Chargers State of the Union: Injuries strike again, killer instinct is found
By Conor Denton
Two weeks into the NFL season, San Diego’s hardest worker has been its injury cart. Alas, in spite of these recent injuries to Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead, there might yet be hope at the end of the tunnel. I’ll divulge further in the Chargers first state of the union address of the 2016 regular season. Per usual, I will be dividing the team’s performance into three different categories: Special Teams, Offense, and Defense.
It was a ho-hum week for this unit as their services weren’t exactly prevalent in a game that had the score of 35-0 in the third quarter. Drew Kaser was much improved from his week one performance yet still left something to be desired with his punts. Two of his four punts were great while the other two needed improvement. It typically takes a month or so for rookie specialists to settle down in the NFL. Remember, punters don’t face nearly as much pressure in college as they do here. Expect Kaser to steadily improve as the season progresses.
Not much to say about Josh Lambo really. He nailed his only field goal attempt of the game when it had already been decided and hit five extra points as well. His kickoffs were mostly out of the back of the end zone and when they weren’t, the kicks were pitched high up in the air so the coverage could wrap up the returner before the 25-yard line.
Travis Benjamin returned a couple of punts for modest gains. He seems to be avoiding returns up the field so far and instead is sticking to the sideline. With the depth at wide receiver I don’t blame him for being cautious, although this doesn’t seem to be the same Travis Benjamin who returned punts for the Browns last year. However, if he continues to score two touchdowns and attain over 100 receiving yards every week then I could care less how many punt return yard he has.
Losing Danny Woodhead sucks. No one in the league can replace what he meant to this football team. The Chargers recently acquired Dexter McCluster and while he is going to try and replace Woodhead in the offense, it simply won’t be the same. However, after Sunday’s performance, San Diego might be able to get by this season even with the injuries to Allen and Woodhead. Reason being, Melvin Gordon.
The running back has been a man possessed during the first two games of the season. He has three touchdowns already and is averaging more than four yards per carry. With the injury to Woodhead, there isn’t anyone else currently on the roster who deserves to take snaps away from Gordon. As a team, San Diego will truly get to find out what kind of running back they got in MGIII this season. Expect him to hover around 50 offensive snaps a game depending on how effective the offense is week in and week out.
El Capitan under center has been his usual self. With less pressure on him due to a rushing attack averaging 150 yards per game, Philip Rivers has been able to pick and choose his spots to attack a defense knowing that he will get good yardage on the ground. The result, five touchdowns so far to zero interceptions.
The biggest reason why the offense has been able to function so far, besides Ken Whisenhunt, has been the heightened play of the offensive line. Gordon is a one-cut back, meaning he uses his vision to find a hole, make the first man miss, and run downhill. He’s been playing so well this year because of the holes being created in front of him. Melvin has been able to break the first tackle in the majority of his runs, then subsequently drag the pursuing defenders forward for positive gains.
In turn, a good run game opens up plays down field like we saw last week between Tyrell Williams and Benjamin. The defense brings up an extra player into the box to help in run support and therefore leaves added pressure in coverage. Twice I saw a Jaguars linebacker attempt to cover either Tyrell or Travis and twice the duo created a big gain downfield. Look for Whisenhunt to exploit more of these mismatches against inferior defenses, (see Indy, New Orleans) in the coming weeks.
What a difference a serviceable nose tackle makes. Who knew? It’s not like fans have been clamoring for a legit starter since Jamal Williams left, right? Nonetheless, Brandon Mebane has become the x-factor on defense. When he plays well, everyone else’s play around him also becomes elevated. No longer is Corey Liuget constantly facing double teams and as a result, he is off to a fantastic start.
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Both Manti Te’o and Denzel Perryman are filling any lanes in the run game as well. And let’s not forget about one of the unsung heroes on D so far this year, Kyle Emmanuel. He hasn’t flashed in the box score much, but he is setting the edge and forcing opposing running backs to run back into his teammates waiting for the tackle. His prowess against the run is why he is starting over Jerry Attaochu right now.
In coverage, the Chargers have been electric (pun intended). The trio of Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward, and Brandon Flowers have been one of the best, if not the best, cornerback units in the league. Stats are skewed against them, as garbage time minutes and a terrible, terrible quarter suggest our pass defense is below average, but anyone who has watched a San Diego game in either of the first two weeks knows that this group is for real.
Jatavis Brown has been as advertised to start the season. While he is stealing snaps from the wrong linebacker (Perryman) he is becoming a reliable third down linebacker for this team. As a result, John Pagano is able to deliver more exotic looks knowing that Jatavis can cover the running back out of the flat or the tight end on a crossing route.
Finally, both Melvin Ingram and Attaouchu have been playing good football. Ingram racked up his first two sacks of the season last week while Attaouchu picked up a sack against Kansas City. Both players have provided consistent pressure to opposing QB’s and Ingram has even been chipping in on run defense too. Look for both players to see continued snaps and success especially if our opponents continue to abandon the run game and air it out because they fall behind early.
I don’t know what to make of this team yet. For almost seven of the first eight quarters this year San Diego has dominated and I mean DOMINATED its opponents. However, the monumental collapse in week one has put some skepticism in the back of my mind. All the talent is here for San Diego to succeed even with injuries to Allen and Woodhead. If the coaching staff can instill that killer instinct exhibited against Jacksonville over the rest of the season, then watch out NFL, the San Diego Chargers could be poised to make some noise this year.