The Chargers offense had some pretty potent weapons in 2014. You could do a lot worse than a passing game that features Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, and Keenan Allen. However, injuries, the lack of a running game, and an ineffective offensive line ultimately thwarted the progress San Diego’s offense made the year before when they reached the AFC Divisional Playoffs. But have these issues been addressed sufficiently this offseason?
In 2014, the Chargers had a very unathletic offensive line. It didn’t help that they lost their starting center for the year in Week 1. Five different players ended up starting at center throughout the season, and this was where the problems started. Communication is vital for the interior offensive line, and it becomes more difficult when players are unfamiliar with each other, as was the case in San Diego a year ago.
Teams were able to attack the Chargers’ interior with ease, and this made it difficult for the offense to operate as efficiently as the season progressed. This issue was most prevalent against New England in Week 14. The Chargers were playing with their fourth center, rookie 3rd-round draft pick Chris Watt, who is slated to be the starter this season. The Patriots used lots of double-A gap looks, sometimes blitzing, sometimes dropping out. They also brought other pressures inside that isolated good matchups in their favor. The play below is a good example. As you can see, the Patriots’ two defensive tackles aligned on the outside shoulder of each guard.
They then attacked the B-gaps, again on the outside shoulder of each guard. This forced the guards to widen, which left a blitzing inside linebacker isolated on center Chris Watt.
This was a huge athletic mismatch in favor of the Patriots.
The result was a sack.
When you have a huge weak link and the opponent is able to exploit it, sometimes that can be too much for even the great elements of your team to overcome. This was the case for the Chargers against the Patriots and throughout the second half of the season.
The problems for San Diego didn’t end inside, though. Left tackle King Dunlap and right tackle D.J. Fluker really struggled with speed rushes off the edge because of their lack of quickness. This gave pass rushers better angles to get to the stationary Philip Rivers, like on this play below.
This only helped to further shrink the pocket.
There are several ways to offset poor pass protection. A good running game can keep pass rushers honest. The Chargers’ unathletic offensive line didn’t allow that to happen, though. They didn’t get any push, weren’t quick enough to get to the 2nd level consistently, and when they did get up on linebackers, they weren’t athletic enough to do so with balance. A quick and easy side-step usually enabled a linebacker to avoid the block and attack the line of scrimmage. The end result was a running game that finished 30th in the league with just 85.4 rushing yards per game. This only put more pressure on Philip Rivers.
Luckily for the Chargers, Rivers makes up for a lot of deficiencies on offense. He does so many little things right. From his accuracy, to his anticipation, to his command of the offense and ability to decipher the defense, Rivers is among the league’s best. He is arguably the best in the NFL at throwing from confined spaces with bodies around him and also when he knows he’s about to take a hit. And that’s a good thing, because behind that offensive line he took plenty of them in 2014.
Despite this ability, no quarterback can play consistently when he is constantly under duress for 16 games. This is what happened to Rivers last year. He battled injuries for most of the second half of the season, and that’s tough to do when you’re constantly being pounded. The cumulative effects of pressure eventually wore him down. Towards the end of the season, he became a little uncharacteristically frenetic in the face of pressure. This hurt his accuracy and consistency.
This offseason, the Chargers have clearly tried to solve their issues by addressing the running game. They traded up to draft Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. They added former Broncos left guard Orlando Franklin in an attempt to solidify the interior O-line. Their planned starting center is Chris Watt, who will enter his 2nd season with more experience and a full NFL offseason under his belt.
While Franklin is an upgrade over Chad Rinehart, and Watt can’t be worse than having 5 starting centers (should he stay healthy), many of the same problems still plague the Chargers. Fluker and Dunlap are still heavy-footed tackles. Right guard Johnnie Troutman is penciled in as the starter, and he struggled mightily last season. And by the way, Orlando Franklin isn’t exactly a world beater. Remember, he was moved inside from right tackle in Denver because his feet were slow. If you don’t believe us, pop in the tape of Super Bowl XLVIII. Franklin getting beat was the root cause of a failed 3rd down conversion and two interceptions in the first half.
On paper, the Chargers are a much improved offense from a year ago. They added more speed to their receiving corps with Stevie Johnson and Jacoby Jones. Between those two additions, Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, a talented but unproven Ladarius Green, and now Melvin Gordon, they have weapons. They have a passing game that has shown the ability to beat the best – just think back to their Week 2 dismantling of the Seahawks’ defense. But the reason the Chargers were able to pick apart a team like Seattle was Philip Rivers, first and foremost. He is still their best weapon. If the Chargers can’t keep him healthy and upright, they won’t be much better than just above average once again. The same questions from a year ago still linger in San Diego.