Coming into the season, Vincent Jackson was the toast of the football world -- based mostly on potential. The thinking was that Jackson would step up and fill Keenan McCardell's shoes, who the Chargers released in March. He has not done that so far this season. Jackson is paired with another talented young man that was supposed to light the league on fire last season in Chris Chambers. He did not either, and was traded from Miami to San Diego a few weeks ago before the trade deadline.
Looking at Jackson, it is easy to see how everyone was so enamored with him in the offseason. He has a big frame at 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, which is actually a little bit bigger than Dallas Clark. And he runs very well for a man his size, timed at 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2005 NFL Scouting Combine. Given the fact that he has a rare combination of size and speed, one would assume that he was drafted in the early part of the first round. However, the Chargers picked him up towards the end of the second round, 61st overall in the 2005 NFL Draft.
The knock on Jackson coming out of Northern Colorado was that he lacked reliable hands and the competitive drive that it takes to be successful at the NFL level. These faults are still present today and Jackson has sorely underperformed at the midpoint of the season with 21 receptions for 336 yards and two touchdowns -- with a paltry two catches for a total of 21 yards over the past three games.
Aside from the fact that Jackson seems to be slowly disappearing from the stat line, Kelvin Hayden matches up extremely well against him. Hayden is a compact, physical cornerback who has the ability to either jam the receiver at the line or play off of him and work into a soft zone. If Hayden plays close to the line, does not allow Jackson a clean release and punishes him every time he comes close to the ball, Jackson will give up. It's important to remember, though, that lack of competitive drive and unreliable hands do not shrink Jackson and do not make him any slower. He must be pressed and forced to give up the fight, but never ignored. With Bob Sanders close to the line in an attempt to bottle up LaDanian Tomlinson, it's important that Hayden stay focused and not allow Jackson to slip behind him.
Chambers is a very quick, nimble player with exceptional hands and an uncanny ability to catch the ball in traffic, catch it deep and catch it at its highest point. However, he does appear to be a player that is obsessed with highlight reels and tends to give up on a play if he is not going to end up on the Jumbotron. Marlin Jackson should be physical with Chambers, but only to an extent. While Marlin can count on Antoine Bethea for deep help, he also counted on Bethea against Randy Moss. Most importantly, neither Marlin nor Bethea can allow Chris Chambers to get behind them, as he never misses a chance to end up on Sports Center. If they are able to contain him early, they should be able to make him give up hope and focus on the one player in the passing game who can give them considerable trouble.
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And that would be tight end Antonio Gates.
Gates, like any premiere tight end, presents a matchup problem for the defense because if he's not running by a linebacker who is vainly attempting to cover him, he's using his huge frame to box out a safety tasked with the same responsibility. On top of that, Gates makes his living in the intermediate middle of the field, which happens to be where the biggest hole exists in the Cover 2 scheme that the Colts run on defense.
In order to contain Gates, Indianapolis must jam him at the line of scrimmage with the strong side linebacker, have the middle linebacker stretch his part of the zone to the intermediate-to-deep middle of the field and keep the safety closer than they would like. However, if they put three defenders on Gates, they will risk leaving Chambers or Vincent Jackson open for a big play over the top. Therefore, the best strategy will be to jam him at the line, then adjust the linebackers in the intermediate area of the field to favor the middle more so than the corners. Committing three men to Gates will only be a sound strategy in the second half and only if Chambers and Jackson have mailed it in for the remainder of the game.
If the Chargers find themselves down by two touchdowns or more, quarterback Philip Rivers will seek out his two security blankets in the passing game -- and the two most talented members of the offense, Gates and Tomlinson. Tomlinson the receiver is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, as Tomlinson the running back. Early on, Bob Sanders will need to spy Tomlinson in the running game. Late in the game, he will need to spy Tomlinson when Rivers drops back to pass. And, even given a spy to track Tomlinson, it is imperative that the Colts are able to tackle well and keep everything in front of them. All it takes is one juke, one missed tackle, and Tomlinson is off to the races.
The bottom line is that the Chargers passing game is not in the same league as the potent aerial assault that the Colts faced last week. Indianapolis must trust their pass defense, stack the box, and force the Chargers to beat them through the air.