It's amazing that less than 1 month ago, the Chargers were left for dead by the Denver Broncos following a 34-23 defeat at Qualcomm Stadium. The vultures, as well as angry Chargers' fans (myself prominently among them) were ready to strip the decaying flesh off the carcasses of A.J. Smith, Norv Turner, Ron Rivera, and numerous players on the roster.
It was QB Philip Rivers who insisted that we put away our torches and pitchforks, telling us "We just have to start winning games and hopefully in a month we’ll look up and be in good shape." By defeating the Eagles on Sunday, in game that was dominated by the Chargers for the 1st 3 quarters, Rivers and the Chargers made good on their promise.
Aided for the 2nd straight week by an opponent's unusual decision making (Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid in this case), the Chargers capitalized on most of their opportunities, limited the damage done by their opponents, and rode a solid effort from coaches and players into a 1st place tie with the suddenly reeling Denver Broncos. Grades are below the jump...
It was evident in the game plan that the Chargers did not want to get into a shootout with the Eagles. Rivers was asked to manage the game, control the ball, and keep the Eagles offense of the field. By any measure, he succeeded. Rivers completed 20 of 25 attempts for 2 touchdowns, one being a gorgeous read and throw to FB Mike Tolbert, who ran to the open space left by Philadelphia's blitzing linebackers and scampered for a 20-yard TD. For the other TD, Rivers okey-doked CB Asante Samuel with a pump fake, then found WR Legedu Naanee alone in the back of the endzone - also a 20-yard score. However, Rivers was at his best on the Chargers' final drive. Having only converted 1of 5 3rd downs during the game, Rivers converted two 3rd down plays, bleeding more than 6 minutes off the clock and leaving Eagles QB Donovan McNabb only 30 seconds to mount a final drive. 2 weeks, 2 huge performances in the clutch.
Running Backs: A-
LaDainian Tomlinson has still got it. After being the victim of nagging injuries and erratic offensive line play, Tomlinson broke out with a vintage performance. 24 carries for 96 yards and 2 TDs. I think it's fair to say Tomlinson is not the explosive RB he was 3 years ago, but he is still an effective downhill runner who has enough speed to turn a 5 yard run into a 20-yard TD, as was the case Sunday. Darren Sproles added a couple of nice runs and catches off screen passes. Both backs were effective in pass protection. As mentioned above, FB Mike Tolbert turned a 3 yard hot route into a 20-yard TD - he has deceptive speed and needs to be incorporated more in the passing game. Both Tolbert and FB Jacob Hester has their best days as lead blockers.
Wide Receivers: A-
The Eagles determined that they would not let WR Vincent Jackson beat them. This was fine, because the rest of the Chargers' receivers stepped up and made the plays when needed. TE Antonio Gates dominated the middle of the Eagles' defense, catching 7 passes for 78 yards. Malcom Floyd contributed three catches - one of which was a spectacular reach back across the middle for a 1st down. Another was one one of his patented jump-ball grabs, setting up San Diego for their 2nd TD. Naanee, in addition to his TD catch, made a huge play on the last drive, turning a 3 yard catch into an 18 yard gain that all but sealed the game. Though he had only one reception, Jackson made the play when needed, picking up the initial first down on the Chargers' last possession.
Offensive Line: B+
By any measure, this was the O-Line's best overall game of the season. Without exception, the Chargers' stymied the Eagles' various blitz packages. 2 sacks were allowed, ironically on 4-man rushes. The first, both LG Kris Dielman and RG Louis Vasquez were blown up by DTs Darren Howard and Victor Abiamiri, respectively. The other sack was allowed by reserve OL Brandyn Dombroski (subbing for RT Jeromey Clary) against DE Juqua Parker. Run blocking was significantly improved across the board. Dielman in particular, made a great block to spring Tomlinson's 20-yard TD run. Overall, the Chargers were equally adept running in power situations and spread situations.
Defensive Line: C
The Eagles mounted no serious effort to run the ball, although the D-Line continued their struggles in defending draw plays. By and large, the Eagles comitted themselves to winning through the air, and virtually neutralized the Chargers' defensive line in the process. DE Luis Castillo was double-teamed most of the game, which prevented him from opening room for the OLBs Shaun Phillips and Larry English. However, the line made it's presence known on the Eagles' first scoring drive, bottling up the middle and holding Philadelphia to a chip shot FG from the 1-yard line.
OLBs Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and Larry English were neutralized by the Eagles offensive line. No sacks, and only handful of tackles and hurries between the three of them. Phillips had the only tackles for losses among the entire group. Inside, however, ILBs Brandon Siler, Stephen Cooper, and Kevin Burnett played very well, contributing a total of 19 tackles. Tackling among the three was consistently strong, and Siler got the only sack among the front seven. The only black mark against the ILBs, and it's one that cost the Chargers 10 points - failure to hold onto interceptions. Each ILB dropped one interception, and all three were among the biggest hidden plays of the game (see below).
It seems evident that Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera adopted a "bend-but-don't-break" approach, which explains the space that CBs Quentin Jammer, Antonio Cromartie, Antoine Cason, and Steve Gregory allowed at the line. Unfortuantely, the pass rush was ineffective, and the group was torched through the air. Tackling was an issue for the entire group for first time in 2-3 weeks. Safties Eric Weddle, Kevin Ellison, and Paul Oilver were mostly ineffective running the safety blitz, with Oliver recording the lone sack among the group. In particular, the Eagles took advantage of the slot position, manned by Gregory, with WR Jason Avant amassing 156 yards on 8 catches. Cason was also beat for a TD in the 4th quarter, when he dropped coverage on WR Jeremy Maclin.
Special Teams: B
One of the major keys to this game was controlling Eagles WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in the return game. By and large, the coverage units succeeded. Neither player had a significant return. On the other side, Sproles was unable to break a big return, but made a terrific play early in the game, fielding a punt at the Chargers' 8 yard line and preventing the Eagles from downing the ball inside the 5. P Mike Scifres and PK Nate Kaeding were their usual effective selves.
For the 2nd straight week, Norv Turner took advantage of a ridiculous game plan by the opposing coach, this time the Eagles' Andy Reid. Turner was smarter in the use of his timeouts, and consistently kept the Eagles defense off balance with a good mix of run and pass plays. In particular, his use of the Wildcat netted a pair of nice runs for Tomlinson and Naanee. In this game, he was also smart not to get into a shootout against the Eagles offense. On defense, Ron Rivera applied the "bend-but-don't break" approach, and it was effective in keeping the Eagles out of the endzone for 3 quarters. In some instances, he was using a 2-man line, practically begging the Eagles to run the ball. To his credit, and the Eagles' coaches discredit, Philadelphia never really attempted to run the ball. Some changes need to be made to the safety blitzes and zone blitzes, as it appeared the Eagles were not surprised by any of the blitz calls.
Hidden Plays (Non scoring, non-turnover plays that directly affected the outcome):
- In the 1st quarter, Eagles' LB Jeremiah Trotter commits a holding penalty that backs the Eagles offensive inside their own 5 yard line, leading to a bad punt and good field position on the Chargers 1st scoring drive.
- In the 2nd quarter, Norv Tuner calls a counter on 3rd-and-inches with Darren Sproles. The play is stuffed and the Chargers give the ball back to the Eagles with some momentum.
- Next Eagles possession - Brandon Siler drops an INT inside the Eagles' 30 yard line. The next play, RB Brian Westbrook gains 18 yards on a screen pass to set up the Eagles' 2nd scoring drive.
- 3rd quarter. The Eagles stuff Sproles on a run play, but the drive continues when DT Mike Patterson jumps offsides. Rivers' TD pass to Naanee occurs on the next play.
- Naanee's excessive celebration forces the Chargers to kick off from their own 15 yard line, setting up the Eagles next possession at their own 47 yard line.
- On the following drive, dropped INTs by Kevin Burnett and Stephen Cooper allow the Eagles to continue their 1st TD drive of the game.
- The emergence of a legitimate running game.
- Rivers relies on receivers not named Vincent Jackson to make plays.
- Showing resiliency on the final possession and denying the Eagles the opportunity for a game-winning TD drive.
- Red zone defense was stout for 3 quarters.
- Chargers have scored 10 TD in their last 11 trips inside the opponent's 20.
Biggest Areas of Concern:
- Failure of blitzes to get consistent pressure on McNabb.
- Erratic tackling in the secondary.
- Success of opponents using slot (3rd and 4th) receivers.
- Defense is unable to hold onto turnovers.
Looking ahead to:
Reclaiming 1st place with a victory over the Denver Broncos. I am expecting to enjoy eating some crow on Sunday evening. The Chargers need to attack the hell out of Denver QB Kyle Orton, especially with his gimpy ankle. Staying patient against the Broncos' defense will be key.