Marcus McNeil delivers a clean block to free Ryan Mathews. Yup. Totally clean and legal. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
1. The Running Game/Balance
I posted the stats of Ryan Mathews, Mike Tolbert and Darren Sproles in the post-game post yesterday. It was exactly what A.J. Smith, Norv Turner and Dean Spanos were envisioning when selecting Mathews in the NFL Draft. They were thinking "For his first year, he'll split carries with Tolbert and Sproles will get a handful of touches each game as well. It'll make our offense at least twice as versatile as it already is!"
Everyone is still waiting for the big plays, the 50-60+ yard runs that Charger fans haven't seen since LaDainian Tomlinson's hey-day, from Mathews. However, what he has shown is an incredible ability to get out of trouble and not lose yardage. If it weren't for that, I'm not sure that he'd be playing at all.
Here's something to think about going forward. The Chargers have 3 more regular-season games left before the playoffs begin. Not only are those three games against weaker opponents, but over that span the Chargers could potentially be adding Patrick Crayton, Legedu Naanee, Louis Vasquez and Antonio Gates to the offense. In addition, they can spend these three games knocking the rust off of Ryan Mathews (and giving him experience) and Vincent Jackson.
Just think about that for a second. As good as the offense was yesterday, they were missing three of their top receivers and one of their better offensive lineman. And that's just the guys that they actually expect back before the end of the season. With the right amount of luck, the Chargers could make the playoffs and be heading in with a team stacked with talent.
Granted, it was against Brodie Croyle, but that was the best performance from this impressive Chargers defense all season. Just as the offense was perfectly-called by Norv Turner, Ron Rivera was a wizard with his play calls yesterday.
Brodie Croyle was never able to get comfortable in the pocket (4 sacks, tons of hurries and hits, 41.2% completion), Thomas Jones was essentially erased from the game (0.3 Yards/Carry), Jamaal Charles' damage was minimized (4.0 Yards/Carry) and the monster known as Dwayne Bowe was held to 1 catch for 3 yards.
The Safeties did their job, often with Eric Weddle working as a missile to blow up running plays. The CBs on this team are playing at an elite level. Quentin Jammer cannot be beaten, Antoine Cason might be as good as Jammer (and younger), Donald Strickland has had a solid season and now Dante Hughes is relishing his position as "the only guy the opposing offense feels comfortable throwing at". The pass rush was fantastic, and has become as versatile as the offensive running game with Shaun Phillips, Antwan Barnes, Larry English and Antwan Applewhite each getting pressure throughout the game.
The key to everything, though, was the outstanding play of Antonio Garay and Luis Castillo. The stats say that these guys had 4 tackles and 1 sack between them, but don't even come close to illustrating the way in which both of these men dominated the double-teams they were facing all day. Any time they are winning the battle on the line that easily (at least it looked easy), the Chargers have a great chance to win the game.
3. Norv's Balls
Yes, those balls. They were prominently on display at Qualcomm Stadium and in living rooms across the country yesterday, as he threw off his conservative ties and went with the tried-and-true "F**k it" approach that has won him so many December games in the past.
The defense knows that Mathews can't block the blitz? F**k it. Vincent Jackson hasn't touched a football in a game in a year? End-around! Darren Sproles dealing with a concussion? Let's put one of our starting CBs back there, and encourage him to make a play instead of just fair-catching the ball. That will almost certainly result in the longest punt-return of the season for this team (it's true). Dwayne Bowe is unstoppable? Single coverage! Our CBs can totally handle that guy. What's that? We're up by 3 TDs in the 4th quarter against a team that hasn't been able to get a first down without a whole lot of luck? Throw deep to Jackson!
It's funny how at the beginning of games you can totally tell if Norv showed up with his balls hanging out or not. The first time the Chargers had the ball, here was the play-call....keep in mind that Ryan Mathews hasn't carried the ball since NOVEMBER 7TH in Houston and Vincent Jackson hadn't touched the ball since January against the Jets in the playoffs....
While that drive was going on, I was thinking to myself "Norv has gone into 'F**k You' mode. This is typically when the team stops losing." In a lot of ways, he's like Marty (record comes to screeching halt) in that he tends to get too conservative at the beginning of the regular-season and in the playoffs. In terms of both offensive play call and personnel changes. It's only when the Chargers' backs are against the wall that he starts trying things that he hasn't tried all season, only to see opposing defenses tripping over themselves trying to defend it. I like ballsy Norv, I hope he gets to try his act in the playoffs this year.
Philip Rivers really had it going yesterday. He was so accurate with his passes that it seemed like sometimes he was running out of the pocket just to see if he could make the same throws on the run. His chemistry with Jackson hasn't missed a beat, and his connection with Malcom Floyd is something that amazes me each time Floyd plays.
I know we make a big deal out of Rivers missing his receivers this season, but it needs to be made a big deal of. Do you know why Peyton Manning is suddenly in a tailspin of sorts? Throwing interceptions and generally looking like an average QB? It has a lot to do with the fact that his favorite target (Dallas Clark) is watching games from the sideline. On the flip-side of that coin, Rivers #1 target seems to chance from week to week (Floyd-Gates-Crayton-Jackson, etc.) and he's arguably only had one bad game all season.
Michael Vick is probably the favorite to win the MVP Award right now. He has the best story (turning his life around from prison to superstar), he's in a major media market, he draws huge ratings on his own and he's running the Eagles' offense the way many analysts predicted he would do with the Falcons years ago. The question I have is....take away DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and then how good is Vick? Nobody this season has done more with less than Rivers.
|vs KAN / 12.12.10||Passing||Rushing|
5. Special Teams
How many times this season were you asked, as an informed Chargers fan, "Why does this team continue to lose games to bad opponents?" The answer is that each game was a perfect storm of ugliness. A combination of injuries at the wrong positions, guys making mental errors, fumbles bouncing the wrong way and an awful lot of bad luck. If just one of those things could be improved, whether it be the fumbles on offense, the lack of turnovers on defense or the horrible special teams....this would be a very tough team to beat.
So....right around the time of the New England game, the Special Teams started to improve. Guys that were missing assignments were let go, guys that would love their roles as special team studs were brought in. Guys that were promoted off of Special Teams were asked to come back and play on them. Nobody balked. Since the improvement in Special Teams, the Chargers have gone 5-2 and only lost to the "best team in the league" Patriots by 3 points.
Steve Crosby and some of his players have actually begun to turn Special Teams back into a strength of the team. Coverage has been above-average for weeks, Nate Kaeding has found his regular-season groove and Mike Scifres has found a way to be a Top 5 Punter without the help of Kassim Osgood. Credit all-around to the players and coaches for identifying the problem (even late) and fixing it.
6. Bro Hymn
Pennywise - Bro Hymn (Tribute) (via EpitaphRecords)