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Matching up with the Chargers

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Living in San Diego now (up north, in Carlsbad), I've had a classic opportunity to follow and spy on the Chargers. Milling around the town, lounging on the beach, watching the newspapers and the tube analysis, as well as breaking down the games, I had a year-long chance to get a little insight into the team. I wanted to share with you some of the things that I've seen over that time. The Bolts are a walking contradiction, just as they are every year, of late. They're starting slow, they have seemed unmotivated and they're been fighting injuries. They are going to be playing for their season, though. It's a great Monday night matchup, and I'm going to enjoy it.

So saying, here's to 5-0, 6-0, and another Monday Night slugfest!

Denver vs. San Diego

This is probably one of the best opportunities that Denver will have this year. They can take this one on the road and put SD in a deep, deep hole - IF they can control the tempo of this game. I've been living in SD for 15 months now, and spying on the Chargers organization the entire time. I have a lot of respect for them. Taking them lightly will get you beaten, but Denver won't do that. In that fact, can lie the road to victory.

Let's take it one area at a time. I'm going to start where every game starts - with the Trench Warfare (dedicated to firstfan):

Denver O-line vs. the Chargers D-line.

This is one battle that I think Denver can win hands down. Again - I'm not suggesting that it will be easy, just that it's very winnable. Ryan Clady is the best in the game. Ryan Harris is healthier, Casey Wiegmann is doing fine and while I'm not excited about Russ Hochstein, I do think that he's up to the job. I also think that Chris Kuper is better than any fans (even Denver fans) give him credit for. Like most fans, I'm worried about Ben Hamilton, but I do think that he's up to this one if he plays. Perhaps he will do better at center, perhaps he's fading a bit. That's why grooming Seth Olsen makes so much sense.

On the Bolts' side of the ball, it's a different story. Jamal Williams is injured; he's also pushing 35, is gone for the year, and (in my mind) probably won't be back next season. He's most likely done, and SD didn't find anyone to get prepared and polished for this moment. Bad planning, A.J. Smith (Chargers GM). Igor Olshansky was uneven in his play and a problem in the locker room last year, so they don't miss him. However, Ryon Bingham was supposed to replace him and he's on injured reserve. Jacques Cesaire, backing up Bingham, has some injury problems of his own. A local rookie made good in Ogemdi Nwagbuo is trying to handle NT.

Luis Castillo has been uneven but can't be overlooked. Monster Vaughn Martin from Canada isn't ready for the NFL game, but he's probably the Chargers' future at NT, at least as the roster is currently set. The Chargers found a warm body in Alfonso Boone, formerly of the Chiefs. If a Chiefs castoff is your option at DL, you're in seriously deep kimchi (Note - Seoul Food, on 6th Avenue, is/was a very fine restaurant for those who like Korean cuisine). Travis Johnson, a recent Chargers acquisition from the Houston Texans, has had issues with motivation and injury; but he will now be back for Monday's game, as will all players except Center Nick Hardwick. The current plan is for Johnson to take some of the reps at NT which he played for 14 games in 2008 for Houston, although that was in a 4-3 line.

Backing up the front line on the Chargers side are the linebackers. Shawne Merriman is still trying to recover from his knee surgery. He won't be fully back until next season (and he may be working for another team by then), but he will be on the field. The rest of the Chargers LBs are good, but not stars; they brought in Kevin Burnett from Dallas, and he's played well. 1st-round draft pick Larry English will be a very good-to-great one, but not this year. Shaun Phillips, Antwan Applewhite, Stephen Cooper, Tim Dobbins, and Brandon Siler fill out the squad. Jyles Tucker spent some time injured last year, but he showed enough for the Chargers to know that he has serious potential. Even so, they aren't a bad squad, but they seem disorganized and unmotivated. The Broncos have a chance here to paste one on them.

Denver's offensive playmakers vs. Chargers secondary:

The first fact that Denver has to face is that one of the trade-offs to Kyle Orton's incredible home record is that he hasn't been as effective on the road prior to this season. That may not be a concern, since everything this year is different, but it's something to watch for. Orton's numbers are good and becoming much more so.

In fact, Orton has a better QB rating right now than Philip Rivers. He's got a much better TD/INT ratio (Orton - 7/1, Rivers - 6/3 in 1 fewer game). Orton also has an INT percentage of 0.6%; Rivers is 12th in the league at 2.0% - not bad, but not as good. Overall, Rivers is a top-5 QB -- in theory. But right now, his playmakers aren't producing like Orton's and that's affecting his numbers.

The Denver running game is better than the Chargers' front 7. Knowshon Moreno is coming into his own, and he's going to be very good indeed. LaDainian Tomlinson has been out, injured. He should be back, but even so - he's been playing like he's getting older and isn't the same. I love Darren Sproles, but he's not an all-game answer.

The Denver WRs could have a stellar day. The secondary of SD is being coached by Steve Wilks, formerly of Chicago a friend of Ron Rivera's who came over to help Ron out. The Bolts are playing in the secondary like they're being coached by Pee Wee Herman.

I speak periodically with Bolts From The Blue Contributing Editor Brian; he got his start on MHR and he's a well-informed, interesting guy who is open about sharing his knowledge. This is what he had to say about the Chargers' secondary following their loss to the Steelers...

I think it's also time to pull Cromartie for Cason; he is just a train wreck out there.  And why Rivera stuck with deep zones when they were eating us alive underneath, I have no clue.  I still have a lot of belief in the linebackers, but time will tell.  We have almost no sacks; from AJ's perspective he is losing a ton of talent this year and these guys look to be mailing it in sometimes.  I guess that is the heart of it; they perform exceptionally in spots and weakly in others, it is strange considering how many could be making a play for a starting job.

I don't have a lot to add. He's pretty much nailed it. Eric Weddle was laid out by the Steelers, Clinton Hart was doing so-so but the Chargers released him Wednesday in a surprise move in order to add DT Ian Scott. Antonio Cromartie looks terrible. Steve Gregory is playing alright, but this isn't a group that inspires confidence.  At this point, they claim that they're still not sure who will start in Hart's place, but 6th round pick Kevin Ellison is one option. When you consider that they aren't stopping the run effectively and that the line isn't bringing pressure to stop the pass, this could be a long day for the Chargers defense.

Chargers offense against the Denver defense:

Philip Rivers is always dangerous; in fact, he's the only reason that SD is in the race at all. The Chargers O-line has been porous and despite his relative mobility, Rivers has been sacked 10 times in 4 games.  His QB rating is down to 90.2 after a year's rating of 105.5 last year. It's mostly because of the O-line, and I'll get to that in a moment.

But there is a strength that I haven't discussed for the Chargers. Before the season I was talking to Brian, of Bolts from the Blue; he noted that Rivers had a lot of skills and strengths, but that he just hadn't mastered the long ball yet. His deep passes were a weakness that other teams could exploit. That's not at all so anymore. Rivers has completed 16 passes of 20 yards or longer, with 4 surpassing 40 yards; both place him among the NFL's leaders despite having been on bye last week.

Look for Rivers to throw mostly out of the shotgun. After going from the shotgun on 16 of his 39 drops (41%) at Oakland Week 1, Rivers was in the shotgun 29 times in 47 drops (62%) against the Ravens and 27 times in 35 drops (77%) against the Dolphins. Rivers needs the extra time since his line has been so weak. The Broncos secondary has been strong thus far; this could be their toughest challenge yet.

Trench Warfare:

LT Marcus McNeill had two surgeries during the offseason. LG Kris Dielman went to his second Pro Bowl last season - he's very good. They did lose C Nick Hardwick until at least November, and he's been replaced by Scott Mruczkowski. They cut Mike Goff at right guard (who then went on to infect Kansas City) and replaced him by drafting Louis Vasquez, who has fought injuries as a rookie but should play Monday. Jerome Clary is uneven at right tackle, and Elvis Dumervil may snack on him as the game wears on. In fact, I do not believe that the Chargers can stand up to our DL over the course of a full game. That is probably our ace in the hole. Like All QBs, Rivers can get frustrated if he's harassed.

Expect the Chargers to feature their TEs and use more max protection Monday. Antonio Gates is still strong and effective, and the Chargers have two young talents in Brandon Manumaleuna and Kris Wilson who are perfect for their roles. Both are good blockers, can run routes, go in motion, and confound opposing defensive coordinators. I see the tight ends as one of the Chargers' biggest strengths.

On the other side of the ball is a Denver group that doesn't have a single well-known household name, but they play like unbridled fury. Ronald Fields and Marcus Thomas are splitting time at NT, and both look good. The starting ends have been surprising players - Ryan McBean (formerly of the Steelers practice squad) and Kenny Peterson, and they are rotated with Vonnie Holliday. Le Kevin Smith isn't back from his knee injury fully, but he is a solid backup. The front seven is rounded out with a big group of linebackers. Elvis 'Doom' Dumervil and Mario Haggan are backed by Darrell Reid and Robert Ayers. At ILB, D.J. Williams and Andra Davis are leading the team in tackles. This isn't an even contest - the Broncos have the advantage across the board. I expect them to notch a few sacks on Rivers. If they can harass him into mistakes, this could turn ugly for the Bolts.

Rushing to Victory

I believe that the Chargers are in trouble here. Tomlinson has already been injured. He's dangerous if he's healthy this Monday, as is predicted, but he's not the player he once was. Like the team overall, I don't recommend underestimating LDT, but he can be stopped, especially behind that line. The Chargers have a potent weapon in Darren Sproles on kickoffs and in relief of LDT. Michael Bennett is also an option. They Chargers surprised me by cutting Gartrell Johnson, who only had one good game in preseason but was a 4th round pick: I believe that admits indicates sloppy drafting.They can hurt Denver here, but the O-line has to step up for that to happen.

On the other hand, Knowshon Moreno is coming into his own and is running behind a very good Denver O-line, which is bad news for the rest of the league. My only concerns with Knowshon were that he might be a little light for the league - he's put in the time in the weight room to counteract that and will continue to get tougher, and that I honestly didn't know if he was the kind of player that Bobby Turner wanted. I wasn't convinced that he wasn't, just interested to see what Denver thought. Could he pick up and play within the system? The answer to both questions is a resounding "Yes". Correll Buckhalter may be back, which would make the game easier. I'm disappointed in Peyton Hillis so far, and LaMont Jordan is a good back for running out the clock and a very good receiver, but his minutes will be limited. The Broncos are near the top of the league in rushing with 139 yards per game and have a nice average of 4.6 YPA. They will be hard to stop and the Chargers haven't been great at stopping the run.

Slow Starts:

What is it with the slow starts in San Diego? Ever since Norv Turner came to town, the trend has been to stink up the beginning of the year and to firm up later. With the Broncos coming into the game undefeated, that just won't cut it in the AFC West. The Bolts need to wake up NOW if they are to have any chance at all in the division, much less in the playoffs.

I did a little checking, and it seems that historically the Chargers have had recurring issues in this regard. In fact, they are the only team since 1970 to make the playoffs after a 0-4 start, having managed that in 1992 (Final regular season record, 11-5 that year). At 2-2, they aren't in that kind of trouble, but unless they pull themselves together, they soon will be.

That's the big potential trap here - the Chargers have had two weeks to game-plan, which puts them almost even with an 8-day Josh McDaniels plan. They are at home, they are coming off a bye week, and they are fighting for the season. A loss at this point could end their Super Bowl aspirations for the year. They may be a very tough team on Monday night; but they are still, without question, vulnerable. Unless they can really put a lot of points on the board early, the Denver defense will probably shut them down in the second half.

A last point on SD:

I've been hearing from some intelligent Chargers fans that there "wasn't anyone out there who could have an impact at NT (and a few other positions)". I've had to bite my tongue before casually asking if they'd looked at Ron Fields lately. The fact is, there were good players at many of the positions that SD now needs sitting out there this past offseason. You can get a good look at most of them on the Broncos roster next Monday night. Blame this one firmly on A.J. Smith, who was too smart for his own good this time.

With all of these factors in mind, this has the makings of another great game. SD will be highly motivated - they're at home, the numbers favor them becuase they're coming off a bye at home and they know that their season may well rest on this game. That and their offense (other than the line) are concerns.

The Broncos, on the other hand, will be prepared.They will be well aware of the dangers. They will be recipients of the McDaniels/Nolan game plans. We have the same offense that has scored when ever it had to and which is looking to break the habit of starting slowly. They can - they know each other better each week. SD isn't, frankly, as good as New England. Could we drop emotionally. Honestly, not on Monday Night Football. I see that as a small benefit - our guys are given a chance to prove, on national and international TV, who they are.

They will. Broncos over the Bolts, 27-24. Rivers has a good night, Doom gets a couple of sacks and Orton continues to do his job and do it well. How's that for playing it safe?

Go Broncos!