Things I like after week 4
DL Play: The depth on this line (though getting thin at the moment) is really stepping up. Vaughn Martin has been handling double teams and blowing up runs at the point of attack. One play early against KC is a great example - you'll see Martin shove two O-lineman back, blowing up the outside run and re-routing the RB in the process, and then break loose to pursue. He would have made the stop for a 2 yard gain too, if not beaten to the punch by Takeo Spikes. If Liuget continues to develop and Castillo bounces back for playoffs/2012, this could be a monster starting rotation.
Tackling downfield: The young DBs on this team are showing solid fundamentals. Gilchrist was targeted against Miami all day and looked fantastic, leading in tackles and grabbing an INT. Dante Hughes always seems to close in a hurry and I just like the way he seems to hit hard. We haven't seen the type of blown tackles and bad angles that turn mere completions into big plays. Cason and Jammer continue to prove that though their assignment might get open to make a catch, they'll be brought down right away.
Check down game - both sides of the ball: I remember when the Chargers D got killed this way every week. Now with guys like Butler and Spikes patrolling the middle, and improved pass rush, and solid DB tackling, a lot of would-be first downs end up in punts. Those extra 2-3 yards at the end of the play make all the difference. Even more impressive has been the Charger's check-down offense - there has been a lot to like with Tolbert, Matthews, and McMichael in the short passing game, leading a patient, clock-eating attack. There's one play call I've noticed Norv use more and more as he becomes comfortable with his replacements for Sproles. It is the timing route, quick hitter to a RB in stride (rather than, say, waiting for a check-down at near standstill). Sproles used his speed to get off the line in a hurry, catch a quick toss to his back hip, safely away from backing-up defenders, and even if hit immediately had an easy 8 yards. Sproles was used in this way to perfection, picking up a lot of unlikely 3rd-and-long situations. Both Tolbert and Matthews have shown they can handle such patterns as well.
Ryan Matthews: #24 has flat out turned it on the last few games. He's showing patience and smarts as a runner, and man, who doesn't like Matthews catching the screen or swing pass? I like how seamlessly he turns on the afterburners after securing a pass, and that he trusts his speed to blow through rather than slow up to try to juke everyone. Can you say burst? Look out!
VJAX: Does this need any explaining? He can run any route with precision. That hitch-n-go for the long TD against Miami was a beautiful route, but I like seeing Jackson execute in less obvious ways. Not only as a deep threat and side-line receiver, but by gaining excellent position on crossing and corner routes, giving PR17 a much easier target. Look at his non-long reception from Sunday to see a great example of posting up as he cuts to the middle, giving the defender no chance to get position on him.
Looking up, but still needs improvement:
LB play: Donald Butler plays big. He's a great complement to Spikes because he's got all the physical tools and a high football IQ, especially for being in just his first year of play. The OLB are starting to heat up the pass rush. They were around the QB all day against Miami. Now its time for guys like English and Barnes to finish more plays. It would be great to see English mature into an all around player and put less reliance on getting the right personnel subbed in and out - teams like Green Bay will certainly exploit it. Right now Laboy. Barnes, and English have too many holes in their game to dominate as an every down player.
Coverage: Cason is the king of lucking out with a dropped pass when he's beat. Brandon Marshall had an easy TD on Sunday after getting separation, but flubbed the catch. Though Cason is not playing to the level he's shown in the past, he and Jammer are solid in man coverage and can be trusted on an island. Gilchrist had a solid outing including a very nice pass defended, showing the depth of the corners. Bottom line, there have been too many holes down the middle of the field. At times it'e been a matchup issue, e.g. the Patriots' Deion Branch and tight ends against Charger LBs and Safeties. Zone schemes are to blame for much of the coverage lapses, though. Donald Butler has the skills to stay with most opponents 1on1, but he and Spikes and any OLB dropping back cant be expected to sit back in a zone and defend crossing routes.
Vertical Passing Game: If you ask me, this aspect of the offenses is what is hit the hardest by the absence of Antonio Gates (definitely not 3rd down situations - Chargers are first in the NFL there - but red zone production has definitely suffered as well.) Teams eventually get tired of Gates getting "easy" conversions (easy for him, usually with 2 defenders draped on him) and YAC over the middle of the field, so they center on Gates and allow Rivers to go elsewhere. It's taken a few weeks, but Norv is finding different ways to get Jackson and Floyd isolated down the sideline, and this should amount to more big plays going forward. Involving Patrick Crayton more should open up the deep ball (as well as ease the loss of Gates), he's a great YAC receiver and makes big plays out of short routes. Once PR17 hits him on a few crossing routes, screens, and slants, defenses will have to account for him or get gouged by YAC.
Kick Coverage: At least once a game, a returner has been way too close to breaking a long TD. Although in general the coverage teams seem to hold lanes better and not over-commit, there is plenty that needs to be cleaned up a bit. I feel like the lane discipline is there, but the urgency of closing the ball-carrier is lacking, due to a reluctancy to over-run the play, and leading to 10-20 extra yards. With more experience and confidence, this group will tighten up.
Play Calling: I really hope Norv is just warming up. There's a lot he can do with the Tolbert/Matthews combo. Why not line up Tolbert at the FB spot a few times? Less ground to cover in short yardage, and keep the defense guessing who (if any) is staying to block or who must be accounted for as a dangerous receiver (or both). As Norv gets more diversified with personnel and spread formations, I think we'll start to see more of the 1-on-1 situations with Floyd and VJ that Rivers loves to exploit (and which is so fun to watch). I'd also like to see more creativity in the run game. Though the draw plays and misdirection inside have been pretty promising, the power-toss and other outside runs have failed to put Ryan in space very often (but he manages to turn the corner sometimes anyways). I want to see Matthews gathering a head of steam on the outside, looking for that one down-field WR block and goodbye!
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