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GIF Horse - Battle: Los Angeles

What will it take for the Broncos to stop the Chargers win streak?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Seattle Seahawks
If the Broncos can’t disrupt Rivers, they’ll have a long day Sunday.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the bye week I spent some time looking back at the last few Broncos games. Initially, I set out to see how Andy Janovich was used as it was brought to my attention that the team’s rushing average improves when he isn’t on the field. It made sense to me, but hardly diminished his value. Oftentimes a team will utilize 21 personnel in short yardage or “must-run” situations. Defenses obviously see it coming and therefore a team won’t necessarily average a ton of yards, but still convert. I saw a lot of that, but 4 games does not a season make, and because of exams and two different term papers hanging over my head time became a bit of an issue. I did see enough to say that Janovich is a contributor to the Broncos 79% Power Success.

While watching every Broncos run game from the last few games, I definitely noticed other fun tidbits and wanted to share them here.

The Broncos had a very strong run game out of 11 personnel when D.T. was here.

I mentioned in Horse Tracks yesterday that Musgrave has some fun concepts that he has used with the Broncos this season. One such case is how he utilized both a perimeter receiver and a pulling guard as lead blockers against the Chiefs. When Demaryius Thomas motions closer to the line of scrimmage the safety comes into the box, but D.T. does enough to keep him out of the play. At the point of attack the right tackle (Billy Turner) and guard (Connor McGovern) step forward to get vertical push on Allen Bailey (97 above). Devontae Booker presses the natural bubble the design creates, but sees Anthony Hitchens (53) working his way to the ball and essentially blocking himself. All it takes is a spin by Booker and he’s off to daylight.

It’s a perfect illustration of how the scheme and talent of the players fit glove in hand. In fact the design worked so well Musgrave called it again in the second half for Philip Lindsay. While it was effective, there was no gap to spin to. Instead the rookie takes what the design provides and makes the most of it.

Same concept as before, but because of the Chiefs alignment and play there’s no gap to spin to.

Yesterday a reader asked how Lindsay would look playing a Christian McCaffrey type of role. It’s hard to say, really. Case Keenum isn’t Cam Newton and without that type of fulcrum there’s no way to successfully create a system like the Panthers utilize. One thing is certain though, the Musgrave offense fits Lindsay’s talents beautifully. By DVOA he’s second to only Todd Gurley so far this season.

That doesn’t mean he couldn’t improve, of course. At times he looks ready to cut towards space when the best possible outcome is to take what’s there.

While Jano stopping his feet doesn’t help at all, Lindsay looks to bounce this wide when the best possible outcome is to go right into the crease.

Lindsay looks to get out toward the boundary where he has more room to operate. He’s slowed a bit when Jano is stonewalled in the wall but by cutting outside he gains very little. Musgrave dials up a similar play later, with similar results but for the fact Lindsay takes what’s in front of him.

Two roads diverged, and sorry I could not travel both...

One thing I’m hoping to get back to after the season is how the rookie backs performed at each concept. It’s a bit of an undertaking, but one I’d enjoy studying more with more time.

As for this week, the more pressing matter is that L.A. just lost Denzel Perryman, who has been an unsung glue guy to their run defense. His absence means outside backer Jatavis Brown will likely shift inside full time, essentially weakening two positions. That could be crucial for Royce Freeman, Booker and Lindsay as they confront a Chargers defense that was already soft in power situations and at the 2nd level. Look for more designs like the Jet Sweep Fake Toss below in order to get the backs into space.

If the Broncos can get their backs into space Sunday, they’ll limit Rivers’ opportunities and give Keenum favorable situations.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems like it’s been remarkably easy to forget the Los Angeles Chargers this season. Has there been a more unsung Super Bowl contender in recent memory? Partly this is their own making, of course. Dean Spanos moved his club to a city where his team plays second fiddle for the hearts of Rams fans and their stadium is essentially a 9th home game for every opponent. The other reason? Little about the Chargers roster seems different than a year ago. Philip Rivers is still arguably the best quarterback to never win a Superbowl, Melvin Gordon is still really good. Antonio Gates is even around, trading his AARP membership for a powder blue when Hunter Henry’s injury left LA perilously thin at the position.

The results speak for themselves. Los Angeles has the 3rd best offense in the league by Football Outsiders’ efficiency stats, behind Kansas City and their landlord Rams. Even more telling, the Chargers have a very low variance. If you haven’t checked them out, Mike and Tyrell Williams are both ridiculous vertical threats while Keenan Allen eats up the empty space underneath. They’ve consistently excellent on offense so far and (stop me if you’ve read this before) will pose a serious test to Joseph and Woods’ defense.

Miller and Chubb will have their chances to pressure Rivers. If the Broncos don’t capitalize, they won’t win. Simple as that.

While forcing Rivers into mistakes is obviously the key to winning in L.A. this week, it made more sense to dig into what periphery keys to the outcome. Manage all 3 and there’s a puncher’s chance Denver survives a aerial bombing from Rivers.

Key #1: The Next Best James in L.A.

The biggest addition to this year’s Charger squad has easily been their rookie 1st rounder, Derwin James. His statline doesn’t do justice to the impact he’s had on the LA defense this year. He has just one interception, but has played a pivotal role in the improved coverage against tight ends (LA went from 18th in 2017 to 1st this year by DVOA). He has 3.5 sacks, but gets pressures at a ridiculous rate. He has 64 total tackles, and...

Actually, that one does a good job illustrating how active he really is. James leads the team in both solo and total tackles. He’s a centerpiece to their defense as a new age Troy Polamalu, a Swiss Army knife that needs to be accounted for on every single play. Usually he plays in the box near the line of scrimmage when the scheme calls for single high coverage, but he’s just as adept at moving to cover the slot or falling back into 2 Deep Shell.

Keenum needs to play keep away from James as he has the potential to pop off Sunday.

Key #2 Gordon and the Improved Ground Game

There is little doubt that one huge area of improvement from last year’s Chargers to this one is the rushing attack, where L.A. improved from 26th in the league last year to 7th (through week 10) by adjusted line yards. On it’s head, it’s a bit tricky to discern why: this year’s team has actually gotten worse in power situations and still allows far too many stuffs, but where the 2017 Chargers were an above average team past the initial line of defense, the 2018 version is among the best in the league.

One big reason why? More Austin Ekeler. So far through 9 games ekeler has 79 total touches on the year, or five more than he had in 16 games a year ago. Even after accounting for Ekeler’s increased workload in London when Melvin Gordon was inactive, that’s remarkable.

The Chargers routinely move Ekeler around the formation to try and get him the ball in space, like this Jet Sweep.

The second big reason for the improved production by Gordon himself? A huge uptick in Jet Motion concepts. Ken Whisenhunt has done a superb job making the most of the stress the sweep actions cause defenses, utilizing them to help Gordon get free into space more often. It also doesn’t hurt that Keenan Allen’s return to health gives Ken Whisenhunt another reliable threat on the gives, either. The team has also done more to aim for the edges when rushing the ball, instead of simply ramming Gordon between the tackles. So far, it’s worked with Gordon posting a career high yards per carry average in 2018.

The Chargers use Benjamin as a decoy to occupy the linebacker here, while using pulling linemen to suck Wagner out of position. If Gordon doesn’t trip he’s into the second or third level of the defense.

Take note that on both the plays above L.A. elected to leave an edge defender unblocked. This is because the action to Gordon forces the unblocked defender to respect his contain responsibility. On the first play Ekeler runs right by this defender, but he’s untouched. There is little doubt that this same concept will be on full display as a way for the Chargers to try and minimize Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.

The Broncos run defense has improved in recent weeks, but need to contain a three headed monster in Los Angeles.

Key #3 Keeping Case Keenum away from Melvin Ingram

The Chargers have a huge issue defending throws down the field. According to FO, they’re 2nd to last in the league against passes 15+ yards through the air. This has been a consistent issue for L.A. all season. One reason for this is Trevor Williams, who’s basically the California version of Bradley Roby. Williams has been a complete sieve this season, allowing 10.3 yards per target.

So while Derwin James means that Jeff Heuerman is unlikely blow up the stat sheet Sunday, Courtland Sutton and Emmanuel Sanders should both have chances to make big plays. That is, of course, if Case Keenum can deliver.

All reports suggest Joey Bosa’s status this weekend is questionable, which would leave James and Melvin Ingram as the primary pass rush threats facing the Broncos patchwork offensive line. That’s a definite threat, but nothing like they faced the three weeks prior to their week off.

Ingram could give both Veldheer and Bolles trouble if they’re left on an island against him.

Much like James, conventional stats don’t tell the full story of Ingram’s season. It’s true that he has only five and a half sacks on the year, but he’s also notched 24 pressures. Only Aaron Donald, Dee Ford, and J.J. Watt have more this season. In a way, Ingram’s a good sole representative for this Chargers squad. He isn’t as flashy as the names above him and many of his best plays come as much by design as individual performance, but at the whistle he’s the one standing over the quarterback.

The Chargers deploy Ingram in a number of ways. In the games I watched he was usually aligned against the offense’s strongside, but will also kick inside in obvious passing situations where he’s deployed as a standing 3-technique. There were times he’d rush inside to occupy blockers and free a blitzing corner or safety and L.A. isn’t afraid to utilize him on tackle end stunts to cause disruption.

If you like to watch line play, there are a few notable things to look for with Ingram. He has a mean club/swim move, as well as nifty spin he breaks out quite often to disengage from blockers in the run game. He lacks the explosiveness to reliably bend the edge, but will still pose a serious problem for both of the Broncos tackles.

If Musgrave can keep him off Keenum, Denver has a chance. Even if the game turns into a shootout.

What do you think Broncos Country?