The Indianapolis Colts will face the San Diego Chargers on Sunday as they look to avoid an 0-3 start to the season, but they will face a tough test in Philip Rivers and the Chargers. In order to get a better idea of the Chargers this year, we asked SB Nation’s Chargers site, Bolts from the Blue, five questions about the team. Richard Wade was kind enough to answer them, and our questions are in bold below and Richard’s answers follow.
1. The Chargers lost Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead for the season in back-to-back weeks. How big are those losses, and how will San Diego replace them?
Allen is arguably one of the top 10 wide receivers in the National Football League. He runs some of the best routes I've seen in my decades of watching football. He has excellent hands and had developed a rapport with Philip Rivers that simply cannot be replicated. Nobody else on the roster has a similar skillset to Allen and frankly none of them are half as good as him either.
Danny Woodhead is the best third down back the Chargers have had since at least Ronnie Harmon in the 90s. Darren Sproles was a more electric playmaker returning kicks and punts, but Woodhead was a better receiving threat and pass blocker. The Chargers no longer have a capable pass blocking back on the 53-man roster, and while Dexter McCluster will replace some of the lost value of a receiving back, he is not a quality runner.
Overall, the Chargers lost their two most important skill position players outside of Philip Rivers. They will be replaced in that the offense will have to change to highlight the talents of the remaining players instead of trying to fill the roles that are now empty. Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams will both need to take on larger roles in the passing game and the passing game will probably need to be more vertical. In the running game, Melvin Gordon will need to absorb more touches. It'll be interesting to see if his surgically repaired knee can hold up to the increased workload.
2. Melvin Gordon had a bit of a tough time as a rookie last year, but so far this year seems to be running better. Is that accurate? And if so, what changed?
It's very accurate. There are three main reasons for Gordon's improvement.
1) Matt Slauson was signed to replace Trevor Robinson at Center. The Chargers went from having the worst center in the league to a well-above-average player at the position. This has a ripple effect on the quality of play we have seen from guards Orlando Franklin and D.J. Fluker now that they no longer have to worry about the man to their inside shoulder. Also, for now left tackle King Dunlap is healthy. He's very good when healthy; it just doesn't happen often enough. So, Gordon is going from a terrible offensive line to a pretty good one. That helps a lot, obviously.
2) Ken Whisenhunt is so much better than Frank Reich that it is difficult to put into words, but I will try. Reich is an atrocious play caller and after two seasons I'm not convinced he has any idea how to run an offense. Whisenhunt is one of the best offensive coordinators in football. How else does a guy that's such a bad head coach get multiple opportunities to prove it? Their weaknesses and strengths are especially evident in the running game which obviously has an outsized effect on Melvin Gordon.
3) Melvin Gordon himself has drastically improved. His patience and decisiveness are so far and above what they were last year and during his collegiate career that it is awesome to watch. Plenty of players see the light go on and get better, but you never want to count on it and I was barely even willing to hope for it. Watching him in training camp this year, it was obvious that he was going to be better. Watching him through two weeks, he's improved more than I thought. By all accounts, he is a hard worker and a good guy, so you really have to be happy for him.
3. Defensively, what are the expectations for the Chargers this year after having the chance to watch their first two games?
At this point, I think we're cautiously optimistic that the defense can be slightly above average. The safety play is bad and the pass rush is inconsistent, but the trio of Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward, and Brandon Flowers is outstanding. Verrett, if he can stay healthy, will cement his status as one of the top three corners in the NFL. Hayward is as good as it gets defending the slot and he has shown the ability to cover out wide as well. When Flowers is your weak link at corner, you are doing pretty well. Hopefully, Joey Bosa can have a positive impact when he eventually gets on the field. His replacements at defensive end have been a liability against the run and done little to help in the way of pass rush. Still, the defense showed the high end of what it's capable of against the Jaguars.
4. The Chargers have former Colts safety Dwight Lowery, who played well for Indianapolis last year. How has he done so far for San Diego?
Lowery has been fine. He's usually a little late getting to where he needs to be and he doesn't seem likely to contribute many big plays, but he also hasn't been terrible. For long stretches during games, you forget he's even on the field and honestly that's a win of sorts.
5. Knowing what you do of the Chargers, how would you attack them if you were the Colts' offensive and defensive coordinators?
On offense, I would look to attack the Chargers by running the ball at Darius Philon. You can get him on skates and push him off the ball more easily than the average defensive lineman. The passing game is where the Chargers are really vulnerable, though. Manti Te'o, Denzel Perryman, Kyle Emanuel, Melvin Ingram, and Dwight Lowery all range from mediocre to dumpster fire in coverage. John Pagano also likes to drop his pass rushers into coverage more than is healthy, so you'll probably get to see more of Emanuel and Ingram trying to cover backs and tight ends than you would anticipate. Your best chance of beating the Chargers defense regularly is feeding Dwayne Allen and your running backs as often as possible. Also, if you ever get Phillip Dorsett lined up against Flowers without help over the top, that's probably six points.
On defense, it's not quite so obvious. My stock answer to this last year would have been A-gap pressure, but that's a lot tougher this season. King Dunlap struggles a bit with a quality speed rush, so you probably want to challenge him there. A Ken Whisenhunt offense is built on the short passing game and effective running to build long drives, so you'll want commit to stopping Melvin Gordon and to flood the shallow zones to take away the quick throws that Rivers excels at. If you can force Dontrelle Inman to have to win outside, you're in a good place. The one issue is that you potentially open yourself up to trouble from Benjamin deep down the field, but I think that's a chance you should be willing to take, especially if you're able to generate any kind of pressure.