Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Colts I

Our Scout.com experts, Eric Hartz of ColtPower.com and Michael Lombardo of SDBoltReport.com, analyze Sunday's playoff game between the Colts and Chargers at the RCA Dome. Let's start this two-part series with six questions from Eric to Michael.

Eric Hartz: Philip Rivers has had an inconsistent season, but the fact remains that he has won at a high rate since he got his chance to start. How does he manage to keep his team in it, even when he's struggling? And what area does he need the most improvement in?

Michael Lombardo: The Chargers' ability to churn out wins even when Rivers struggles has less to do with the quarterback and more to do with his supporting cast. Rivers has the luxury of playing with the best running back in the league in LaDainian Tomlinson and the best tight end in Antonio Gates. It also helps having a defense that led the league in turnovers (48) and allowed the fewest points in the NFL over the final six weeks of the regular season.

Rivers, 26, has plenty of room for improvement. He is a streaky passer who has a tendency to lock on to his top target (Gates or Chris Chambers), causing him to throw the ball into double-coverage rather than hitting his second read or a check-down. Also, he needs to do a better job protecting the football (20 turnovers this season).

EH: How has the team responded to Norv Turner's coaching style? Obviously the team got off to a rocky start but has really turned things around. What qualities does Turner bring that Marty Schottenheimer may have lacked?

ML: Turner earned his team's trust and respect over the last two months, something that was missing during the 5-5 start. The players admire his candor and his understanding of the game, especially on the offensive side of the ball. His ability to make in-game adjustments is particularly impressive, as the Chargers led the entire NFL in touchdowns (nine) and total scoring drives (11) on their first offensive possession of the third quarter.

Turner and Schottenheimer handle the head coaching position very differently. Turner is a laidback tactician who focuses on the Xs and Os. Schottenheimer was more of a leader than a strategist, as he was deemed an inspiration by his fans and a glorified cheerleader by his critics. Both have their pros and their cons, but if it was my call, Schottenheimer would still be running the show.

EH: What has gone right during the Chargers' current seven-game winning streak that wasn't going right earlier in the season?

There are countless factors that account for the team's turnaround. The midseason addition of Chambers was huge. That allowed Rivers to play better, as he compiled an 11-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 92.9 passer rating during the last seven weeks. Tomlinson is also on a late-season tear, scoring nine touchdowns in his last six games. Rivers and LT have both benefited from better offensive line play, keyed by Jeromey Clary's ascension into the starting lineup in Week 13.

On defense, the pass rush really picked up as Ted Cottrell become more familiar with his personnel. San Diego netted 22 sacks during its final six regular-season games. That improved pass rush allowed the secondary to finish on a high note; after getting torched by Tom Brady and Brett Favre early in the season, San Diego recovered to lead the league in opponent passer rating (70.0) for the first time in franchise history.

EH: How will the Chargers adjust to the possible absence of Antonio Gates? Have Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers developed enough to make up for the loss?

ML: Chambers and Jackson will be expected to carry over their strong performances from the wild-card round, when they combined for 11 catches, 235 yards and a touchdown. Rookie first-round pick Craig Davis will also see more time, as Norv Turner will have to run more three-receiver sets. Another rookie, fifth-round pick Legedu Naanee, is a tight end-receiver hybrid who will line up all over the field, just as Gates typically does.

It will be interesting to see how the Chargers divvy up their time between their two pure tight ends. Seven-year veteran Brandon Manumaleuna is primarily a blocking tight end but has the experience to step into a playoff atmosphere. Rookie fourth-round pick Scott Chandler has barely sniffed the field this season but is a far bigger threat as a receiver.

EH: Tell us a little more about Antonio Cromartie. He burst onto the scene this season and led the league with 10 interceptions and was named to the All NFL team Wednesday, yet he only has nine career starts. What's his background and what makes him such an effective player in the San Diego defensive scheme?

ML: Cromartie fell to the Chargers in the first round of the 2006 draft after missing his final season at Florida State with a knee injury. He spent his rookie year shaking off rust, adapting to the pro game and regaining his world-class speed. He had an adequate rookie season, although he did not intercept any passes. His tear began in Week 6 this year when he went on to intercept 10 passes in a nine-game stretch.

What allows him to be so effective is the play of Quentin Jammer on the opposite side of the field. Jammer doesn't get much publicity, but he is a very solid corner who has effectively shutdown some of the game's elite receivers. Jammer's tight coverage forces opponents to throw at Cromartie, who has the recovery speed to turn a good throw into a bad one in a hurry.

EH: The Chargers have won their last two meetings with the Colts, including a win in the RCA Dome in 2005. What's the biggest key for them to come out on top this time?

ML: On offense, the Chargers need to lean on their running game. Norv Turner wants to get LT into a rhythm so the team can ride him in the fourth quarter. Keeping the ball in No. 21's hands does two very important things for San Diego: 1) it keeps Peyton Manning on the sidelines; and 2) it prevents turnovers, as Tomlinson did not fumble in 374 touches this season.

On defense, San Diego wants to shut down Indy's running game and force Manning into obvious passing situations. After that, the key is to collapse the pocket as quickly as possible and force Manning to throw on the run. There is no way to prevent the Colts' offense from eating up chunks of yardage. But if the Bolts can force some turnovers and make Indy settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, they have a chance to pull off the upset.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.


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