Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Broncos I

The San Diego Chargers host the Denver Broncos on Monday in San Diego's best and possibly last chance to crawl back into the AFC West race. We get ready for the game with inside player analysis, matchup breakdowns and more.

Michael John Schon: The Chargers seem to have gone one-dimensional and completely turned away from a running attack. I know injuries have played a part in this, but what's the underlying feeling on why LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles have had such a drop-off from last season?

Michael Lombardo: Tomlinson's ankle injury certainly played a role, as he was hurt midway through the season-opener and has played only one game since. Sproles has been healthy, but he's not nearly as dangerous as a traditional running back as he is a receiver/kick returner.

The performance of the offensive line has also played a role. With C Nick Hardwick (ankle) out since the opener and RG Louis Vasquez (knee) missing two games, the makeshift line has struggled to open running lanes consistently.

There are other contributing factors as well. For one thing, San Diego's defense is so bad that the Chargers are often forced to play from behind, eliminating the threat of the run. Additionally, the success of Philip Rivers and the passing game makes it hard to take the ball out of the hands of No. 17.


WR Vincent Jackson
Donald Miralle/Getty
MJS: Rivers has put up some pretty impressive numbers, which plays out perfectly for this week's matchup against Denver's second-ranked defense. What's the best-case scenario for San Diego's attack and who posts bigger numbers, Antonio Gates or Vincent Jackson?

ML: There will be plenty of interesting match-ups when San Diego's offense is on the field. San Diego will look to establish the run to help keep its pathetic defense off the field, but it won't be easy against a Denver defense that allows just 3.3 yards per carry. And when the Chargers pass, we'll get to see if Rivers continues to throw at CB Champ Bailey more than any other quarterback.

If everything goes according to plan for San Diego, Jackson will post the bigger numbers. He has emerged as one of the top-five receivers in the NFL and is the biggest weapon on the Bolts' offense.

Although Gates is still an important component in San Diego's offense, Jackson's ability to stretch the field, break tackles and defeat double-coverage makes him the team's go-to player.

MJS: What's the biggest concern San Diego fans have at this point of the season and -- with all the personnel changes Denver has gone through over the past few months -- is this AFC West rivalry as strong as it was under the Mike Shanahan regime?

ML: The biggest concern of Bolts backers is San Diego's inability to stop the run, a problem that starts on the D-line. Of the team's seven defensive linemen, two of them are overly green prospects (Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Vaughn Martin) and two of them are retreads with no upside (Alfonso Boone and Ian Scott). The fact that the Chargers are desperate for the return of Travis Johnson, widely considered a bust up to this point in his career, tells you all you need to know.

As for the rivalry, I'd say it's still going strong since the AFC West appears to be a two-horse race between the Broncos and Chargers. If the Chargers win on Monday, the teams will be separated by just one game in the loss column. Of course, if the Broncos win they'll open up a 3.5 game lead in the division and this may become too lopsided to even be considered a rivalry.

MJS: Can you evaluate Shawne Merriman's season to date and how serious is the groin injury we keep hearing about?


LB Shawne Merriman
Stephen Dunn/Getty
ML: Merriman is a shell of the player who racked up 29.5 sacks in 27 games between 2006 and 2007. He lacks explosion off the edge and doesn't have to same leg-drive to overpower linemen and push them back into the quarterback. And all of this was before he injured his groin in Week 2, an ailment that has limited him to just a handful of snaps over the previous two games combined. The bye week has helped Merriman recover, but he's still only about 80 percent.

Merriman has played selfish ball, chasing sacks at the expense of his responsibilities against the run -- although he's yet to record a sack this season. He's also hurt his stock by creating far too many off-the-field distractions. The Chargers continue to give extended run to Merriman's backup, first-round pick Larry English, and will elevate English into the starting lineup once Merriman's contract expires after the season.

MJS: Is there anyone on the face of this planet that would have guessed Kyle Orton and Philip Rivers would be ranked neck and neck (10th and 11th, respectively) after the first five games of the season?

ML: Perhaps Kyle Orton's mom expected that to happen, but that's about it. Orton's success has been a surprise to most, although maybe it shouldn't be. He's surrounded by so much more offensive talent in Denver than he ever had in Chicago, so perhaps his success shouldn't be as shocking as it appears at first glance.

That being said, Rivers throws for 64 more yards per game than Orton (311 to 247) and is averaging significantly more yards per completion (14.14 to 11.90). If GM A.J. Smith was to propose a Rivers-Orton swap, the Broncos couldn't get to the phone fast enough to accept.

MJS: The Broncos have had some success this year getting to the quarterback with Elvis Dumervil tied for the top spot in the NFL with 8.0 sacks. What's San Diego's best plan of attack for containing Dumervil and what type of game plan offensively do you expect Norv Turner to break out against the Broncos' revamped defense?

ML: The Chargers hope to establish their running game, first and foremost, which would make it more difficult for Dumervil & Co. to pin their ears back and get after Rivers. Also, this could help the Chargers avoid obvious passing situations.

When the Chargers attack deep, they'll keep extra players in to block and send only one or two receivers into routes. And when they're forced to throw the ball on third-and-long, TE Brandon Manumaleuna and one of the team's running backs will remain in the backfield as personal protectors.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.


SD Super Chargers Top Stories

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