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 average 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.
Although the running game improved from 27th in the league (93.1 yards per game) the first time they played the Colts to 20th overall (107.9 per game) by the end of the season, their final numbers were padded by a 289 yard rushing performance in the finale against Denver, and San Diego has evolved into more of a passing team than a running team over the course of the season.
The results have been mixed, but the fact that quarterback Philip Rivers has only been sacked 25 times thus far this season speaks to their ability to keep him clean long enough to find the open receiver, as evidenced by the fact that they are currently ranked seventh in pass offense, with 241.1 yards per game.
Antonio Gates with Kris Dielman
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. This has forced the Chargers to run between the tackles more frequently this season. Although they were successful running inside and outside on the Broncos in Week 17, they should not have as much success against the Indianapolis front seven.
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. Thus far, the San Diego offensive line has failed to open sufficient holes for Tomlinson and he has struggled to create on his own.
He did average four yards per carry in the first meeting between these teams, though, as Eric Foster and Keyunta Dawson were not able to get off the ball quickly enough and Antonio Johnson had yet to establish himself at the nose tackle position.
With Johnson firmly entrenched and Dawson and Foster forming a stout rotation at the under position, the Colts should have better results this time around. However, it remains to be seen whether or not shutting down Tomlinson should be priority No. 1 for them on wild card weekend.
In passing situations, though, it is equally important for Dwight Freeny, Raheem 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 made the Pro Bowl yet again and led the Chargers in receptions (60) and touchdowns (eight), but averaged only 11.7 yards per reception and is not the deep threat down the seam that he used to be. That bodes well for Indianapolis.
They held Gates to three catches for 28 yards in Week 12 by filling the short zones with Freddy Keiaho and Clint Session and daring Gates to beat them over the linebackers and in front of the safety. Where they need to be particularly vigilant is in the red zone, since Tampa, which runs a nearly identical version of the Cover 2 defense, allowed Gates to burn them for two red zone touchdowns.
WR Vincent Jackson
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
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.
Kelvin Hayden is back and at full health and Tim Jennings and Keiwan Ratliff have stepped up since Marlin Jackson went on injured reserve earlier this season. They 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. 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.
After being bothered all year by a toe injury which affected his ability to cut, LaDainian Tomlinson returned with a vengeance against the Broncos with 96 yards and three touchdowns. However, he left Week 17 with a groin injury and, even if he is able to go, he will be limited.
Tomlinson remains dangerous despite a rough season
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
The Colts decided to focus on Tomlinson in the first meeting and, as a result, allowed Philip Rivers to pass for 288 yards and two touchdowns — a number that represents a full third of the touchdown passes Indianapolis gave up all season.
Given that Tomlinson averaged only 3.8 yards per attempt all season and needed those three touchdowns to get to 11 overall, the Colts may want to pay less attention to the talented tailback and focus on other areas, starting with the passing game.
Without a doubt, the Indianapolis defense is hoping that Tomlinson tries to make a go of it at less than 100%, since back-up Darren Sproles has given them fits over the past three games against San Diego, with three touchdowns of over 40 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown reception in last year's Divisional Round playoff game and two return touchdowns in last season's regular season tilt.
If Tomlinson cannot go, or is ineffective, the Colts need to watch out for Sproles. Even if he only comes in on third down, he needs to be a player of emphasis for the Indianapolis defense, since he has averaged 11.8 yards on 29 receptions this season and has five touchdown receptions, or one for every six times he catches the ball.
On screens and checkdowns, the undersized, speedy Indianapolis defenders should be able to track down and tackle the similarly undersized and speedy Sproles. They just need to make sure they know where he is at all times when he comes into the game.
The Chargers have ridden the right arm of Philip Rivers all season and, with Tomlinson hobbled and the offensive line not run blocking as effectively as in years past, that trend will continue on Saturday night.
Rivers enjoyed a career year in 2008, throwing for 4,009 yards, 34 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions, and a staggering 8.4 yards per attempt, all adding up to a league-best quarterback rating of 105.5. Considering the monumental statistical seasons put up by Kurt Warner and Drew Brees, that is a tremendous accomplishment.
Rivers has put together his finest season yet
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Indianapolis was unable to slow him down in Week 12, but they were focused on stopping Tomlinson and the allegedly potent San Diego running game.
In order to contain Rivers on Saturday, the Colts need to return to their standard Cover 2 defense, taking Bob Sanders or Antoine Bethea out of the box and leaving them in coverage, committing only seven men to the line of scrimmage.
When the Cover 2 defense is executed properly — and no one runs it better than Ron Meeks and his charges — it forces a quarterback to mentally and physically endure it, taking what the defense gives him and methodically driving down the field.
Rivers is not accustomed to doing that, judging by his 8.4 yards per attempt average, and will likely become frustrated and impatient if forced to work for every yard. He will take chances down the field and Bethea and Sanders need to be ready to pounce when he does.
Although Rivers is a more polished and patient quarterback than Rex Grossman, Indianapolis can expect similar results to what they experienced against a do-or-die quarterback like Rivers if they stay disciplined and make him work.
Norv Turner. For as much flak as he catches as a head coach, Turner is an exceptionally gifted play caller. After Rivers and Tomlinson left the game in the playoffs last season, Turner was forced to think outside the box and dig deep into his bag of tricks, with disastrous results for the Colts.
If they give Tomlinson some breathing room and play their game, Turner will play right into their hands — and their strengths.
If, however, Turner improvises and starts to work out of his comfort zone, Indianapolis could be in big trouble. The matchups and schemes favor them, the only thing they cannot predict is whether or not Turner will get in a zone again in terms of play calling and help the Chargers beat the odds.