Behind a somewhat deceiving final score of 30-23, the Chargers handle their business in Cleveland, racking up an impressive offensive game and getting by on defense without some key players.
By and large, the Chargers treated this game as an exhibition, especially on defense. On offense, the Chargers pretty much had their way with an overmatched Browns defense. And, as was the case against Kansas City, the Chargers took advantage of opponents mistakes, played largely mistake free football, and ran their record to 9-3.
However, there were enough miscues, especially by the more inexperienced players on defense, that will give the coaching staff plenty to review and correct going into next week's game against what should be a desperate and dangerous Dallas Cowboys squad.
Grades are below the jump.
Philip Rivers is spoiling the Chargers and their fans. On the back of his impressive effort against Kansas City, Rivers posted another monster afternoon, completing 18 of his 25 pass attempts for 373 yards and 2 TDs. As usual, he was in total command of the offense, completing passes to 6 different receivers, and giving his receivers opportunities to make plays after the catch - both TDs were 5-10 yard throws that were turned into plays of 66 and 31 yards. He missed 2 opportunities on the Chargers' opening drive, one to Sproles at the 2 yard line, and another to Jackson in the endzone, but this is nitpicking.
Running Backs: B+
It was surprising to a degree that the Chargers did not run for more yards. LaDainian Tomlinson was effective, if not quite productive running the ball, producing 64 yards on 20 attempts and 1 TD. As usual, Darren Sproles was not effective running the ball in the middle, but the running backs as a group were spectacular as pass receivers. For the first time in a few weeks, Sproles got loose on screen passes, one of which was the 31 yard TD. The other was a great 66 yard catch and run by FB Mike Tolbert. Tomlinson had a 21 yard catch off a pass from WR Legedu Naanee to set up a 2nd quarter score. Blitz pickup was effective from the running backs a s a group, and as was the case against Denver a few weeks ago, the running game got better as the game progressed.
Congratulations to LT for passing Jim Brown for 8th on the career rushing yardage list, as well as being the fastest NFL player to 150 TDs.
Wide Receivers: A+
For the 2nd consecutive week, TE Antonio Gates had his best game of the year on Sunday, posting 8 catches for 167 yards. There was nobody in the Cleveland secondary who could cover Gates with any consistency, and even double teams on Gates had no effect, he pulled in receptions of 36 and 56 yards while double-teamed. Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd were largely quiet on receptions, but both players were brilliant blocking down the field. Jackson, in particular, threw the key blocks that sprung Tolbert and Sproles for their TDs. The Chargers pass offense has reached the moment we've dreamed of for a few years - regardless of which option you take away, there is someone else who will beat you.
Offensive Line: B-
Run blocking was marginally better than against Kansas City, but considering the Browns were missing DT Shaun Rogers, the Chargers OL should have dominated the line of scrimmage. It was surprising that the Chargers did not attack the middle of the Browns defense with more regularity. RG Louis Vasquez continues to improve in run blocking, driving a Cleveland defender into the endzone on Tomlinson's 4 yard TD run. RT Brandyn Dombrowski was solid for the second straight game, despite some early struggles on delay rushes from OLB Matt Roth. LT Marcus McNeill and LG Kris Dielman were solid as usual.
Defensive Line: B
The defensive line played better against the run than was the case last week, but there's no getting around how badly DE Luis Castillo is missed. Barring a run out of the Wildcat, and end around by Cleveland WR Joshua Cribbs, the Chargers defense played very well against the run. Considering the quality of players opposite them, the DEs Jaques Cesaire. Travis Johnson, Alfonso Boone, and DTs Ogdemi Nwagbuo and Ian Scott turned in a workmanlike effort. Their primary struggles were the inability to open pass rushing lanes for the blitzing LBs, Corners and Safeties.
OLB Shaun Phillips had a decent game, making the key hit on Brady Quinn and forcing a fumble to stop a Cleveland scoring drive. Re-signed OLB Marques Harris also contributed a sack, which helped kill a Browns' drive in the 3rd quarter. Beyond this, unfortunately, the pass rush was virtually non-existent. OLB Larry English was handled by Browns' LT Joe Thomas. Inside, LB Brandon Siler has another solid game, recording 6 tackles and a defensed pass. However, both ILBs Kevin Burnett and Stephen Cooper really struggled in pass defense. Cooper, in particular, was exploited multiple times on seam routes by Browns' TE Eric Moore, and overran a play that should have been a INT return for TD.
For the 2nd straight week CBs Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie both had some issues giving the opposing WRs too much operating room outside. The Chargers also missed FS Eric Weddle in a big way in this game, with several missed tackles in the secondary. Also, the Safety blitzes which have been very effective over the last month and a half, were almost completely ineffective. DB Steve Gregory had his worst game in over a month, getting beaten down the field by Moore on a couple occasions. DBs Paul Oliver and C.J. Spillman also had problems - Spillman missed Jammer turning WR Mohammad Massaquoi over to him in the endzone, resulting in a TD on the Browns' opening drive.
Special Teams: B
As might be expected, the Chargers' coverage teams struggled to contain KR Joshua Cribbs, allowing an average 24.7 yards, with a long return of 42 yards. However, on Cribbs' 1 punt return, he was rocked by Spillman on a great tackle. Due to the effectiveness of the offense, P Mike Scifres was called on only once, and he produced a 49 yard kick. PK Nate Kaeding hit a trio of FGs from 22, 32, and 42 yards. Punt and kick blocking was problematic, as Sproles was shut down in Special Teams opportunities.
Norv Turner took a workmanlike approach to this game; clearly he was interested in doing only what had to be done to win the game and nothing more. As a result, he was more conservative in his play calling - excepting the throw-back pass from Naanee to Tomlinson late in the 1st half. Turner went too conservative twice in the 4th quarter, running a FB dive on 4th-and-1 that came up short, as well as running 3 times inside the Browns' 10 on the Chargers' last possession. By going so conservative, Turner allowed the Browns to stay within striking distance - playing more aggressively on either drive would have shut the door on any Cleveland comeback. On defense, it might be time for Ron Rivera to tweak his blitz packages, as it appeared that the Browns were well prepared to handle them.
Hidden Plays (Non scoring, non-turnover plays that directly affected the outcome):
- On the Chargers' 1st possession, Rivers misses Sproles and Jackson on back-to-back throws, forcing the Chargers to settle for a FG and giving the Browns some unwelcome confidence.
- Cooper overran his zone assignment, missing out on an INT that easily could have produced a TD, as well as breaking the Browns' confidence early.
- After the Chargers had taken a 10-7 lead, the Browns mounted another scoring drive. Cromartie makes a great tackle on Massaquoi to keep him out of the endzone - Phillips' strip and fumble occurs 3 plays later.
- With 6 seconds remaining in the 1st half, Rivers throws to Floyd along the sideline for 11 yards, and Floyd gets out-of-bounds, preserving 2 seconds and Kaeding's FG opportunity.
- The previously mentioned FB dive by Jacob Hester with 13:45 left in the 4th quarter comes up short. Instead of chewing up another 3-5 minutes of clock and putting a clinching TD on the board, the Browns drive for a TD and cut the lead to 13.
- No major injuries reported.
- Penalty problems from last week are corrected, 1 penalty against the Chargers for 5 yards.
- Re-emergence of Antonio Gates as a dynamic offensive weapon.
- Several reserves and younger players get major experience and playing time.
- Team play on offense contributes to huge scoring plays.
Biggest Areas of Concern:
- Offensive line is unable to assert itself in the run game until the middle of the 3rd quarter.
- Safety blitzes were ineffective.
- ILBs struggle in space, allowing multiple big plays to the TE, slot WRs, and RBs on seam and flat routes.
- Inability to finish the game on offense.
- Allowing a seriously deficient opponent to hang around longer than necessary.
Looking ahead to:
To checking out the Cowboys brand-new spacecraft (seriously, it looks like the Axiom from WALL-E) and continuing the December blues for the Cowboys. Also, I'm looking forward to seeing just how far the Chargers have come, as it's been 3 weeks since the Chargers last faced a quality opponent.