Drayton Florence and Antonio Cromartie will all get their shots underneath. Cromartie is the biggest concern, as he has been awful through four weeks. He has sloppy technique, seems disinterested in tackling and has failed to capitalize on his few opportunities to make plays on the ball.

Special Teams

The Chargers are one of five teams in the league whose opponents' average starting position after kickoffs is inside their own 20-yard line. Also, punter Mike Scifres uses his directional skills and stellar coverage team to allow an average punt return of 2.7 yards, well below the league average.

Nate Kaeding came through with a clutch performance last Sunday. A 51-yard field goal in the second quarter marked his first kick of 50-plus yards at Qualcomm. Kaeding also added a 24-yard kick on the opening drive and a 38-yard field goal on the final play of the half. The three field goals were a season high. He also recorded his first touchback of the season; he had a career-best 11 last season.

The Broncos have a pretty good kicker of their own. Jason Elam has more points (222) and more field goals (48) against the Chargers than any other player in NFL history.

Elam hit game-winning, walk-off fields goals in weeks one and two. If he gets the opportunity to go for a third against the Chargers, the Broncos will like their chances.


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