For Vikings-centric fans, there may not be any connection with the San Diego Chargers, Minnesota’s opponent Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium. The franchise has consistently produced solid teams, but never one that has been able to get over the top.
Since drafting Philip Rivers in 2004, the Chargers have had a record of 8-8 or better in 10 of those 11 seasons with the one exception being a 7-9 year in 2013. They have made the playoffs six times, but have lost out in the wild card once, the divisional round four times and the AFC Championship Game once. Like Cincinnati, they have teams good enough to make the playoffs, but not advance very far once they do.
The Chargers are led on offense by Rivers, who is off to another strong start as a passer who routinely throws for 4,000 yards and is always around 30 touchdown passes a year. He has been without his favorite target – tight end Antonio Gates, who is sitting out a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing substances – but Rivers has still been able to make plays, especially in the clutch. The Chargers are converting on 46 percent of their third-down plays and, as a result, have been able to maintain an eight-minute time of possession edge over their opponents. Rivers is the master of ball control and will press the Vikings to try to get him off the field before he can do his damage.
One of the biggest changes in San Diego is the emergence of rookie Melvin Gordon in the backfield. Gordon replaces longtime featured back Ryan Mathews, who simply couldn’t stay healthy. Gordon was a workhorse at Wisconsin and is already averaging 15 carries a game. The player the Vikings may be most concerned about in the Chargers backfield is veteran Danny Woodhead. An undersized player used extensively as a runner and receiver, he has scored both of San Diego’s rushing touchdowns and has 10 receptions. The coaching staff designs plays specifically for Woodhead and, in the open field, he can be extremely dangerous.
Woodhead’s ability as a receiver may have to come into play Sunday. The Chargers are already without Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, who is halfway through a four-game league suspension, and No. 2 tight end Lardarius Green suffered his second concussion of the season last week and may not be available Sunday, which could change things up considerably on offense for San Diego.
The Detroit Lions learned the hard way that wide receiver Keenan Allen is the new go-to guy in the offense. Allen lit the Lions up for 15 receptions and, along with speedy slot receiver Stevie Johnson, who has two touchdown catches already this year, the Chargers have a stacked deck of wideouts that includes 12th-year vet Malcom Floyd and speedy return specialist Jacoby Jones, who is out Sunday with an ankle injury. If Rivers can buy time in the pocket, he still has a fleet of downfield receivers that can do damage.
The Chargers have a solid offensive line that has been compiled through the draft in the middle and through free agency on the outside. At center is Chris Watt, a third-round draft pick in 2014. He is flanked by right guard D.J. Fluker, a first-round pick in 2013 who is questionable with an ankle injury. Aside from them, the O-line was bought and paid for through free agency, including left tackle King Dunlap (Philadelphia), left guard Orlando Franklin (Denver) and right tackle Joe Barksdale (St. Louis). As a group, they have done a decent job of run blocking, but have allowed Rivers to be sacked six times in two games – a number the Vikings hope to exploit Sunday.
Defensively, the Chargers have built from within and developed a lot of talent along the way. Their outside linemen that bookend Sean Lissemore in their 3-4 alignment are former high draft picks – Kendall Reyes (a second-round draft pick in 2012) and Corey Liuget (a first-rounder in 2011). Liuget had nine sacks last year and is a focus in both the pass and run defense. Reyes has a freakish skill set with size, speed and athleticism for his position and will occasionally split time with Ricardo Mathews, who is a pass-rush specialist that can be disruptive.
Although this defense has talent at all three levels of the defense, the Chargers have been gashed. Opponents are averaging 4.7 yards a carry and opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 103.3, due in large part to the Chargers have just one sack in two games – a problem that falls squarely on the defensive front to improve.
One of the focuses of the San Diego defense over the last few years has been to draft linebackers to make its 3-4 defense work and the moves have been effective. All four starters are draftees, including fifth-round rookie Kyle Emmanuel and Melvin Ingram (1st round, 2012) on the outside and Donald Butler (3rd round, 2010) and Manti Te’o (2nd round, 2013) on the inside. Ingram is the star of the group, but missed time last year with a hip injury. When healthy, he can be dominant and there isn’t a true weak link in the bunch. The Chargers appear to be stockpiling at the position, having used a second-round pick each of the last two years for depth at linebacker – Jeremiah Attaochu in 2014 and Denzel Perryman in 2015. If the Vikings are going to win Sunday, this will be the group that will have to be exploited, because, when they’re on their game, few teams boast a better linebacker group than San Diego.
In the secondary, the Chargers have one of the best safeties in the league in Eric Weddle. He is the leader of the defense and can make plays at the line of scrimmage or deep down the field. He is joined at safety by Jahleel Addae, who is a heavy hitter prone to delivering the knockout shot but won’t play Sunday because of an ankle injury. The Chargers have some decent depth at cornerback. Brandon Flowers excels in the slot and, while undersized, is strong in coverage. 2014 first-rounder Jason Verrett (questionable, foot) is being touted by the Chargers as having Pro Bowl potential and, in his second season, much more is being expected of him. Throw in former Saint Patrick Robinson and third-round rookie Craig Mager and the Chargers have depth that can stand up against the top quarterbacks in the league.
The Vikings may be catching a huge break with Gates out on offense and a San Diego defense that has been burned too often early in the season. But San Diego is a team that consistently is in the playoff conversation and has had a winning record 10 of the last 11 seasons, a feat that doesn’t happen by accident. To maintain that type of consistent winning, a team has to be able to win on the road and San Diego will be bringing that to The Bank Sunday. If the Vikings are to leave the game with a 2-1 record, they will have to play a textbook game because the Chargers aren’t a team to be taken lightly.