It’s easy to suggest that the Chargers’ week 15 win over the Broncos was a fluke. Denver was without Wes Welker, and in general, Thursday Night games should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, San Diego did some things on defense that should give the Broncos trouble regardless of Welker’s presence in the lineup.
First off, it has to be noted that the Chargers offense put up one long drive after another in that Week 15 game. As good as the Broncos offense is, it’s difficult to score a ton of points when you don’t have the ball. There was a point in the middle of the game where the Broncos looked out of rhythm, resulting in 3 straight 3-and-outs. It’s easy for an offense’s tempo to be disrupted when it’s watching most of the game from the sidelines because the defense can’t get off the field.
But even when Denver’s offense was on the field, the Chargers gave them some problems. First and foremost, they used something every defense should regardless of the offense – late movement and disguise. This affects everything for an offense from protection, to run-blocking assignments, to the quarterback’s ability to decipher the coverage quickly. The picture below shows how the Chargers lined up by crowding the line of scrimmage and showing blitz.They did this on several plays, sometimes bringing the blitz, sometimes dropping defenders. Against the passing game specifically, this can serve to confuse the protection and delay the quarterback’s decision-making.
Furthermore, the Chargers paid a lot of attention to Denver’s short passing game. Defenders in underneath coverage – linebackers and safeties – were cognizant of short crossing routes. They also dropped underneath comeback routes on the outside.
As a unit, the Chargers played with common sense, which is a tribute to defensive coordinator John Pagano. For instance, in zone coverage linebackers dropped into areas where there actually were receivers, shrinking passing windows from underneath. This sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many times we’ve seen NFL defenses where three linebackers drop back into coverage, and none of them are near any receivers. Instead they just drop to a spot they were told to go in practice and meetings during the week. Chargers linebackers and underneath safeties actually reacted to Broncos receivers.
Add to this all of the little things San Diego did well such as ball control, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals, and tilting field position in their favor when they didn’t score, and it added up to a Chargers victory.
On the other side of things, the Broncos certainly didn’t put their best foot forward as an offense. Wes Welker’s absence was a factor. Eric Decker took his place in the slot in 3-receiver sets. Decker is no Wes Welker in the slot. Andre Caldwell took Decker’s spot on the perimeter. And while he played well, he is also not Eric Decker on the outside.
The Broncos also used some bigger (and less explosive) personnel sets with Welker out, utilizing two tight ends on several occasions. A short week of preparation with a new lineup seemed to contribute to the Broncos’ struggles on offense. They weren’t incredibly sharp as a whole.
However, as everyone saw over the final two weeks of the regular season, the Broncos found a way to regain their explosiveness sans Welker when they had more prep time.
Even with the different lineup, Peyton Manning still made some fantastic throws against the Chargers in Week 15. It’s amazing how the standards are set so high for evaluating Manning’s performances. He made a handful of throws in this game with incredible anticipation and accuracy. Yet they looked so routine that they were tough to spot until we popped in the coaching tape. Such has been the career of Peyton Manning. This game was Denver’s lowest scoring output of the season, and was considered a not-so-good game for Manning. But there are about 25 starting quarterbacks in the NFL who would do anything to have this type of game on a regular basis.
Still, none of that will fly in the football media world if Manning’s team comes up on the wrong end of another playoff game. So what can Denver do on offense to finally break through against San Diego’s defense? Attack.
In Week 15, Broncos receivers often lined up with tight splits (alignment close to the quarterback). This made the Chargers’ goal of disguising coverage that much easier, and it threw off the Broncos offense just enough.
This Sunday, with Welker back in the lineup, the Broncos need to spread the Chargers defense out often. Spreading a defense out limits their ability to disguise. Defenders have more ground to cover if they want to move late or after the snap. The result is a more static defense and one that is quickly defined for the quarterback.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos need to be aggressive. They can’t allow the Chargers to slowly and methodically move the ball, keeping Peyton Manning off the field as they did in Week 15. Stopping the run and generating turnovers will be key.
Throw the regular season W-L records out the window in this one. As is often the case in the playoffs, teams that reach the Divisional round after playing on Wild Card weekend are generally playing good football. The Chargers absolutely have a chance this Sunday. They’ve already beaten the Broncos in Denver. They’ve held the Broncos to 2 of their 3 lowest scoring totals in their record-setting regular season. And they’re playing good football at the right time.