Opponent Scouting: The Chargers

DaBolts is answering questions here and shake n bake and I have some Colts questions answered over at Bolts From The Blue. Based on those posts, some healthy stats at FO, and a few observations, I give you this week's scouting report on the Chargers; a team that has beaten the Colts three straight times.

Vincent Jackson is very under-rated

Photo: Chargers.com

Chargers Offense

Statistically, the Chargers offense is one of the best in football. DVOA has them ranked #8 overall in the league, and that ranking is propped up by their outstanding passing attack. The Chargers are the second ranked passing attack in football behind only the Cardinals. Gone are the knocks that their WR corps is garbage and all the passes go to TE Antonio Gates (aka, Mr. Phase Transition). Today, the Chargers have one of the best WRs corps in football, one that rivals the Colts. Vincent Jackson might be the most under-rated WR in football, currently ranked #8 in efficiency at FO, two spots below Reggie Wayne. The one knock against Jackson is that his catch rate is very low. 54% for an NFL WR is not good. For comparisons sake, we all remember Gregggg Dingleberry taking shots at Marvin Harrison for dropping passes. Marvin's catch rate this year is 51%, merely 3% points lower than Jackson's. But Jackson does make timely catches on big downs, as FO's stats show. I've also watched some Chargers games this year, and Jackson has a knack for getting open on key third downs. Chris Chambers is also a dangerous weapon, and one that really bit the Colts in the playoffs last year. If anything, the one time #1 passing priority (Gates) has fallen to Rivers' third or fourth option.

While the passing game has bloomed, it is the running game that is really holding the Chargers down. To put it bluntly, the Chargers have one of the worst rushing offenses in football despite having LaDanian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles. They are ranked 27th in the league. If that ranking were, say, 14th or so, the Chargers would have the #1 offense in football (and probably two or three more wins). For weeks, we've heard how bad the Colts rushing offense is, currently ranked 32nd in the entire league using traditional NFL stats (average 77 rushing yards a game). But using FO's stats, the Colts are ranked 14th while the Chargers are ranked 27th. A big eye-opener is the Chargers only have 5 total rushing TDs this year.

5. That's just, wow.

This means the Bolts have resorted to throwing the ball more in the red zone. They have 21 TDs through the air. This takes SD away from what they are built to do at their core: Run the ball and play defense. Their inability to control games with the running game has allowed teams like Denver, New Orleans, and Buffalo to score points and force SD into near-shoot situations (situations SD is not built to win in). 

So, why has the running game struggled? Tomlinson's health is one reason. He has not been 100% all season. The loss of Michael Turner to free agency is another reason. If ever there was a time Turner's size and speed were needed in SD, it is now. Turner was also a BIG thorn in the Colts side, beating them on a long TD run in 2005 and on the last drive for a TD in the playoffs last year. This is not a knock on Darren Sproles, who is an electric runner and an amazing kick returner, but Turner is just simply a better RB than Sproles. Turner's loss, Tomlinson's injuries, and a lack of consistent play from SD's fullbacks have hurt the ground game and robbed SD of their offensive identity.

Chargers Defense

When Dwight Freeney went down last year in San Diego on that rainy night in November, the Colts lost much of their pass rush. This season, when Chargers LBer Shawne Merriman was IRed just before the start of the regular season with knee injuries, the Chargers lost their pass rush as well. Since Merriman was shut down, the Chargers defense has been a hollow shell of its former self. This defense used to be feared. Now, it is giving up big plays left and right, barely able to stop even the friggin' Kansas City offense.

So, was it just losing Merriman? DaBolts offers his insight:

The loss of Merriman affected the defense much more than expected. With him out some other players were really exposed as not being as good as they looked. Matt Wilhelm at MLB has been awful, Clinton Hart at safety has played poorly and the defensive line just has not performed this year. It didn’t help that Stephen Cooper was out four games on suspension for ephedra at the start of the season. Ted Cottrell really didn’t adjust his scheme to Merriman’s absence; and teams that had the ball at the end of the game within one score could always move the ball and chew the clock. Tight ends in particular really eat this defense up; I’m not looking forward to seeing Clark this Sunday. Lastly the defense hasn’t been ball hawking the way the

Ron Rivera is doing a great job with the Chargers defense.

Photo: Chargers.com

Just like with any defense in the modern NFL, if you do not have a pass rush, it will expose the rest of your D. Their are no shutdown corners anymore in this league. Coverage can only last so long before a pro league caliber QB will find the open man and make a key throw. Pressure on the QB is THE most important element to any defense, more important than stopping the run. Without it, teams will throw at will, score on you, and force you to play catch-up. And SD's defense is doing just that to its offense. It ranks 29th in defensive efficiency, bad against the run (26th) and pass (25th). 

As DaBolts said, injuries and inconsistency have hurt this unit (just like the Colts). The Chargers fired their defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell mid-season and replaced him with LBers coach Ron Rivera, who coached Chicago's Tampa 2-style defense to a Super Bowl in 2006. Now, he is coaching a 3-4 defense, and having them play better. Since Rivera took over the defense, the Chargers have given up an average of 15 ppg. Why Rivera is not a head coach, I don't know. With Rivera coaching the D, the Colts should expect a better unit, especially in the tackling department. They have played more disciplined and within themselves, and at home they should have a comfort zone. The defense Indy will face will be different than the one most other teams have faced. Rivera is very familiar with Manning and the Colts offense, having faced their might in Super Bowl 41.

Special Teams

This unit is probably the biggest strength of the team. They are ranked 10th in the league, anchored by a strong return game with Darren Sproles as the main threat. Sproles torched the Colts special teams last year during the regular season. SD has has a very strong punt return game, able to get their offense good field position. Their punt coverage units might be a bit of a weakness, but they do the job much the same way the Colts have done all year.

K Nate Kaeding is a source of debate. He has an excellent FG accuracy percentage, but Kaeding has a Vanderjagt-like reputation for missing big kicks in big games. He missed important kicks in SD's 2004 and 2006 playoff loses. But, on the whole, his accuracy is very good and his kickoffs are excellent.

Coaching

Norv Turner is certainly on the hot seat, no matter what the Chargers owner is saying. When Ted Cottrell was fired, there was a not-to-subtle message to Turner, who was hired at the same time Cottrell was. Turner has done a fine job maturing Philip Rivers into a true, Pro Bowl caliber QB, but the longtime knock on Turner was always that he did not inspire players. That weakness is showing up this season as Turner has been unable to overcome SD's injuries to get his team playing consistently.

Turner does have a strong group of assistants, led by Rivera. He also has strong veterans on his team. While Turner is an outstanding offensive game planner, his lack of knowledge on defense and his inability to inspire players have hurt the Chargers this year.

Conclusion

This team has a potent passing attack, improving defense, and a devastating return game. They also have a knack for beating the Colts, having won three in a row over them. They've been able to beat them in the past with impressive passing numbers and special teams. Historically, the Colts have done a great job controlling Tomlinson. It was always Michael Turner that killed Indy. With Turner gone, Sproles will see more looks on offense, especially on screens and draws.

San Diego is in desperation mode. They lose this game, their season is, essentially, over. They are playing at home against a team they have confidence against. Key to beating SD is pass rush. When Rivers is pressured, the team has a knack for disintegrating. Just like the Pittsburgh game, this one will be physical and hard fought. Both teams need the win and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

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