Nov 10, 2013; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead (39) looks to the sideline after running for a touchdown during the second half against the Denver Broncos at Qualcomm Stadium. The Broncos won 28-20. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Conquering Mile High

On Thursday night, the San Diego Chargers are headed up to Mile High Stadium to take on the 1st place Denver Broncos. Just like last week, and every week from here out, this is a must win game. San Diego is barely in the playoff hunt, and desperately need a victory to keep their playoff hopes alive. They are coming off of their most complete game of the season, after they dismantled the New York Giants last Sunday. The road to the playoffs goes straight through Denver, and the Bolts must bring their A-Game to take home a “W”. They brought their A-Game last week, but this will be much tougher competition. Let’s take a look at some of the things that need to happen in this week’s match-up, that didn’t happen when Denver came to San Diego earlier this season.

Penalties:

Let’s start off with Penalties, because giving away free yardage & points is a surefire way to lose a game. In the last meeting, the Chargers had 6 penalties for 40 yards. Not really THAT bad, right? Wrong!!!! Against some teams, that’s probably not a horrible stat line. Against a team that puts up 42+ points a game, the margin for error is razor thin. The biggest penalty was when John Phillips got called for offensive holding on the first drive. This was a huge penalty that negated a 39 yard scamper by Ryan Mathews. This was right after Weddle faked a punt, and Keenan Allen had an 18 yard catch, which killed the “quick strike” momentum completely. So instead of 1st & 10 on the Denver 12, we ended up with 1st & 20 on our own 39. The Chargers would punt on that drive. Wasted points.

On our next drive, King Dunlap was called for a holding penalty on our own 31, and erased a 23 yard catch from Ladarius Green. Instead of having a 1st & 10 on the Denver 46, we ended up with a 1st & 20 on our own 31. We slowly inched our way back into Denver territory, and kicked a field goal form the 9 yard line. However, It took us 6 extra plays, just to get back to where Ladarius Green caught it.

The argument could be made that we ate up time of possession, and made it deep into the red-zone, regardless. The response to that argument would be to take a look over at the team on the other sideline. Their ability to strike quickly, eating up big chunks of yards on a few receptions, is exactly what puts defenses on their heels. These quick strikes usually lead to quick touchdowns, instead of field goals. It kills momentum when you have to claw back to where you were at. It also gives the defense a chance to build confidence, rather than hurry back to the line to defend their territory.

Rivers was also called for a key delay of game in the 3rd quarter, when we were already at 2nd & 20, which ultimately led to a punt. Jeromey Clary was called for a false start in the 4th quarter on 3rd & 7, tacking on 5 yards for a 3rd & 12. Rich Ohrnberger was called for illegal motion on a 3rd & 8 in the 4th quarter, making it a 3rd & 13. So, you can see that they need to stop drawing dumb penalties, when it is already hard enough to move the chains. This is a disturbing trend we have seen throughout the season. When they are already in a hole, they keep making mental mistakes, and digging it deeper. Amazingly (in this game, anyway), clutch catches by Vincent Brown & Eddie Royal managed to wipe out Ohrnberger & Clary’s stupidity.

Tackling & Effort:

Perhaps an even bigger mental error than the John Phillips penalty was when Derek Cox whiffed on an easy sideline tackle on Denver’s opening drive. This led to a Julius Thomas 74 yard touchdown. Thankfully, Derek Cox has been reduced to 2nd string, in favor of starting Richard Marshall. However, the rest of this group hasn’t been very good at wrapping up tackles, either. They showed drastic improvement in their tackling last week. Perhaps putting Sean Lissemore at nose tackle, instead of Cam Thomas, was a big part of that. Let’s hope that Knowshon Moreno is unable to do what Benjarvis Green-Ellis was able to do to us in the Cincinnati game. We held Moreno (and the rest of the Denver rushing attack) to just 84 yards on 22 carries, with an average of 3.8 yards per carry. That is a pretty good number, and they need to do that again.

Sticking With Ryan Mathews:

I know that this is a passing league, and we are playing “Mr. Touchdown” himself, who commands the best passing attack in the league. However, on our second possession of the game, we went “all pass”, and went 3 and out. This was after the running game was doing just fine. In the first offensive series, we saw Mathews rip off a HUGE run (even if it was called back), and gave the Broncos a healthy dose of our ground game. We averaged 4.4 yards per carry on that drive, even without the Mathews run. We ended up punting, because the holding call put us in a hole. Furthermore, we decided to run Ronnie Brown on 3rd & 15 (has Brown ever converted a 3rd & 15?). But, they WERE getting yardage running the ball. The passing attack dropped 2 out of 3 passes in that same series.

So, why do you suddenly go pass, pass, pass, punt on the next series? Finally, it looks like Ken Whisenhunt is getting more comfortable running Mathews. He ran him three straight times at the goal line for a touchdown against the Giants, even when the first two failed! That is what I call trust, and progress! Let’s hope that continues in Denver, and that Ryan Mathews makes the Donkeys pay the price! He is an absolute BEAST this year!!!

Pass Coverage:

When Demaryius Thomas is allowed to burn you for 3 TD’s, you are most likely going to lose the game. Especially when they come on back-to-back-to-back possessions. Thomas was targeted 10 times, and posted 108 yards of receiving, while averaging 15.4 YPC. Let’s just come out and say it… Shareece Wright was a complete mess covering Thomas, and looked a lot like Antoine Cason. Fortunately, Wright may be coming off of his best game of the year, defending 3 passes against Eli Manning, and picking up a game-ending interception.  Also, Richard Marshall looked decent in coverage too.

The Broncos are loaded with passing weapons, though. The Chargers secondary will also need to focus on Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, and Knowshon Moreno. In addition to his 65 yards on the ground, Moreno also had 8 catches for 49 yards on 8 targets. Whoever is covering him MUST NOT let him catch everything thrown his way, or at least stuff him on dump-offs. The Bolts do catch a big break as Welker is out with a concussion. However, we can’t sleep on Andre Caldwell, who will likely get more targets with Welker out.

Pass Rush:

To say that our pass rush has been anemic would be a huge understatement. I am a strong believer that teams put too much emphasis on keeping up with Denver’s scoring. The best way to get Peyton Manning off of his game is to hit him with your pass rush early, and often. Except for Tourek William’s strip sack (which was awesome, and set up a Woodhead TD), and a Larry English sack (which forced a punt), the Chargers pass rush was a no-show. They could not get Manning off of his mark. Even in last week’s great defensive performance, our linebackers weren’t getting to the QB. It’s nice that Reyes, and Walker stepped up, but this week we need EVERYBODY to get a piece of Manning.

I don’t care if it’s hits, hurries, or sacks. We have to get Manning off his mark, and frazzled, like Indianapolis did. Preferably, they need to hit his blindside, like Tourek did last time. Nothing makes Manning panic more than a blindside shot… when that fragile neck of his whiplashes! Do that… and you will see his play spiral out of control. To give you an idea of how a pass rush gets a QB off of his mark, Denver sacked Rivers 4 times that day.

Turnovers:

It’s been a rough year for forcing turnovers for the San Diego Chargers. Having said that, they have forced 7 in their last 3 games! In the last match up against Denver, we didn’t turn the ball over once. Rivers DID fumble it on the final drive, but recovered it quickly. Unfortunately, he was sacked on the next play, and threw incomplete pass to Royal. So, we punted it away with 3:26 left in the game, and never got the ball back. The problem is, Tourek’s strip sack was the only turnover we forced in that game. Holliday ALMOST gave away a muffed return, but that was it. The Chargers need to win the turnover battle, and capitalize on them, as they did against the Giants. If you don’t take the ball away from Manning, only sack him twice, and let him throw for 4 TD’s… good luck winning.

Special Teams:

When the season began, many thought that we would have a repeat of the 2010 special teams nightmare. That has not been the case. Our ST unit has played pretty solid. They are nothing flashy, but are not anywhere near as bad as we thought they might be going into the season. In fact, if Novak had the leg strength to put more kicks out of the back of endzone, they would be much better. However, Novak apparently does not have the leg strength to do that (even in Mile High). Our special teams unit needs to MAKE SURE that Broncos speedster Trindon Holliday doesn’t break off any big runs… especially for a TD. The last thing the Chargers need to do is allow Holliday to electrify an already excited Mile High Stadium!  

Summary:

This is a game that, despite the odds we face, is very winnable. The Chargers are 1 of 2 teams that has held the Broncos to 28 points or less. The other was the Kansas City Chiefs, who only allowed 27 points. For all of the grief that our defense takes, they held up better than all but one of the Bronco’s other opponents. They have held teams to 21 points or less in 7 out of 13 games this season. Our offense has shown that they can score a lot of points, as they did against Philadelphia, Dallas, Kansas City, and New York. But, they have also stalled, and failed to put up more than a handful of points against Tennessee, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Oakland, and Miami. In order for this team to be successful the Chargers will have to put up a lot of points, and hope that last week’s defense shows up to play. Their chances of squeaking into the playoffs will hinge on their performance on Thursday night.

Keep Bolting Toward Excellence!

Peter Thompson

 

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