Through the years, the Chargers offensive line has had the reputation of being a mauling unit rather than one that relies on finesse and athleticism.
While they still have plenty of size — the starting five averages 6-feet-5 and 315 pounds — they have been more adept in pass protection so far this season than in opening huge holes in the running game. With the running game currently ranked 27th in the league at 93.1 yards per game — as compared to the 32nd-ranked Colts, who average 77.7 — San Diego has needed to change their game plan.
Antonio Gates with Kris Dielman
The results have been mixed, but the fact that quarterback Philip Rivers has only been sacked 14 times this season speaks to their ability to keep him clean and find the open receiver, as evidenced by the fact that they are currently ranked seventh in pass offense, with 243.1 yards per game.
For the past few seasons, the name of the game along the front five has been consistency, with the starting lineup unchanged in four spots. Left tackle Marcus McNeil, left guard Kris Dielman, center Nick Hardwick, and right guard Mike Goff have all been together since the start of the 2006 season and right tackle Jeromey Clary replaced the departed Shane Olivea midway through last season.
In the running game, everyone seems to be on the same page and plays are well orchestrated, but they are failing to blow people off the ball the way they are accustomed to and the tackles are having trouble sealing off the perimeter.
Against the Texans, Eric Foster and Keyunta Dawson had issues jumping on the snap and beating the interior lineman into the backfield. The result was a big day by Steve Slaton that was punctuated by poor angles taken by the back seven that resulted in a 71-yard scoring play.
The Chargers' rushing attack is designed to get LaDainian Tomlinson to the second level as quickly as possible, where he can make plays in the open field. So far, the San Diego offensive line has failed to open sufficient holes for Tomlinson and he has struggled to create on his own.
In order to be successful on defense, Foster and Dawson need to keep the offensive line in their funk and force Tomlinson to try to make plays behind the line. He has not done well in this area historically and certainly not to this point in 2008, so it is critical that the Colts linemen are able to penetrate the line of scrimmage.
Additionally, Raheem Brock and Dwight Freeney need to cut their rush lanes inside on first and second down, not allowing Tomlinson to run through any rush lanes that might be created as they are running upfield in an attempt to tackle the ball carrier on the way to the quarterback.
In passing situations, though, it is equally important for Freeny, Brock, and Robert Mathis to take a wide angle to the quarterback, as McNeil and especially Clary do not have the hips or feet to get outside against a speed rusher.
Although the Chargers are generally kind enough to announce their intention to run or pass based on formation, how well the ends are able to diagnose the play after the snap is critical to the success of the defense as a whole.
They must be able to pressure the quarterback and, even though Rivers has not been sacked often and San Diego frequently goes to max protect to make sure he stays upright, he can be had with enough speed, skill and determination. If they cannot get to Rivers, he will have plenty of time to survey the field and throw the ball to a number of talented options.
Antonio Gates is still the man who makes this passing offense go, particularly in the red zone, but he is no longer the only option. He is very quick and fast for a big man, runs crisp routes, has reliable hands, and is too large for a safety to cover and too fast for a linebacker.
WR Vincent Jackson
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
However, the Steelers were able to hold Gates to two receptions for ten yards in Week 11 by jamming him at the line of scrimmage with a linebacker when he was close to the formation, and keeping Troy Polamalu on him at all times.
The Colts should adopt a similar strategy, shadowing Gates with Melvin Bullitt — or Bob Sanders, if available — and giving him help with a linebacker underneath. Clint Session and Freddy Keiaho should be able to contain him in the short area and Bullitt should be able to cover the rest of the field. Indianapolis should trust neither the Cover 2 zone nor any one man to account for Gates, as that would end in disaster.
In the Divisional Round game of the playoffs, the Chargers were able to take advantage of the attention paid to Gates and worked the ball to receivers Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers, with the duo finishing with ten catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
The return of Kelvin Hayden cannot come soon enough, but, if he is not ready to go by Sunday night, Tim Jennings and Keiwan Ratliff need to be physical with these receivers at the line of scrimmage, not allowing them a clean release, and keeping them occupied in the short and intermediate areas of the field as long as possible in the hopes that the pass rush will come to their aid.
Jackson and Chambers are far too talented for any team to contain for longer than three seconds a play and, when Gates is added to the mix, this passing attack becomes even tougher to defend.
With a wounded secondary, the Colts must hope that Freeney and company are able to get to Rivers and that, over the course of the game, Chambers and Jackson start to give up at three-one-thousand.
The silver lining for the defense on Sunday is that they no longer need to focus all of their efforts on shutting down Tomlinson. The inability of the offensive line to seal off the edge or create space inside has left Tomlinson in a rut.
Tomlinson hasn't been his usual high-flying self this season
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
He is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, has scored only five rushing touchdowns, has broken the century mark only twice this season, and has been held to 60 yards rushing in four games this season.
As a result, teams are paying far less attention to the talented tailback and far more attention to the passing game — much like early in the season for the Colts, when defenses stacked the box and forced Peyton Manning to beat them, Chargers opponents are backing off and forcing Tomlinson to beat them.
The trouble with this strategy is twofold. First, Tomlinson is a very talented player who can still make plays in the passing game, either on screen passes or checkdowns. If the standard running plays are taken away, San Diego can still run draws and delays to take advantage of pass rushers that will be overpursuing the play.
Second, Tomlinson is a very talented player. As was the case with Manning, he will only be kept at bay for so long before he ends up making the other team pay for underestimating him.
But, since Rivers is averaging 8.5 yards per pass attempt and Tomlinson is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, it makes sense for the defense to focus on Rivers and take their chances on Tomlinson in the hopes that this won't be the game where he breaks out and silences all the doubters. That game has come and gone for Manning but has yet to come for Tomlinson.
Nothing in this section is intended to take anything away from Philip Rivers. By all accounts, he is having a fantastic season, ranking at least in the top 10 in all statistical categories and leading the league in touchdown passes (21) and yards per attempt (8.5).
However, even though the mantle of Statistical Juggernaut seems to have passed from Tomlinson to Rivers, the team still wins and loses by Tomlinson's legs, not Rivers' arm. In games where Tomlinson struggled and the outcome was based solely on the ability of Rivers, the Chargers have lost far more than they have won, with the success of Tomlinson against New Orleans (170 total yards and a touchdown) taken as an outlier.
It is obvious at this point in the season that Rivers blossomed early as a result of the defense's focus being on Tomlinson and has struggled of late now that the focus is on him. Rivers is an excellent player, a fine athlete, a capable leader, and has plenty of arm to make all the throws with velocity and accuracy, but he is not the kind of quarterback that can carry a team on his shoulders to victory.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to call him a game manager or a paper champion, but he also doesn't seem to have that "X" factor that turns a great athlete into a winner.
For the Colts to win, they need to take the fight to Rivers and see what he is made of. The playoff game that ended the 2007 season for Indianapolis was determined by turnovers and Billy Volek, not by Rivers. They must test him and see if he is up to the challenge with the season on the line.
Tomlinson. There were a number of occasions where Manning was the X-Factor for the Colts and a number of times where he came up short. Such is the case for Tomlinson in this game.
Against a disciplined Steelers zone defense that got after the quarterback, the Chargers scored ten points in Week 11 and Tomlinson was neither a focus nor a factor. Rivers struggled with two interceptions and 6.3 yards per attempt.
If the Chargers are going to prevail in Week 12 in a win-or-go-home scenario, it will be up to Tomlinson to make the difference because, banged-up secondary or no banged up secondary, the Cover 2 defense of the Colts and their pass rush should be able to contain San Diego's passing game enough to win. The only way the Chargers will make up that difference is by running the ball effectively.