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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Chargers Offense, is Phillip Rivers old yet?

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers-Training Camp Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On September 8, 2019 the Indianapolis Colts will kick off the season by traveling to the City of Angels to take on the Los Angeles Chargers. In this Week 1 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

In the past twenty years, our Colts haven’t fared well against the Chargers, going 4-6 including two playoff losses in ‘08 and ‘09. Most recently, our Colts got the better of the Chargers back in September of 2016 when (Buffalo Bills Running Back) Frank Gore’s 82 yards and a touchdown, combined with (ESPN Analyst) Pat McAfee’s three punts inside the Chargers’ 20, helped launch our Colts to a 26-22 victory. Hopefully the result is similar this time around.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 1.


Offensive Scheme

In January of 2016, the Chargers had just fired Frank Reich as their offensive coordinator and rehired Ken Whisenhunt to take back his old role as OC, following his firing as head coach of the Tennessee Titans. In a strange way, Ken Whisenhunt has brought the current generation of Colts fans so much more to cheer for than anyone could have ever expected. That said, he has had consistent success as a play caller. Many of the same principals Frank Reich uses with our Colts, Whisenhunt has been employing for years.

The Chargers offense under Whisenhunt is similar to what the Colts run. Last year I took a look at what a Frank Reich offense might look like. Now, with a full year of watching the Frank Reich Experience, the most obvious differences I see between Reich and Whisenhunt (other than personnel) are the tempo and the amount of plays the Chargers run from shotgun. The 2018 Colts were in gun around 72% of the time, while the 2018 Chargers were in gun around 56%. From a tempo perspective, the Colts ran 138 plays without a huddle compared to the Chargers 8. The Colts, interestingly, ran 125 more plays last year than did the Chargers.

Otherwise you’re going to see a lot of crossing receivers, a lot of backs coming out of the backfield, multiple tight end sets and well-designed plays.

The Ringer’s Danny Kelly took a look at the Chargers offense as they were preparing to play their sixth game of the 2018 season, here’s just some of what he had to say:

...It (the offense) has a few similarities to Sean McVay’s unstoppable Rams offense, in fact: For starters, the Chargers have employed more pre-snap sweep motion this year, an effective measure meant to stress defenses horizontally with fakes or by getting Gordon and Ekeler out on the edge. And when you pop on the tape, it’s clear that the Chargers favor many of the reduced-split formations—when receivers line up closer to the ball—that their crosstown rivals lean on. Those formations are typically meant to create room on the outside, giving pass catchers the space to draw the defense toward the middle of the field before breaking toward the sideline. Rivers has always excelled throwing pinpoint lasers toward the sideline, so these types of throws come naturally.

Danny Kelly’s article is worth your time but it alone doesn’t tell the whole story of the potential problems this Chargers offense presents to the Colts’ defense. To get a better understanding, I took a look at a different article from the Ringer written by Robert Mays, The Misunderstood Art of Play-Calling. The article itself is a really cool look into Bruce Arians, Sean McVay and Ken Whisenhunt’s philosophy when calling plays. From the article:

The game’s exceptional play-callers distinguish themselves by regularly ascending to this exalted sense of flow. Chargers coordinator Whisenhunt describes it best. When asked about settling into his rhythm, he stops and poses what seems like an odd question—“Are you a Seinfeld fan?”—before going on to explain. In an episode from Season 2, “The Busboy,” Elaine raves about a frantic drive to the airport that involved her weaving in and out of heavy traffic, anticipating openings before they appeared.

“To me, it’s a little bit like that,” Whisenhunt says. “Sometimes you’ve got to get in an area where you know what you want to do. You get on a string, and you’re seeing two or three plays ahead.”

That type of groove may sound like it’s predicated on an ability to see the future, but in reality, gaining a feel for dialing up the perfect play is honed over time. It’s based on the ability to predict what coverages a defense will use in certain scenarios, and as games go on and teams move further off-script, play-callers hope that they can use their understanding of an opponent’s core coverage tendencies to their advantage. In the second halves of games, creativity and feel for the moment truly shine.

A couple things stand out about this quote. Number one: Seinfeld is far more relevant to NFL play-calling than I ever thought possible and two: like Frank Reich, Ken Whisenhunt has an outstanding ability to understand what a defense is trying to do while setting up plays on future downs, the way you might set up moves in a game of chess.

This is especially relevant considering what we know about Philip Rivers' ability to throw the ball accurately toward the sideline. This chart should clear everything up:

https://twitter.com/SportsInfo_SIS

Ken Whisenhunt is already good at predicting what a defense is going to do, the Colts called more zone coverage than any team in the league (you’ll see this chart again tomorrow when I go over the Chargers defense, for obvious reasons) and while they called a lot of quarters coverage (this is a fantastic explanation of quarters if you’re unfamiliar), the Colts did use quite a bit of cover 2. This is important because one time-tested way to beat cover 2 is by throwing downfield toward the sideline.

Ken Whisenhunt’s West Coast offense will look to spread our Colts out and get yards after the catch. With that said, as the game goes on (we’re talking maybe the second quarter unless the Colts have added a lot of wrinkles to their defensive play-calling) and Whisenhunt believes he has a feel for what the Colts are going to do next, it shouldn’t be surprising to see him try to go down the field hitting on some of those outside throws Rivers excels at. When the Colts run quarters coverage, I expect to see the Chargers throw a lot of screen passes. When the situation calls for it, we’re going to see a steady mix of both zone and gap running schemes, no matter who is starting at running back.


Quarterback: Phillip Rivers

Philip Rivers was drafted in the first round of the 1986* NFL draft by the New York Giants (two truths and a lie). He was then traded for Eli Manning and a third round pick that would later become kicker Nate Kaeding (seriously). I’ll let you decide who won this trade in the comments because frankly, I just don’t care to extend this article when the obvious answer is Nate Kaeding.

Rivers’ career has been a good one, though he's possibly the most unfortunate quarterback of his generation. His contemporaries from the 2004 draft, Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, have both won multiple Super Bowl trophies while Rivers has often been the best player on the least lucky team in the NFL. However, when compared to the fourth quarterback taken in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft, J.P. Losman, Philip Rivers might as well be Joe Montana. Of course, that could be said for a lot of guys when comparing them to J.P. Losman. Don’t worry Chargers fans, at least you’re not the Bills.

Back on topic: If 2018 is any indication, 2019 Philip Rivers is a very good NFL quarterback.

This is a really well designed play and Rivers drops in a nice ball. Here, we see the Bengals cornerback at the bottom of the screen play man while his receiver runs right at the single deep safety. The Chargers' use of play action works in bringing the linebackers a step toward the line of scrimmage and then using the back and receivers to attack all three levels of the defense. This means that this play has a high probability of being effective against a called cover 2 or quarters defense as well, as the DB’s would have to make a decision of who to cover, someone would be open.

Of course, great play design doesn’t mean much without someone who can execute those plays and in 2018 Philip Rivers showed no signs of slowing down despite the fact that at 73* years old he has 28* children, I assume, keeping him up most nights of the week.

More of the same:

All of that deep and to the sideline stuff seems accurate.

The Screen Game:

The Chargers do like to push the ball, probably a little more than the Colts, but we should expect to see a few screen passes, especially if our DB’s are consistently playing off.

This seems familiar:

It seems just like something the Colts would run. It’s pulling at several spots in the defense, trying to get someone open and when Phillip Rivers finds his man (after his man gets himself off the ground), he hits him for a short, high percentage throw.

One day, Phillip Rivers and his punchable face (my opinion only, I have no data that conclusively proves it’s true) will retire. And when he does, he’ll take his bolo ties and school buss full of his own children and go live on a compound to start a religious cult... alright I have no idea if any of that is true but Phillip Rivers is still a really good quarterback and I’m kind of upset we have to play this guy at 93* years old when our franchise quarterback retired at 29. Just let me have this paragraph to vent.

Seriously though, I think Phillip Rivers is going to have success early and often on Sunday.

*Numbers approximate


Running Back: It Doesn’t Matter Who Plays Here

I noticed some interesting things while watching the 2018 Chargers ground game against the Steelers in week 13 and Bengals in week 14, in both games they were without starting running back Melvin Gordon.

Here’s what I noticed: if they line up under center and send no one in motion, more often than not they’re passing the ball. If it’s a 3rd or 4th and short, they may try to go quick at the line to catch the defense asleep and in that case they won’t send anyone in motion. The other situation where the Chargers will often run while under center without sending a man in motion is in the two minute drill.

Ultimately, this could be nothing, but after charting and removing plays that came on 3rd and short and in the two minute drill, this was the reality the majority of the time. Will Ken Whisenhunt follow this pattern into 2019? Nobody knows, but it’s something to watch for, if you’re an insane nerd, like me.

Melvin Gordon, the fifth year running back who has gone over 1,000 yards on the ground once and has averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry in a season a single time, is holding out for a contract extension. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Gordon is a good pass-catching back out of the backfield. With that said, the Chargers were 3-0 last season without him, and this year the Chargers are likely to lean on Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson.

Ekeler played in 14 games, starting three, while rushing the ball 106 times for 554 yards (a 5.2 yard per carry average) and three rushing touchdowns. He also pulled in 39 catches for 404 yards and another three touchdowns.

Melvin Gordon has absolutely no footing to negotiate from with a back as productive as Ekeler on the roster, but that’s not the point of this article.

Melvin Gordon:

This is a good run. Gordon shows patience, good vision and the ability to finish the run with an extra yard or two after contact.

Austin Ekeler:

Ekeler is a smaller back, 5’ 10” at 200 lbs and he isn’t going to be the same type of physical runner that Gordon has the ability to be. With that said, Ekeler shows the same good vision and has the ability to let his blocks develop (looking at you Sam Tevi #69).

Justin Jackson:

Jackson wasn’t heavily used, but the Chargers do expect their backs to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield, so we’re bound to see a few plays like this where they try to get a back in space and outrun our linebackers to the corner. I feel pretty confident in the speed the Colts have on that side of the ball, but it’s something to watch for.


Pass Catchers:

I remember a time when playing against the Chargers guaranteed a couple things: Phillip Rivers would do something annoying, and we would all suffer through three hours of listening to the announcers talk about how Antonio Gates was a college basketball player (like it was the first time we were hearing that information), while Gates would catch 15 passes for 200 yard and 3 touchdowns, every. single. time.

That’s an exaggeration, sure, but Gates' days of killing us are over. He’s not on this team but that doesn’t mean they haven’t replaced him with plenty of capable weapons.

Mike WIlliams

Mike Williams was the 7th overall pick in the 2017 draft, out of Clemson. His first season didn’t go as planned but year two was much more productive snagging 43 balls for 664 yards and 10 touchdowns. Williams is a 6’4” 220 lb receiver who is a threat in the redzone and is obviously not afraid to take a hit.

Keenan Allen

This probably isn’t the best clip to highlight Keenan Allen’s ability as a receiver. He runs great routes, has good hands and is generally thought of as one of the best receivers in the league.

I’m going to choose to ignore the fact that the Bengals thought it was a swell idea to use number 58, defensive end Carl Lawson in coverage as it went exactly as well as you would expect. Either way, if the Colts give Keenan Allen these kind of zones to sit down in, he’s going to kill us all day long.

Other pass catchers to watch for on Sunday: tight end Hunter Henry who missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL that he suffered in OTA’s but looks ready to return to form in 2019.

Travis Benjamin is another receiver who could see some targets. The last guy I will mention played for the Colts last season, but has found his way back home to the Chargers: Dontrelle Inman.

This is a talented group of pass catching options and our young defense will have its hands full trying to cover them all day long.


Offensive Line:

Last year, the Chargers gave up just over 2 sacks per game, while finishing the year with 1,873 rushing yards, good for fifteenth in the league. Football Outsiders ranked the Chargers line as the 5th best run blocking line and the 13th best in pass protection, if those things mean anything to you.

All in all, when healthy they’re a really good unit.

Yet, they get blamed for things like this:

See, when running backs can’t block, it unfairly ends up in the offensive line breakdown. It’s just not right.

On the other hand, when you open a hole like this, you deserve some credit:

Also, shout out to Tight End Virgil Green, maybe you’re not strong enough to block that defensive end on your own, but at least you were man enough to admit it with a cut block*.

Unfortunately for the Chargers they will be without pro bowl left tackle Russell Okung who suffered a pulmonary embolism, which is decidedly not a traditional football injury. Hopefully for his sake, Okung can make a full recovery and get back to a normal life sooner rather than later.

One thing to watch for upfront in this game are what the Chargers are doing with their guards. Forrest Lamp was selected 38th overall in the 2017 NFL draft but has only played in two career games due to repeated injury. This off season Lamp was finally able to get healthy and he battled with Dan Feeney for a starting role. Lamp eventually lost the battle but Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said that they plan to rotate Feeney in at guard. So it’s possible to see Forrest Lamp in at either guard position during this game, subbing in for Dan Feeney on the left side or Michael Schofield on the right.

Either Lamp is going to step in and play great football or Denico Autry is going to destroy the young man who has only played 17 professional snaps in his career. Matt Eberflus has to be aware of this situation and I have to believe he will throw the kitchen sink and Forrest Lamp as soon as he walks on to the field.

Despite the absence of Russell Okung, I believe that this offensive line is a high quality opponent for the Colts defensive line who will want to see what they have with their new pass rushers, both young and Justin Houston.

*Yes I realize it was probably coached that way, this is the opponent, let me throw some shade.


Final Thoughts:

Like most games in the NFL, this one might come down to whether or not the Colts can generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. If not, Phillip Rivers will do his best to shred the Colts mostly zone defense and is likely to find success. The Chargers are a good rushing football team but I, perhaps foolishly, don’t believe they’ll be able to control the game on the ground against the Colts front 7.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the Chargers defense and see if we can figure out how Frank Reich and Jacoby Brissett might look to attack the 2019 Chargers.