It's not going to be the big game we had hoped for. It would have been perfect; both teams fighting for the AFC West championship on Christmas Eve. But at least Santa (a die hard Denver fan) will be able to get his ealry start to some places on Earth without having to wait and watch the whole game.
Worse, the Xs and Os of this game look bad for Denver. Never mind that SD is just a better team, they match up better against DEN too. SD hasn't won three straight over DEN since the early 1980's, and 4 since the late 1960's. But under Norv Turner (not the greatest of coaches) this team is built to shock Denver.
How can this be?
The SD rush offense
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that one of the best rushers in the league paired against one of the worst rush defenses should come out on top. But it runs much, much deeper that that.
By design, LT should be running behind his capable FB (Pinnock). SD also like to pull the guard opposite the run side to block for the runner. Our best pass rusher is too undersized (and should be lined to far outside) and our ROLB doesn't have the physical prowess to withstand the blocks of SD's FB and left tackle. I expect LT to run heavy to the left on inside rushes.
LT will also be screened right and available for the pass when our LOLB either covers Gates or blitzes. In short, LT tears up our defense almost single handedly.
In a run-contain system we would have the people and the system to blunt LTs rushes. The OLBs wouldn't be the prime tacklers (instead vectoring LT to the center). They would only be tackling when LT makes his turn down field, at a moment when he is vulnerable and temporarily slowed. He would now be heading into a pocket that would include the MLB and both safeties, with the opposite OLB angeling and dropping back to cover for any missed tackles. The big DTs in our future would force this scenario by never allowing runs up the middle, and our MLB would be there "just in case".
But in our current state, SDs designed plays overmatch our "individual" and not "team" interim system.
It gets worse...
SD's pass offense
Remember the days of putting Bailey on TE Gates? The threat of LT and Gates demanded that Bailey cover Gates, while a LB was assigned to LT. Not this time around. The acquisition of Chambers (WR) from MIA is a big part of the SD improvement from a bad start this year.
Bailey and Bly are both #1 quality CBs. Either one can cover an opposing #1 receiver. Because of this, Denver isn't moving the CBs around to cover opposing WRs. Bailey stays left, and Bly stays right. Here's the problem:
With a decent WR on the strong side (the right side, where Gates will line up) Bailey will really need to cover Chambers. If Gold was playing at his best he would still have a very rought time playing Gates. But Gold isn't playing at his best. He may even be out with an injury. If Webster is at LOLB you can just "forget about it". Teams use a LB or SAF to cover great TEs, so could we use a safety? No.
Lynch is too slow, and Hamza is the best option. But if we place Hamza on Gates we lose the entire backfield of coverage! Lynch is too slow to run a deep zone, and he'll be in the box to help with LT. Even with Bailey and Bly covering WRs, we need two safeties, not zero.
In short, LT will get the most plays by far. But when SD does decide to pass Gates will have even more opportunites than he has had against us in the past. A look at the last game DEN played against HOU should be a sneek peek. In that game we had to cover a great WR, and the HOU TE tore us to shreads.
DEN must pick up an excellent coverage safety in the offseason if they are going to match well against SD (and many other teams) moving forward.
The only hope for Denver against the pass (I don't see any hope in the rush) is to pressure Rivers (QB).
As great as their LT is, SD's RT is injured (he might not even play Monday night). If we can blitz our LOLB along with our pass rush by our DE (Eng) we can force SD to keep in an extra blocker (Gates or LT). That would be sweet! Rivers is a pocket passer, and would be in deep doo doo if he is flushed from the pocket. He also doesn't throw well under pressure.
Denver's pass offense
The news is a little better on offense, but not much. You have to respect SD's secondary. Jammer at CB is still capable, and Cromartie is an up and coming CB that has a real future. The safeties are good if not great, but they also have good depth.
Cutler is playing very well, and has the tools to use. Unfortunately the 3-4 system will make it harder for Cutler to read blitzes, and SD really has no weaknesses in their front seven. When in zone the short and medium passes are much more difficult, and in man coverage the Chargers have an extra man available not found in a 4-3. This extra LB can blitz, zone, or double up on a threat.
Because of the wide allignment of the 3-4 the famous signature play of the Broncos, the "bootleg", will not be a real threat. Wherever Jay rolls out, an OLB should be waiting to cream him.
Not sounding so good? Here comes my lecture about the value of Graham. I don't know his status for the game (the last I read was that both he and Gold may be out). The ideal way to meet the 3-4 is with two TEs. Two TE sets are used by teams to nuetralize the blitzes from the OLBs from 3-4 formations, and to add pass threats that pull the LBs to the edges of the field to set up inside runs. A Graham / Scheffler duo on the field would protect Cutler and give him options even more so than found against the typical 4-3 teams.
Without Graham ready to go I think the pass game is even at best. Without Graham Denver will either use another TE with Scheff or (more likely) tie up Sapp to help block. In this scenario Scheff may be stuck blocking, which doesn't play to his strength (receiving).
Denver's rush offense
Our best hope.
The bad news is that the front seven of SD is solid. The good news is that the zoneblock should rip up the SD version of the 3-4 and eat it for breakfast, if we run up the middle and if we establish a power running game.
SD runs the "Phillips 3-4" system. It is a one gap 3-4, unlike the Patriots two gap "Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4". It's weakness (every system has one) is that opposing teams can power run up the middle. If Henry is healthy he is our best chance to take advantage of SD's system.
We need to keep the SD offense off of the field for reasons I listed above. This means mutliple, short yardage plays to eat up the clock. It also means we need to wear down the defense. SD has the speed to counter fast dashes up the middle, and the system (4 LBs spread wide) to stop sweeps to the outside. But they have only 3 linemen to counter the effective zoneblock of Denver, and the strength of Henry would pick up the extra yards inside that Young or Hall would have a hard time with. Forget which RB you are more in love with, the SD system fears power rushers more than great speedsters.
After wearing them down we could mix in some speed and pick up the points.
- This should be a run oriented game by both teams.
- As in the HOU game, the need for Graham to complement Scheff is huge. If he is in we have a bad chance, if he is out we have a worse chance.
- The need for a third good WR is illustrated in this game. Three receiver formations would force SD into a nickle (either a base or a 3-3 nickle). A healthy Walker would be terrific. Stokely and Marshall without Walker (or with a hobbled Walker) won't force SD out of their 3-4. Scheff may not be able to be a third receiver either, as he will probably be needed to guard Cutler more often than not.
- All the intangibles work against us.
- The game is in SD
- The game is in SD on MNF
- SD is playing for a third seed, we are just playing for pride.
- The coaching staff may use this game to try out some guys.
- Potential decisions on who to hold out because of existing injuries affect Denver more in this game.
Watch the game, hope I look foolish, and root for Denver. Remember, half the fun at this point is looking forward to the exciting off season we have coming up, where just a few key pieces should help us immeasurably.
And of course, all of you have a safe, happy, and blessed Christmas this year.
As always I welcome any comments or questions. If you are new to MHR and are just learning some of the nuances of football, I'd be very happy to answer any questions about Xs and Os that you may have wondered about but didn't know who to ask. I'm an old pre-collegiate defensive coordinator from 7th grade to high school, but I don't bite. : )