Many analysts are predicting a shootout on Sunday between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers. Who knows, maybe it will be. San Diego is much improved on offense and we know what Denver is capable of. Yet, to assume this contest is going to be an up-and-down, last-one-with-the-ball type of game is to completely misunderstand who the Chargers are on offense.
Before the season started, Philip Rivers was written off as if his skills had suddenly diminished over the last couple of years. The real reasons for his struggles were his poor offensive line and a lack of playmakers around him.
Losing Darren Sproles was perhaps the biggest blow, as he is a matchup nightmare and can line up anywhere on the field. Gone also was wide receiver Vincent Jackson, a guy thought to be overrated during his time in San Diego. He’s since proven to be anything but.
It’s also obvious that tight end Antonio Gates has lost a step and is not the top tight end he once was. Take away these options on top of the loss of LaDainian Tomlinson a few years ago, and little by little, Rivers has become the sole remaining young star on a below-average team.
So what did the Chargers do to remedy the problem? One, they hired Mike McCoy, the Broncos Offensive Coordinator from 2009-12. He won a playoff game with Tim Tebow as the starting quarterback. Read that sentence again: He won a playoff game with Tim Tebow as the starting quarterback. He also eased the transition of Peyton Manning back into the NFL with a brand new group of receivers after missing a whole season due to neck surgery. And now eight games into this season, Philip Rivers is completing 72.2 percent of his passes for over 300 yards per game with 17 TDs and only 7 INTs.
Watching McCoy as a coordinator, and now as a head coach, it’s evident what his strengths are. He does an excellent job of creating a system based on his personnel. In other words, he is flexible and creative. He doesn’t stick stubbornly to a specific system. As a result, McCoy has been able to have success with three distinctly different quarterbacks.
The Chargers are doing their best to put more pieces around Philip Rivers. They drafted tackle D.J. Fluker to help bolster a porous offensive line (still a work in progress). The Bolts drafted wide receiver Keenen Allen to add some speed on the outside and they signed running back Danny Woodhead, the very definition of an underrated player. McCoy and seasoned offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have found a way to best utilized these talents.
The Chargers’ biggest issues come on the other side of the ball, where they rank 28th against the pass and 23rd against the run. They have only 5 takeaways, putting them in a tie for dead last in the NFL. Somehow, they manage to have the 11th best scoring defense, but overall, the Chargers haven’t performed well on this side of the ball.
This has presented another challenge for McCoy. Knowing that his offense still isn’t that explosive (even with the new additions), the offensive line is vulnerable, and the defense is anything but stout, he found a strategy to maximize his team’s strengths: ball control. This team has relied on it to move the chains all season. Sure, they hit a big play every once in a while, but mostly, the goal of this offense is to stay out of 3rd-and-long situations where the offensive line is exposed. Their style of play on offense also serves to keep opposing offenses off the field.
But how does McCoy accomplish these goals? First of all, he puts Rivers in situations where he can define the defense before the ball is snapped. He uses motion as well as unique formations where guys like Danny Woodhead and slot receiver Eddie Royal are lined up all over the field to create mismatches against the defense. This helps Rivers see if it’s man or zone coverage, enabling him to throw quickly with decisiveness, improving his accuracy.
This style of play frustrates defenses. Play by play, the Chargers take what the defense gives them. One play is Woodhead against a linebacker. The next is Gates against a cornerback. They’ll follow that up with Eddie Royal against a slower nickel corner (Matchups are everything in the NFL, folks). Teams have tried to bait Rivers into taking chances and making bad throws, but for the most part, he hasn’t bit. Add in the fact that the Chargers have also committed more to running the ball and it’s easy to see how frustrating they can be to play against.
On Sunday, knowing that Peyton Manning has big mismatches against the Chargers defense, you can bet that Jack Del Rio will try to coax McCoy and Rivers into a shootout, heavily favoring the Broncos. They’ll use pressure and press coverage to disrupt the timing of Rivers’ quick throws, hoping he makes a mistake or his line succumbs to the pressure. They can take chances on defense because that dangerous Denver offense is able to keep up with anyone. San Diego will have to combat this by setting the tempo with patience on offense. It will be interesting to watch, but probably not a back-and-forth shootout.