San Diego enters their home opener against the Seahawks without a win, and with some troublesome injury issues. They are also among the most talented offenses in the NFL, and feature some dangerous pass rushers. Seattle has to play a great game to win any time it travels. Let’s examine the key matchups that will determine the outcome.
The Chargers featured a powerful offense last season that attacked defenses in a variety of ways. They finished 5th in yards per game (4th in passing yards, 13th in rushing yards), 2nd in passer rating, 7th in explosive passes, and 1st in 3rd down percentage, converting over 49% of the time.
Phillip Rivers is the key. He makes quick decisions, as evidenced by the fact he was sacked only 30 times last year (4th-best in the NFL). And those decisions are usually pretty good ones. He had a sterling 32/11 touchdown/interception ratio. His weapons are darn good.
Most know tight end Antonio Gates, but Keenan Allen proved to be one of the best young receivers in the league as a rookie last season. Rivers lost his favorite wideout in Malcom Floyd for almost the entire season last year, but now has him back. Eddie Royal is an above average slot receiver who is adept at finding space. And Ladarius Green is a promising tight end in training behind Gates. That doesn’t even include his second-favorite target last season in running back Danny Woodhead (76 receptions).
I found it curious that despite some of the gaudy top five numbers the Chargers flashed last year, they only finished 12th in scoring. That was at least partly due to a bottom-third finish (23rd) in red zone efficiency. They got there plenty (5th in the NFL in red zone attempts), but had a lot of trouble finishing drives.
That likely was due to an inefficient running game. The Chargers were 6th in rushing attempts, but 21st in yards per attempt and 25th in rushing touchdowns. Ryan Mathews had a nice season with over 1200 yards and a 4.4 YPC average, but Woodhead was less effective.
Matching up with Seattle’s defense
The Chargers lost starting center and team co-captain, Nick Hardwick, for the season in week one. Their right tackle, DJ Fluker, underwent an MRI this week and has been limited in practice. The loss of Hardwick should leave the Chargers less able to establish the running game, and could impact pass protection as well. There was a key fumbled snap last week as well.
The Seahawks defense puts a lot of pressure on opposing lines with a heavy rotation of fresh talent and a lot of twists that require good communication. The front seven will be key in this game. They will need to press the pocket and the linebackers will be responsible for taking away Rivers’ favorite target in Gates.
Stopping the run is always the most important aspect of any defensive game plan. A Chargers team that can get into run/pass distances is very tough to stop. Rivers just has too many options to choose from. This will be a great test for Seattle heading into next week against another quarterback who is known for spreading the ball all over the field and getting rid of it quickly.
Allen, Gates and Royal are the players that could make life tough on the defense. Look for the Chargers to get Allen lined up in the slot to test new nickel corner Marcus Burley. San Diego should have success moving the ball. Red zone defense could decide the outcome.
As impressive as the Chargers offense can be, their defense was one of the worst in football last year. They were 23rd in yards allowed, 21st in opponent 3rd down conversions, 29th in passing yards allowed, 23rd in opponent passer rating, 26th in sack percentage, 27th in opponent rushing yards per attempt, and 30th in takeaways. Maybe worst of all, they were 31st in the NFL in opponent yards per play at 6.1.
Some of that was due to key losses like Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney, but both were present Monday night in Arizona when the Cardinals finished with 6.2 yards per play. Arizona, and their very suspect offensive line, ran for over 100 yards and 4.2 yard per carry average. Carson Palmer finished with a 108.4 passer rating.
San Diego knew they were suspect on defense and used their top two picks in the draft to get some help. Rookie corner Jason Verrett looked good on Monday and played aggressively. Their second-round pick, linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu blocked a punt and had a sack.
Matching up with Seattle’s offense
Carson Palmer leads all NFC West quarterbacks in rushing. Not because he has somehow transformed into a mobile quarterback, but because the Chargers defense put a ton of emphasis on trying to get some pass rush, and often got blocked to the side, leaving a ton of easy yardage for Palmer. The Chargers have to be concerned about Russell Wilson’s ability to make them pay for poor containment. That will either lead to less aggressive pass rush plans that feature narrower pass rush lanes, or will leave less linebacker support for pass coverage.
Seattle dominated the Chargers defensive line in the preseason matchup. Freeney did not play, and will pose a challenge. Still, the Seahawks should expect to run effectively, and the Chargers do not have the secondary talent to deal with the Seahawks depth at receiver. The offense should be looking to score at least 25 points against a defense like this.
A guy like Luke Willson could have a big day as the Chargers linebackers will have their hands full with too many other weapons.
San Diego is a dangerous team in any environment, and even more so in their home opener. The will be desperate to avoid starting the season 0-2, so the Seahawks will get their best shot. Losing Hardwick is a big one for them, and if Fluker either cannot go, or is hobbled, the Seahawks defense could overwhelm them. As will often be the case this season, the responsibility shifts more to the offense to exploit their many matchup advantages. They need to score a lot, and need to be efficient in the red zone. Rivers is least effective when he is sitting on the bench.
Richard Sherman will get plenty of action, but this will be a game where we learn a lot about Burley. They will push that matchup for all that it is worth. Gates is also a more challenging cover than a guy like Jimmy Graham for the Seahawks because of his ability to use strength to ward off defenders.
This one could be uncomfortable if the offense does not put up at least 14 points in the first half. If Seattle is able to run effectively, at around 4.5 YPC, they will eventually separate.