"We missed you, VJ." - Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Everybody gets a Bolt! Now, let's figure out why the team is getting better when all of the starters are getting hurt.
There. Now that that's out of the way, allow me to rant about how we got here. Why did it take the San Diego Chargers 12 games to finally turn into the winning team that we thought they'd be heading into the 2012 season? Well, as per usual, the Chargers followed their motto of "Faith & Arrogance" all the way to the verge of being out of the playoffs once again.
Our own Superduperboltman has been clamoring all year for Kendall Reyes to become the starter in place of Vaughn Martin. That hasn't happened, despite strong play by Reyes all season. Early in yesterday's game, Vaughn Martin left with an injury and Reyes was pushed into the starter's role. Lo and behold, the young defensive line of Reyes, Corey Liuget and Cam Thomas dominated the line of scrimmage, ate up blockers and freed up the other 8 guys to make plays (this explains Bront Bird's ridiculous game). All it took was injuries forcing the coaching staff's hand.
I haven't written much on it, but this year I've been speaking about the Chargers heading in the wrong direction with their offensive line. Pass rushers are getting less powerful (ala Shawne Merriman) and more speedy/quick (ala Von Miller). Some of the teams around the NFL are seeing this and are building offensive lines with smaller, quicker and more athletic Tackles. The Chargers' starting Tackles were Jared Gaither (roughly the size of a house) and Jeromey Clary (roughly the size of a houseboat).
With Clary, Gaither and Mike Harris out, the Chargers were forced to start Kevin Haslam (his first NFL start!) and Reggie Wells (a Guard) at the Tackle spots. Just going off appearances, these guys looked a hell of a lot more athletic than the guys they were replacing. They looked like LBs running down the field looking for secondary blocks, instead of looking like cows grazing in a field. They pretty much performed as you'd expect athletic Tackles to perform, staying in front of any and all pass-rushers but doing very little to help the running game (mostly because this is a power-blocking scheme that is built for guys like Clary and Gaither). However, the goal all season has been to give Philip Rivers time to throw and they accomplished that.
Despite not having an offensive line built for the style of running that Norv Turner's offense operates, Norv ran the ball. A lot. And he did it with Ryan Mathews, for the most part. He used Mathews like the kid was Ricky Williams in Miami or Frank Gore in San Francisco, giving him 25 carries (and 0 catches!) despite Mathews' paltry 2.6 yards per carry. You know what happened? Well, the Chargers ended up with more 3rd & 5 situations than 3rd & long situations. It's those 3rd & long plays that have resulted in mistakes, turnovers and have generally been drive-killers for San Diego this season, and they've been the result of Norv leaning too heavily on the passing game when the running game isn't putting up great numbers.
I'm not certain why Norv changed his style yesterday. Some say it was because he was nervous about Rivers' getting hit, so he built a gameplan around the running game and stuck to it. That's certainly possible. I'd like to believe that Norv went back and realized that his formerly great play-calling didn't need a 5 yards per carry performance from the running back to work. It just needed to be enough to keep defenses honest against play-action fakes and enough to keep the 3rd down situations short. Which brings me to my next point....
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The San Diego Chargers' top 3 WRs yesterday were Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd and Micheal Spurlock. Just like A.J. Smith drew it up in the offseason. Since being inserted into the starting role, Alexander has been getting the lion's share of targets from Philip Rivers. Maybe it's his size, maybe it's his decision-making or route-running, but whatever it is, Rivers is treating Alexander like he's Vincent Jackson and defenses are being forced to respond. Is it possible, that in all of the "replacing Vincent Jackson by committee" thought process, the team could've just signed Danario Alexander and been fine? Maybe.
Instead, Micheal Spurlock was underused (and then released) in the name of giving opportunities to Richard Meachem and Eddie Royal. The offense struggled mightily as Meachem (who is only good in the slot) tried to learn how to play outside and Royal (whose one good season was when he played outside) remained the team's slot WR when healthy (which is never).
Despite the WRs not knowing what they were doing and not actually being suited for their roles, Norv relied heavily on the passing game. This led to a whole lot of "Two incompletions and suddenly it's 3rd & 10" situations. You know who's not great on 3rd & 10? No, not Rivers. Well, yes, Rivers, but we're talking about receivers. Antonio Gates is not great on 3rd & 10. It takes him too long to get 10 yards down field and then find a hole in the defense. However, on 3rd & 7 or shorter, Gates can't be stopped. It makes more sense to build towards those situations with that guy on the team.
Fine. I'm done hating Corey Lynch. I mean, I was last week too, but now it's official. Corey Lynch has done two things in his brief stint as the starting Strong Safety for the Chargers. One, he's been awesome and showed just how crazy it was that the team kept throwing Atari Bigby out there to bite on play-action and give up huge pass plays every week with Lynch on the roster. Two, Corey has shown just how easy it is to replace Steve Gregory (and how much better this defense is with a Steve Gregory clone than Bigby).
It all trickles down. Vaughn Martin goes out, the defensive line gets better. That makes the linebackers' jobs easier, which results in more pressure, which makes the secondary (which is already improved with Lynch) even better. On the other side of the ball, Norv's dedication to the running game made for shorter distances to get to first down. This led to shorter routes being run, which meant less time Rivers needed to throw (behind an offensive line that could've given him loads of time) and more plays that Antonio Gates could be effective.
It took a lot of injuries and bad luck for the coaching staff to be put into this situation, but they always seem to get here (albeit too late). Now they just have to hope that they can replicate it 3 more times and that it might be enough to count for something.