WHEN THE CHIEFS PASS
A week after being sacked five times by the Washington Redskins, Matt Cassel may get a bit of a break. That's because the Chargers are not rushing the passer like they used to. In fact, it's not even close, as San Diego has only seven sacks as a team and former stud Shawne Merriman is without a sack this season.
Merriman still hasn't fully recovered from the devastating knee injury he suffered before last season. Watching him play, you wonder if he will ever recover from it, because he doesn't resemble the dominant, game-changing pass rusher he used to be in any way. Merriman still has plenty of upper-body strength, but there is no explosion in his first step, and his ability to change direction is sluggish. He is still a powerful player capable of walking a tackle back into the quarterback, but he cannot use his legs to complement that ability.
It is killing San Diego's pass rush because rookie Larry English and veteran Shaun Phillips are complementary pass rushers. Without Merriman causing havoc and demanding double and triple teams, English and Phillips look somewhat ordinary.
The Chargers do their best to maximize their pressure by moving everyone around. Merriman, English and Phillips will all put their hand on the ground in four-man fronts at times. They will blitz up the middle in an effort to create confusion. The Chiefs' tackles – and Wade Smith may start for a questionable Branden Albert again – will definitely have to prepare for multiple matchups this week.
But part of that is because the Chargers know they cannot hope to rush four and get to the quarterback consistently. They signed former Chiefs' defensive tackle Alfonso Boone, who played for Chargers' defensive coordinator Ron Rivera in Chicago, and use him as an interior pass-rusher at times. San Diego is a team looking for any pass rush they can find, anywhere.
San Diego allows "only" 217 yards passing per game, good for 13th in the league, but where their lack of a pass rush shows up is in quarterbacks completing over 63 percent of their passes against them (25th) and racking up a cumulative rating of 92.2 (24th). It also shows up, perhaps most glaringly, in the fact the Chargers are the NFL's worst third-down defense, permitting a conversion rate over 50 percent.
We could get into the fact that Quentin Jammer has been toasted by Dwayne Bowe in the past and Antonio Cromartie (who has a banged up knee) is still a defender playing well below his talent level (he's on pace to set a career-low in passes defensed), but it's pretty irrelevant while San Diego's pass rush slumbers. At home, Cassel and the Chiefs will have opportunities to throw the ball down the field this week like they haven't all year.
WHEN THE CHARGERS PASS
Philip Rivers' numbers (59 percent passing, only seven touchdowns) reflect a quarterback who is having an average year, but when you watch him play it's pretty clear he's the same Philip Rivers who tossed 34 touchdowns a year ago. The difference lies in the protection his offensive line is providing, as San Diego's line has allowed 15 sacks already this year after permitting just 25 in 2008.
San Diego's line has gotten progressively worse over the last few seasons. This season, it appears they are simply not playing cohesively as a unit, and breakdowns are occurring. Unblocked players are running free at the quarterback. Rivers often throws from an extremely congested pocket and the accuracy of his passes is affected as a result. It's not really his fault, it's just difficult for him to set his feet and throw with the proper form.
The Chargers have dialed up a glut of screen plays to offset the pressure and they will throw them to almost anyone – Darren Sproles, LaDanian Tomlinson, Jacob Hester, even their squatty little fullback, Mike Tolbert, who took one for 22 yards Monday night against the Broncos. The Chargers execute screens extremely well, so it'll be something the Chiefs will definitely have to prepare for.
Because of their poor protection, tight end Antonio Gates has been featured more in San Diego's passing game and leads the team in catches and is tied for the lead in receiving yards. The Chiefs have done a good job against Gates in the past, but with Derrick Johnson likely relegated to the bench again, can safety Jarrad Page handle him all on his own? Page has frequently drawn one-on-one coverage assignments against Gates in the past and held his own.
The Chargers aren't getting much production from Chris Chambers, who has only eight catches and a single touchdown this season. Look for Kansas City to single up San Diego's wide receivers and concentrate on Gates, because Tamba Hali and Mike Vrabel – not to mention Glenn Dorsey, who's interior pass rush has improved recently – might actually put some heat on the quarterback this week.
Rivers has struggled at Arrowhead and against the Chiefs in the past, but seemed to reverse that trend with a 348-yard performance the last time he was in Kansas City.
WHEN THE CHIEFS RUN
As poorly as the Chargers rush the passer, the real sieve this season is their run defense. San Diego is permitting 141 yards on the ground every week (27th) and has given up six rushing touchdowns (24th). Even the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have struggled to run the ball in recent memory, gashed the Chargers for 177 yards rushing two weeks ago.
The culprit is the missing link in the middle of San Diego's defensive line – nose tackle Jamal Williams, who is out for the season. His replacement, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, is a rookie who is also undersized for the position at only 303 pounds. Even Denver's Casey Wiegmann, whom Chiefs fans are familiar with as a smaller lineman, handled Nwagbuo adequately on his own last week in Denver's win.
It's also quite obvious the Chargers are still not a defense that tackles particularly well. Cromartie in particular has always been a lousy tackler, and with Merriman's knee injury, he can be taken advantage of in open space. Also, because San Diego is a team so desperate to get pressure, the draw plays Todd Haley is fond of may be particularly effective against the Chargers this week.
Chiefs' running back Larry Johnson can pass Priest Holmes as Kansas City's all-time leading rusher with 124 yards against San Diego.
WHEN THE CHARGERS RUN
Why are the Chargers the NFL's worst running team? It would be easy to impugn LaDanian Tomlinson, who is clearly on the decline, but it's fairly obvious it's not all his fault. It's a group effort. San Diego's run blocking is awful and Tomlinson is not able to take advantage of the holes that are there the way he used to.
Tomlinson still has quickness, but there is no explosion in his step. He does not accelerate at an elite level anymore. In the open field, he can still make a defender miss, but he can be run down from behind, especially when he's negotiating his way to a hole or waiting on a block at the line of scrimmage. The Chargers know this, because even with Tomlinson healthy and playing, they hand the ball to Darren Sproles, even on the goal line of all places.
San Diego's line, apart from Marcus McNeill, doesn't appear to have a single lineman who's really much of a threat at the point of attack in the running game. Nobody appears to be great at pulling or blocking on the move, either, and there's a lot of youth when you get past McNeill and left guard Kris Dielman.
The Chargers average only 2.9 yards per carry and 57.6 yards per game and have not scored a rushing touchdown. Those are the worst marks in the entire league, but give them some credit, because they're only 31st in rushing first downs. After shutting down a superior Redskins' ground game in Washington a week ago, you have to like the Chiefs' chances this week against a soft Chargers' offensive line and a declining talent in Tomlinson.
Darren Sproles has been electric for San Diego returning punts and kicks this season and will test even KC's highly-ranked coverage units. Fortunately for the Chiefs, San Diego covers kicks poorly, and short kickoffs from kicker Nate Kaeding don't help. Give the Chargers a slight edge with their strong-legged punter, Mike Scifres, and Sproles.
The Chargers are underachieving again and go on the road after a short week following their Monday Night loss. Head coach Norv Turner is being questioned openly by former San Diego players on the radio and LaDanian Tomlinson is fuming over play calls. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are feeling nothing but positive vibes after their first win of the season over the Redskins.
The Chargers are clearly a soft team that lacks playmakers on the offensive and defensive lines. Can they win with their advantage at the skill positions? Not when Norv Turner is leading the army into battle
Chiefs 24, Chargers 20
The Matchups - Chiefs vs Chargers
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