The Chargers ride a dominant offensive performance, combined with timely takeaways on defense, to knock Tennessee out of the playoff chase and lock up the #2 seed in the AFC.
Philip Rivers tore the Tennessee defense to shreds, completing 21 of 27 for 264 yards and 2 TDs. This game highlighted an under-appreciated aspect of Rivers' game; his pocket presence and ability to buy time. Rivers will never be mistaken for a mobile QB, but in this game he repeatedly frustrated the Titans edge rushers by stepping up into the pocket and giving his receivers time to get open. His scramble in the 2nd quarter which freed up TE Antonio Gates for a 36 yard TD pass was Elway-esque. River also repeatedly took advantage of the Titans defense, changing his cadence to draw multiple offsides / encroachment penalties. Rivers' only issues were with the wind, which held up one deep throw to WR Vincent Jackson in the 1st quarter, and pushed another past Jackson in the 3rd quarter. None of these misses affected the game in any way.
Running Backs: A-
The Chargers running backs have had 2 good running games in a row. LaDainian Tomlinson carried 16 times for 59 yards and a pair of TDs, while Darren Sproles added 38 yards on 7 carries, 2 of which went for TDs. FB Mike Tolbert did a creditable job running the ball in garbage time, tallying 60 yards on 11 carries. As a group, the RBs carried 35 times for 167 yards and a healthy 4.8 average per carry. In the receiving game, Sproles did the most damage with 2 catches for 23 yards and a TD. Blitz pickup from the group, especially Sproles, was excellent. The only hiccup was from FB Jacob Hester, who fumbled the ball in the 4th quarter - Tolbert was used to grind out the clock for the rest of the quarter.
Wide Receivers: A
Talk about spreading the ball around - The Chargers' receivers tallied 14 catches. WRs Jackson and Malcom Floyd physically abused Titans CBs Cortland Finnegan and Nick Harper, running through tackles and drawing pass interference calls on a regular basis. Jackson contributed 5 catches for 70 yards, while Floyd added 3 catches for 55 yards - one was a gorgeous sliding catch of a Rivers' pass in the 3rd quarter. WR Legedu Naanee added 2 catches for 25 yards. Gates posted 74 yards on 3 catches, including the TD mentioned above. One amazing number hidden in the yardage - each receiver mentioned in this section posted at least 1 reception for 20 yards or more.
Offensive Line: B+
Finally, it was great to see C Nick Hardwick back on the field. The Chargers' run game seemed a little more effective with Hardwick making the calls, and he didn't appear to make any serious mistakes-barring a miscommunicated snap count early in the game. RG Louis Vasquez continues his weekly improvement as a run-blocker; several runs to the left netted positive gains off his blocks. LG Kris Dielman's play was also improved this week in the running game. RT Brandyn Domrowski continues to play ably in place of Jeromey Clary. However, there was one (admittedly minor) negative - for whatever reason, LT Marcus McNeill plays his worst games against the Titans. He allowed a sack of Rivers by DE Jacob Ford, as well as committing a holding call which erased a 52-yard TD pass to Floyd.
Defensive Line: B
The Chargers' D-Line performed much better in man-on-man blocking situations against the Titans than expected. DEs Luis Castillo and Alfonso Boone were generally stout at the line, allowing the linebackers and secondary to contain Young and Johnson. Zone-blocking plays, however, gave the Chargers serious problems, as there was no consistent backside containment. The D-Line did a better job opening blitzing lanes to harass Young, however, Young was routinely able to move away from the pressure. DT Ian Scott had a very good game, batting down a pass, making 2 tackles for losses, and getting the Chargers' only sack. As usual, delays and draw plays were problematic for the line.
The question in this game wasn't whether Chris Johnson would gain yards, the question was how big would the runs be. Thanks to terrific run play, Johnson's longest run went for a 30-yard TD in garbage time. The tackle totals were down, mostly because the Chargers' offense did a brilliant job staying on the field and limiting the Titans' opportunities. As a group, the LBs contributed 20 tackles. In pass defense, the LBs were stellar, closing down the middle of the field and taking easy throws away from Young. ILB Brandon Siler made what might have been the biggest play of the game, reading Young's eyes and making a terrific INT in the red zone to stop a Titans' drive. OLB Shaun Phillips was the only LB to record a hit on Young, but forced a crucial fumble on Young to get the Chargers the ball at midfield with a chance to add to their 14-3 lead.
Possibly their best game of the year. Tennessee's receivers were able to gain 52 yards on 5 receptions. As well as Cromartie and Jammer played (despite Cromartie's miserable tackling), a game ball goes to Safeties Eric Weddle, Steve Gregory, and Paul Oliver, who did a great job helping to slow down Johnson. Between the three of them, they contributed 15 tackles, as well as harassing Young into several poor throws on Safety and zone blitzes. Weddle came up with the game's clinching play, an INT of Young with the score 35-10 and killing any chance of a Titans rally. As a group, the secondary forced Young into an 8 of 21, 89 yard performance. Further, Tennessee TEs did not record a catch in this game. Well done!
Special Teams: B+
P Mike Scifres only punt was knocked down by the wind, for a 29 yard kick. Coverage teams were solid across the board on punts and kickoffs, with the only mistake made by Kassim Osgood, who drew an unnecessary roughness penalty in the 3rd quarter. PK Nate Kaeding was given an easy game following his late-game heroics against Cincinnati, converting 6 extra points.
Coming up with an effective gameplan on a short week is a challenge for any staff, but Norv Turner and Ron Rivera managed it beautifully. On offense, Turner called a terrific game and kept the Titans off balance with a just the right amount of running plays, while not taking too many shots downfield. The result were long, time-consuming drives which resulted in TDs. On defense, Rivera was selective with his blitzes, using them only to force Young into bad throws and keeping him in the pocket. As the game progressed, Rivera attacked more with the LBs and Safeties. By contrast, Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher, Offensive Coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, and Defensive Coordinator Chuck Cecil had no answers. Further, in a big game, it was Cecil who lost his head, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that crushed his defense in the 2nd quarter (see Hidden Plays below), as well as Fisher wasting a timeout on a bad challenge (the Rivers to Gates TD).
Hidden Plays (Non scoring, non-turnover plays that directly affected the outcome):
- The 3rd and 1 Pass Interference call on Tennessee CB Cortland Finnegan extends the Chargers' 1st scoring drive, allowing the Chargers to take a lead they would not relinquish.
- Following McNeill's holding penalty, and a short gain, DE Jacob Ford is flagged for roughing Rivers. Before the next snap, Chuck Cecil is flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Without running a play, the Chargers move from their own 40-yard line to the Tennessee 30, already holding a 14-3 lead.
- 3rd and 3 at their own 45, Titans first possession of the 2nd half, Steve Gregory and Tim Dobbins tackle Johnson for a 2 yard gain to force a punt on 4th and 1.
- Chargers' next possession, Finnegan is flagged again for interference in the end zone, giving the Chargers the ball at the Tennessee 1. Tomlinson scores on the next play to put the Chargers up 28-10.
- On Tennessee's next possession, Young is sacked by Scott for a 1-yard loss. Tennessee goes 3 and Out, and virtually any chance to win the game goes with it.
- Run support and solid tackling from the secondary (excepting Cromartie).
- Offensive play-calling was fluid and unpredictable.
- Maintaining composure against a desperate and "dirty" opponent.
- Improved run blocking.
- Pass coverage in the middle of the field and against the opposing TE.
Biggest Areas of Concern:
- Failure to control the backside on zone running plays.
- Inability to generate consistent pass pressure.
Looking Ahead To:
Finishing the regular season with a win at home against the train wreck that is the Washington Redskins. In a perfect world, the Chargers get out to big early lead, get their starters out, and come out of the game with no new injuries. In fact, a carbon copy of this game would be perfect.