Keeping the Chargers off-schedule
The Chargers were the only team to beat Denver in Denver this year. They did that by running the ball effectively, particularly on first down. In fact they were able to run the ball pretty well on first down against us in both games this year. In the first game, the Chargers gained 72 yards on 15 first down carries (4.8 ypc). A large part of that was the 35 yard Matthews run on first down. Outside of that single run, the Broncos were decent in the first game on first down runs by the Bolts (37 yards on 14 carries, 2.6 ypc). In that first game the Broncos also had two TFLs and one stop for no gain on first down runs. Because of this, we were able to put the Chargers in 3rd and long 10 times of their 16 3rd down tries.
The story was not the same in the second game. The Broncos were not as effective at stopping first down runs. The Chargers ran for 116 yards on 24 first down carries in the second meeting (4.8 ypc). Seventeen of those first down runs were by Matthews. 66% of the rushing yardage that we gave up in this game happened on first down (177 total rushing yards against). Interestingly, we had 3 TFLs and 3 stops for no gain on first down runs. So in the 18 first down runs that we didn't stuff, we gave up 120 total yards (the 3 TFLs results in -4 yards), a staggering 6.7 yards per carry on those 18 runs. Four of those 18 went for first downs (23, 18, 13 and 10 yard runs) and two others went for 9 yards. Surprisingly we were still able to force 7 3rd and longs in the second game on their 12 3rd downs. Unfortunately, they were able to convert 3 of those 7 third and longs with two of them really hurting (the 2nd quarter TD to Allen on 3rd and 7 and the 32 yard catch by Brown on 3rd and 9 in the 3rd).
If we play the first down run like we did in game one, we will win this game. If we play the first down run like we did in the second game, we will lose. The Chargers were the best team in the league at converting on 3rd down this season. Getting them into 3rd and long is critical, because even the best offenses struggle to convert 3rd and long effectively. Rivers completed 69.5% of his passes this regular season. On 3rd and long (ESPN call "long" as greater than or equal to 6), Rivers 65.9% of his passes, not a huge drop off, but enough of one. Rivers was only sacked 30 times in 16 games this year (544 passing attempts, 5.2% of his dropbacks). So sacking him was not easy this year (he was sacked 49 times on 527 passing attempts in 2012). Of those 30 sacks this season, only 4 happened in 3rd and long situations (85 passing attempts, 4.5%). The Chargers offense was frustatingly effectively on 3rd down this year regardless of distance needed to gain. For comparison, PFM only completed 56.3% of his passes on 3rd and long (68.3% overall for the season) and was sacked 5 times (of 18 total) on 3rd and long (101 drop backs, 5.0%)
Our defensive front 7 has to win the line of scrimmage in the next game, or the Chargers will do to us what they did to us last time we played them - run it right down our throats. Yesterday against the Bengals, the Chargers controlled the LOS on both offense and defense. On their first down runs yesterday, the Chargers gained 73 yards on 18 carries (4.1 ypc). The Bungals were good at keeping these runs from going too long (the longest was 9 yards), but they were allowing the Chargers to consistently gain good yardage on first down. Only one of those 18 carries was stopped for no gain and none were stopped behind the LOS. This is not that surprising since the Bungals were the worst team in the league in terms of run stuffs (stuffs are stops behind the LOS or for no gain). The Bungals were only able to stuff 5.7% of runs against them this season. The Broncos were able to stuff 11.2% (7th best in the league). The Rams led the league stuffing 13.6% of the runs against them.
Where they have run the ball successfully against us
In the first game SD gained the majority of the rushing yardage right up the middle (88 of 131 yards), however 35 of that came on one run. Here is the breakdown of direction and yardage of their carries against us in the first game
On edge runs (over the tackle or outside the tackle), they only gained 33 yards on 10 carries. If you remove that one big run up the middle, they only gained 62 yards on 21 interior runs (G-C-G). This is a good example of controlling the LOS. They gained yards, but they did not gain them in chunks and we had plenty of runs that gained less than 2 yards in there (mostly in the second half).
Here is the same chart from the second game
On edge runs they gained 127 yards on 20 carries (6.4 ypc) with only 52 yards coming on 23 interior runs (2.3 ypc). So the key difference between the first game and the second game was our ability to stop edge runs in the first. Why couldn't we stop the edge runs in the second game? Two key players on our DL were missing in the second game, Vickerson and Wolfe. Their replacements are not as good against the run, partciularly if you are comparing Phillips to Wolfe in terms of setting the edge. Wolfe took 63% of the defensive snaps in teh first game. Additionally, Lenon (33 defensive snaps - 29 runs) and Bolden (71 defensive snaps - 45 runs) played a whole lot more in the second game relative to the first game. Both players took poor angles turning 2 or 3 yard runs into 8 or 9 yard runs. Lenon did not have a single defensive snap in the first meeting. Bolden only took 15% of the defensive snaps in the first meeting.
Defensive special teams (KO coverage and Punt Coverage)
As usual the Broncos were really good at getting touchbacks on kick-offs. 70% of Prater's kickoffs resulted in a touchback (second best in the league - Carolina led the league with 77%). Admittedly, Prater had to kickoff a lot more than Gano with the Broncos scoring 75 TDs to the Panthers 42. Unfortunately, when returners were able to return kickoffs against us, we were the worst team in the league in terms of average yards allowed per KO return (29.3 yds/KOR). Only 32 kickoffs were returned against us, but we were decidedly bad at covering those. The Bears led the league allowing only 18.8 yards per KOR. Because of Gano's strong leg, only 18 kickoffs were returned against the Panthers this year (league low). Despite this inability to pin opponents deep on kickoffs that they chose to return, the Broncos were still league average in terms of opponent drive starting position (27.4 yard line - 14th in the league). SD was the second best team in the league in terms of opponent drive starting position (23.7 yard line), only KC was better (23.1). The Broncos did allow a TD on a KOR this year (against KC). There were only 9 kickoffs returned for TD this past season in the NFL.
Our punt coverage we weren't dead last, but we were in the bottom third. The Broncos allowed 9.8 yards per punt return (23rd in the league). The Rams lead the league in punt coverage allowing a paltry 2.6 yards per return (and only 79 total punt return yards). San Diego was pretty good this year finishing 12th in yards per punt return (8.3), but Scifres only had 19 punts returned against him on the season which was the second lowest total in the league (Podlesh for the Bears only had 15 punts returned against him).
The Broncos can't give away yards on punt or kickoff coverage since the Chargers have been so effective at keeping the ball this year. Even in our victory out there, the Chargers had the ball for almost 39 minutes of the game. Making them go a little further for scores can only help our D since the big knock on the Chargers for most of this season was their inability to get TDs in the red zone. SD finished the season scoring TDs on only 50.8% of their red zone possessions. The Broncos lead the league with 76.1%. This inability reared its ugly head against Cincy where the Chargers kicked a 25 and a 23 yard field goal. They only scored TDs on 2 of 4 red zone possessions.
The Chargers have now won 5 straight games. Their D which had been fairly bad for most of the season has played well during the streak, although the only strong offense that they faced during the streak was ours (NYG, OAK, KC's JV and CIN). During their streak their D has forced 10 turnovers (they forced only 11 in the previous 12 games). The Broncos turned the ball over only one time in each of the previous meetings, but with both offenses being so efficient, a single turnover could really swing the game (as it did in our game with them in Denver). Our D did not force a single turnover against the Chargers this season.
The Chargers O turned the ball over 21 times this year (T-12th) while our D forced 26 (T-17th). The Chargers D forced only 17 turnovers (30th) in the league. The Broncos were 18th in the league in turning it over - coughing up the ball 26 times - although 16 of those 26 came in the first 8 games. The Broncos only turned the ball over once in the last 4 games (against SD) while forcing 5. Forcing a turnover or two from the Chargers would be huge given how damaging it could be to their clock-control strategy.
Red Zone D
As I mentioned earlier, the Chargers were poor at converting redzone chances into TDs (50.8% - 25th in the league). Unfortunately our D was not very good at keeping teams out of the end zone once they reached the red zone. Teams scored TDs on 61.7% of their red zone chances against us. Seattle lead the league in this stat (36.1%) while San Diego was comparable to us (60.4% - 24th). If our D can force them to settle for FGs when they get in the red zone, we will win this game. You don't win football games by trading FGs for TDs and I expect our offense to score more next game than it did in the previous two meetings.