I'll say this much: This game made it easy to find 5 good things, meaning it will probably be difficult to find 5 bad things about the game later today. I'll try my best though.
This was a game that meant a lot more than everyone thought it would at the beginning of the season. Sometimes it's difficult to get everyone up for a game like that, but the coaches hammered the importance of this win, as well as getting on a roll to get back on top of the AFC West, into the heads of each player. Everyone played incredibly tough, even against a weaker opponent.
The actual coordinators (Norv Turner, Ron Rivera, Steve Crosby) all deserve credit for the games they called. Crosby was able to right the ship on Special Teams, as the team looked to be back where it was last year on kick coverage. Ron Rivera, realizing he was down to his 3rd-string ROLB, blitzed the heck out of Derek Anderson and Max Hall with Kevin Burnett. Norv Turner's play-call was picture-perfect, and on the two long passes to Antonio Gates, Norv caught the Cardinals with eight-in-the-box and playing man-to-man.
There wasn't a better coached team in the league yesterday.
2. Pass Rush
NINE SACKS. That is a gigantic number. Shaun Phillips was destroying the Cardinals RT all day, but they never seemed to double-team him because they had to be prepared for the blitzes Rivera was sending up the middle. The team brought pressure from any and everywhere, resulting in sacks from seeming everyone:
- Shaun Phillips - 4 sacks
- Kevin Burnett - 2 sacks
- Travis Johnson - 1 sack
- Antonio Garay - 1 sack
- Jyles Tucker - 1 sack
That last name surprised a few people, didn't it? Well, don't think Jyles just walked into an easy one. He didn't get time on the field until the 2nd half, but once he was in there he had Max Hall running for his life on just about every pass play.
3. Pass Protection
In stark contrast to the Chargers, the Cardinals couldn't get anything resembling a pass-rush against Philip Rivers. He was sacked once, but it was after holding the ball for about 15 seconds (coverage sack) on a play where he should have thrown the ball away but was surprised that the defender got to him so quickly.
It all started with the running game. It had to become the Cardinals #1 concern, meaning that they couldn't blitz for fear of leaving big holes behind for the RB to run through. Also, once they started bringing 8 guys into the box to stop the run Rivers started hitting Gates downfield so they had to worry about over-the-top coverage. All of this worrying about being at the line of scrimmage and covering 20+ yards downfield left Arizona with very little to work with in terms of rushing the passer.
In a nutshell, Philip Rivers had all day to throw.
4. Running Game
Let's get the LaDainian Tomlinson thing out of the way first. I saw him beating up on the Bills, and I heard whoever the commentator for the game say this (paraphrased):
When we sat down with LT on Friday, he said that for the last two years with the Chargers he was injured in the first game of the year and never felt right after that. He said that this is the first time he's felt healthy since mid-2007.
Huh, that's funny. I could have sworn Tomlinson said the reason he wasn't very good since mid-2007 was because his offensive line in San Diego wasn't very good. How puzzling.
Anyways, Tomlinson had a good game beating up on the Buffalo Bills run defense (ranked 32nd) while Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews had a good game beating up on the Arizona Cardinals defense (30th). I really don't see any reason to bring up the LT thing right now.
On a side note, I think everyone was a little surprised to see Mike Tolbert get the start and Ryan Mathews playing the role of change-of-pace back. I tend to think that the success they had with that formula had a lot to do with the Cardinals being terrible at stopping the run, but it certainly opened up my eyes to the possibilities of giving Tolbert more carries and maybe letting Mathews mature into the role of starter over the next few weeks.
- Mike Tolbert - 16 carries, 100 rush yards, 1 rush TD, 2 catches, 3 rec yards.
- Ryan Mathews - 9 carries, 55 rush yards, 1 rush TD, 1 catch, 13 rec yards.
5. Rivers is to Gates what Stockton was to Malone
I don't know how many of you are, or were, NBA fans but I'd like to make a comparison. John Stockton was this annoying and scrawny white Point Guard for the Utah Jazz for about 15 years. It seemed like the entire time he was there, Karl Malone (big black Power Forward from Arkansas or something) was there too. These two seemingly mismatched people made up maybe the most lethal combination in the history on the NBA because they seemed to share one brain. They worked together, endlessly, and when everyone else on the court was trying to figure out when and how Stockton-to-Malone to happen ... it just did. In the blink of a eye, in a situation nobody imagined it, Malone would have the ball in his hands and would be laying the ball in for two points. I hated the Jazz with these guys on it, but to watch was a thing of beauty.
Rivers and Gates are starting to remind me of that pairing. They've been together their entire careers and while they get older they're performing better because the connection they have grows stronger every game. At this point, Gates could probably tell you at any given second what Philip is thinking and visa versa. They're that close, mentally, and along with their raw talent, it makes them almost unstoppable. This is why, even when the Cardinals are coming into the game saying "At the very least we have to stop Gates, he's having a monster season", Antonio ends the game with stats like these:
- Gates - 7 catches, 144 yards, 2 TDs. Average yards per catch? 20.6.
Sit back and enjoy, kids. Pairings like Stockton-to-Malone or Rivers-to-Gates do not come along very often, and you'll never grow tired of watching them.