The Chargers are similar to the Patriots along their offensive line in that there personnel has not changed significantly in the past few seasons. Starting with left tackle Marcus McNeil's rookie year in 2006, the team has had the same four starters at both tackle positions, center, and left guard.
Newcomer right guard Louis Vasquez has been in the starting rotation since the outset of 2009, so this unit has enjoyed a great deal of continuity over the years. But, the Chargers have also surrendering 22 sacks this season and like to set Philip Rivers out of a lot of five and seven step drops, so Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney should have plenty of opportunities to come after the quarterback.
McNeil and right tackle Jeromey Clary are solid pass blockers and above-average run blockers and did an excellent job giving Rivers a clean pocket to operate in on Monday night. Denver did not blitz frequently, though, and their four pass rushers are not as effective as Freeney and Mathis. Given the fact that the Indianapolis pass rush tends to improve with the home crowd behind them, the Colts — especially Freeney and Mathis — should be able to get consistent pressure on Rivers, which will take away some of San Diego's deep passing game.
With Antonio Johnson back, Daniel Muir holding his own, and Pat Angerer doing an excellent job in run support, the middle of the Indianapolis defense is actually faring pretty well, allowing an average of only 3.6 yards per attempt. The Chargers have attempted the fourth most rushes up the middle in the league, but they are averaging a 15th-best 4.16 yards per carry.
San Diego has had considerable success running around left end, with the sixth most attempts in the NFL and a 5.31 yard per carry average. They seem to either run up the gut — which is what they did almost exclusively with Mike Tolbert in the game on Monday night — or run wide, which seems reserved for Ryan Matthews. The Colts have been dreadful on the left side, allowing 5.89 yards per carry around left end, 4.42 yards per carry over left tackle, and 6.63 yards per carry off left guard.
If Matthews is able to go, look for the Chargers to run to all areas on the left side, pulling veteran guard Kris Dielman and center Nick Hardwick. If he does not suit up, then Indianapolis might catch a break, as San Diego will then just pound Tolbert up the middle. Tolbert was able to wear the Broncos down on Monday night and could surely wear the Colts defense down on Sunday night, but the Chargers will most likely throw the ball more than they did against Denver.
Patrick Crayton dislocated his wrist on Monday night and Antonio Gates is fighting his way through a tough foot injury, so it's almost a lock that Crayton will not be available and Gates will probably be a game time decision. Norv Turner likes to call isolated screens to his tailbacks and receivers and Crayton scored a touchdown on an isolated screen on Monday night. He isolates his man through misdirection and formation, so that the receiver has only one defender to beat in order to get to the second level and behind his blockers.
With Crayton out, Turner will focus these plays on Malcolm Floyd and Darren Sproles. Tackling has been an issue for the Colts all season, so it will be critical for the isolated defender to wrap his man up and prevent him from getting a head of steam and gaining chunks of yardage.
Sproles has only 31 rushing attempts this season versus 34 receptions, so the Chargers will use him as more of a receiver than a running back. If Sproles is in the game, he will either be pass blocking or isolated as a receiver. Hopefully Clint Session will be able to return for Sunday night's game so that he can shadow Sproles, but Kavell Conner or Philip Wheeler will need to pick up the slack if he is absent. Angerer could also step in for Session if Gary Brackett is able to go, but everyone needs to stay disciplined, not over commit to misdirection, and exercise sound tackling technique.
Floyd is solid in the open field, but doesn't have the punt returning background of Sproles and Crayton, so he is not quite as deadly. His real game is using his speed to get behind the coverage. He has excellent deep speed, but does not catch the deep ball well at its highest point in traffic. He will need to get behind the coverage and have at least a step on the defender to be effective, so Aaron Francisco and Antoine Bethea need to keep him in front of them.
The wild card here is Vincent Jackson. Jackson held out for the first six weeks of the season, then served a suspension. Sunday night will be his first game back and San Diego will need him. He is a tremendously talented receiver and had a breakout season in 2009, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can shake the rust off after a long layoff. Turner will need to get Jackson involved, since he doesn't have many other options, so it will be up to Jackson to determine how well he performs.
As discussed previously, Tolbert will head up the gut if he is the starter and Matthews will test the middle and the left side if he is healthy. The Chargers have used Tolbert and Matthews as a "thunder and lightning" duo at different points in the season when both players were healthy, but that hasn't been the case for most of the year. If San Diego has early success running the ball, that will set up play action and misdirection for deep passes and big plays.
If they are able to keep the Indianapolis defense off balance in the running game by mixing up Tolbert and Matthews, that will put the secondary in an even worse situation in the passing game. Again, tackling is the key. If they can keep Matthews from sliding off of tacklers and Tolbert from bouncing off defenders, then they stand a chance of holding this very potent offense in check.
The x-factor is Jacob Hester, who usually lines up as a fullback, but is generally used as an extra blocker and receiver. Hester and Sproles are very rarely in the game at the same time, so the linebackers will need to stay alert and monitor Sproles or Hester in coverage if they are in the game.
Philip Rivers is enjoying an MVP-worthy season to this point. If he can continue to put up big numbers and continue to turn San Diego's season around, then he will be the leading candidate for the award, though Michael Vick is certainly making a strong case for the Eagles.
Rivers is averaging nine yards per attempt, throwing the ball vertically, hitting for big plays, and still completing over 65 percent of his passes. He has 23 touchdown passes on the season and is on pace to throw for over 5,000 yards. He has certainly arrived as a quarterback in the NFL if there were any doubts about his abilities previously.
Rivers is extremely difficult to stop if the other elements of the offense are working. If he has a clean pocket and the Chargers are able to run the ball, he will pick a defense apart and strike for big chunks of yards. If his pass protection breaks down, if he gets hit frequently and is sacked, then he starts to break down as well.
He has a tendency to force the ball into coverage when he breaks down, so getting to him early will be the key for Freeney and Mathis, as well as Larry Coyer mixing in the occasional well-timed blitz. He has nine interceptions on the season, so he does make mistakes and those mistakes usually occur when he is rattled.
If the Colts can stall the running game and get to Rivers, then they can slow him down. He hasn't passed for over 3,000 yards thus far this season because he is easily stopped, so it will be impossible to stop him completely. He can be contained, he can be forced into making mistakes, and that will hopefully be enough.
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