Week 15 Grades: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos

Dustin Bradford

The flickering flame that is the Chargers playoffs hopes burns for at least 1 more week, thanks to the best defensive game the Chargers have played all season, and a marvelous all-around team victory over what's (still) likely the AFCs best team.

Quarterback: B plus

The numbers would indicate that Philip Rivers had a pedestrian game. Rivers completed 12 of 20 attempts (60%) for 166 yards (a healthy 8.3 YPA) with 2 TDs and no turnovers. However, it's important to understand Rivers' numbers in the context of the game plan, which was NOT to match the Broncos score for score. Rivers, for the most part, did exactly what the game plan asked him to do. Sustain drives. Protect the football. Not take any unnecessary risks.

What was spectacular about Rivers' performance was the ball placement. Time and time again, he put the ball in a spot where only his receivers could make a play, or managed to get the ball to his receivers with an opportunity to make plays after the catch. He also had another terrific game stepping up into the pocket to avoid pressure, especially on the 1st TD pass to WR Keenan Allen. Rivers even converted a 1st down by scrambling for 11 yards earlier on the drive.

Running Backs: A

Again, in context of the game plan, the Chargers had to run the football effectively. In the specific case of RB Ryan Mathews, it might have been the best performance of his career. Mathews ran for 127 yards on 29 carries (4.4 YPC), and in many cases, the gains were the result of tough running through tacklers. His best run resulted in a 23 yard TD, where he did a nice job moving behind blockers and along the sidelines. Mathews added 1 catch for 1 yard, as his lack of lateral agility resurfaced.

Among the other running backs, Danny Woodhead had 9 carries for 29 yards, and only 1 reception for 13 yards - which resulted in a 1st down. Ronnie Brown finished with 3 carries for 12 yards. As a group, all of the running backs had a very strong game in pass protection, which is an improvement of the last couple of games.

Receivers: B plus

Let's start with WR Vincent Brown, who has struggled mightily the last several weeks. In this game, given the design of the game plan, and the limited opportunities, he needed to be at his best, and he was producing 3 receptions for 54 yards on 3 targets, with nice catches along the sideline, and one terrific sliding catch in the 3rd quarter to extend a strong drive. WR Keenan Allen had big impact in the game with his 2 receptions both going for TDs - the first turning a 3rd down shallow cross into a 19 yard catch and run, and hurdle, and push into the end zone. The 2nd TD was a strong catch on a back shoulder fade in the end zone. Allen was targeted 3 other times, one of which could have been another TD had he not misread the safety. WR Eddie Royal was targeted 6 times and finished with 3 catches for 46 yards.

Among the TEs, Antonio Gates finished with 2 receptions for 23 yards (3 targets), both of which converted 3rd downs. The one throw toward Ladarius Green doesn't show up on the stat line, but drew an 18 yard Pass Interference penalty. However, as a group, the TEs as a group (Gates, Green and John Phillips) all struggled mightily with their run blocking.

Offensive Line: B plus

The Chargers chances for winning hinged on how well the offensive line played. And they played pretty well. In pass protection LT King Dunlap had another solid game guarding the blindside against both OLB Von Miller and occasionally OLB Shaun Phillips, but since his return, he's had some problems staying low in the running game. That said, his athleticism on screen passes is something the Chargers should be taking advantage of more often. LG Chad Rinehart was solid when blocking straight ahead, and did a solid job on limited chances pulling to the right.

C Nick Hardwick was solid up front, drawing his one holding call after Rivers stayed in the pocket for several seconds. RG Jeromey Clary probably struggled the most, as he was beaten a few times on stretch runs and continued to struggle getting to the left on pulling plays. RT D.J. Fluker really had a strong all-around game, as the 1 sack he allowed to OLB Shaun Phillips was more the result of good coverage than getting beat. In the running game, Fluker did a nice job again of finishing running plays.

Defensive Line: B

When it was needed most, DE Corey Liuget came up with a very strong game. Luiget was working opposite LG Zane Beadles for the most part, and consistently got good push, forcing Denver's running game to work around him. He was also good at pushing Beadles back into the pocket, and set up the biggest defensive play of the game, shooting through the gap between Beadles and LT Chris Clark to force a bad throw by DEN QB Peyton Manning. On the other side, DE Kendall Reyes did a solid job of holding his position against RG Louis Vasquez, but only occasionally managed to push the pocket.

Inside, new starting NT Sean Lissemore did a solid job of occupying C Manny Ramirez, and managed to slow down a couple of running plays. The best effect was in moving DT Cam Thomas to the situational/backup role for which he is best suited, and Thomas responded with a strong effort, getting good push on some passing plays, and helping to force some uncomfortable throws from Manning.

Linebackers: B

In this game, there wasn't really the opportunity for game changing plays - Pagano's game plan asked them to handle the zones well, and tackle immediately following the catch. By and large, the linebackers pulled this off. OLB Reggie Walker had the biggest variance, as he struggled early in coverage against TE Julius Thomas, but made a few strong plays in the running game. ILB Donald Butler was solid both against the run and pass, although he gave up some yards after contact with missed tackles.

ILB Manti Te'o was not on the field for much of this game, but he was good again in zone coverage. When he blitzed however, he was not able to get any pressure on Manning. OLB Thomas Keiser made the clinching interception in the 4th quarter, but had no impact as an edge rusher. In some limited snaps, OLB Melvin Ingram did a nice job running down inside zone runs, but was not able to create pressure with his limited rushes. OLB Jarret Johnson was again solid against the run and in zone coverage, but missed a couple of tackles in space.

Secondary: B plus

CB Shareece Wright followed up his decent performance against the Giants with a strong performance against Denver's WRs. Wright finished with 2 passes defensed, didn't give up any big plays, was solid tackling, and was better at finding the football in coverage than he's been all season. On the opposite side, CB Richard Marshall had an early mistake, allowing WR Andre Caldwell an TD on a post corner route, instead of trusting his safety help. Otherwise, his tackling was solid throughout the game. CB Marcus Gilchrist, taking over the nickel CB position, was terrific. Gilchrist posted a sack, a pass defensed on a blitz, and very good in run support.

SS Jahleel Addae was generally solid during the game, especially in run support. He did struggle a bit against TE Julius Thomas, and was also late recognizing the WR screen pass which turned into a TD for Caldwell. FS Eric Weddle was very good again helping to prevent big plays over the top, and had a sensational pass defense on a blitz. As a whole, the DBs were very good at limiting the damage after the catch, which is probably the most crucial element of the Broncos passing game.

Special Teams: B

PK Nick Novak converted both of his FG attempts, from 35 and 38 yards, but struggled with his kickoffs, Novak only produced 1 touchback on his 6 kickoffs, and had one kickoff go out-of-bounds. Kickoff coverage against dangerous KR Trindon Holliday was solid, with Holliday getting stopped by WR Seyi Ajirotutu at the 10 yard line on 1 attempt. Punt coverage was strong as well, but hardly necessary as P Mike Scifres had a phenomenal game, with 3 punts resulting in 2 fair catches and 1 landing out-of-bounds. On these three punts, Denver's average field position was the 6 yard line. Unfortunately, blocking units continue to struggle creating running room for PR Keenan Allen. Allen finished with only 11 yards on 2 returns.

Coaching: A minus

For a detailed breakdown, see Jason Peters' review of 4th down decisions. And even though the advanced metrics suggest punting on 4th and 3 from the DEN 37 with 5:51 remaining wasn't a horrendous decision, I choose to criticize it given the following a) holding a 7 point lead with the ball on the road, b) the opponent has the most prolific NFL offense in history, c) a defense which appeared to be playing way over it's head. That said, I felt McCoy's other decisions were solid, and he had a strong challenge to help extend a Chargers' possession in the 3rd quarter.

OC Ken Whisenhunt's game plan made plain that the Chargers wanted no part of a shootout. While it may have been a bit more run heavy than I'd have liked, it was certainly effective. Also, I like how Whisenhunt reincorporated the types of Coryell system routes that Brown was effective at running in the past, while not asking him to run the option/read routes he has struggled with this season.

DC John Pagano had a terrific game. He was situationally aggressive, saving his blitzes for inside the red zone and on 3rd and Long situations, which gave his defenders to rally to the ball and make tackles. By playing a lot Cover 2, he enabled his CBs to play aggressive at the line and still prevent big plays. He gave Liuget and Reyes more chances to play 1 gap football, which led to the game clinching turnover. Better than in any other game this season, Pagano put his players in position to succeed.

Hidden Plays (Non Scoring, non turnover plays which affected the outcome):

  • 3:21 1st Qtr. DEN 3rd and 4 at SD 45. Manning throws incomplete for Andre Caldwell, but Richard Marshall is flagged for defensive holding, resulting in a 1st down.
  • 2:35 1st Qtr. DEN 1st and 10 at SD 19. Montee Ball is dropped for a 6 yard loss by LB Reggie Walker, killing the drive and leading to a FG attempt.
  • 7:50 2nd Qtr. SD 3rd and 9 at DEN 46. Rivers throws a 19 yard completion to Keenan Allen, but is wiped out on a holding call by C Nick Hardwick. 1st and 10 at DEN 34 turns into 3rd and 19 at SD 36, leading to a punt.
  • 5:20 2nd Qtr. DEN 3rd and 2 at DEN 14. Manning is sacked for a 12 yard loss by Marcus Gilchrist, setting up a short punt and short field for SD.
  • 12:56 3rd Qtr. SD 3rd and 9 at SD 33. Rivers avoids pressure and throws deep to WR Vincent Brown for a 32 yard gain and 1st down. Mathews' TD comes 3 plays later.
  • 8:28 3rd Qtr. SD 4th and 4 at SD 7. Denver had forced a 3 and out, except that Nate Irving lined up offsides, drawing a 5 yard penalty and resulting 1st down. SD goes on to reach midfield and bleed another 6:48 off the clock on this possession before punting.
  • 8:56 4th Qtr. SD 3rd and 5 at SD 25. Rivers throws incomplete for Ladarius Green, but LB Duke Ihenacho is flagged for pass interference, resulting in a 1st down.
  • 6:36 4th Qtr. SD 3rd and 1 at DEN 35. Mathews is stopped on 3rd and 1 for a 2 yard loss. McCoy elects to punt on the next play, and Mike Scifres puts the ball out of bounds at the DEN 3.

One Play I Really Liked: Keenan Allen's 1st TD

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Here's an example of a play designed with one clear purpose - get Keenan Allen the ball in space. And as usually happens when Keenan Allen gets the ball in space, the results are awesome.

  1. Chargers come out in 11 personnel. Allen is to the left. Brown is far right, with Royal in the slot, and Gates off the line. Woodhead is flanking Rivers on the left.
  2. Denver is showing a simple four man rush. When DB Chris Harris comes up on Royal at the snap, it would seem to indicate man coverage.
  3. At the snap, Allen runs a shallow cross. Gates runs an in, Royal runs a skinny post, and Brown runs a deep hook out.
  4. What's interesting is Harris, DB Kayvon Webster, and LB Danny Trevathan are playing man coverage on Royal, Brown, and Gates respectively. Meanwhile, ILB Wesley Woodyard has the shallow middle, and bumps Gates.
  5. S Omar Bolden swings out to pick up Woodhead in the flat. CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has Allen initially, put passes him off to Woodyard in the middle, which would indicate either a) Denver was running zone on Allen's side, and man on Gates' side or b) Rodgers-Cromartie has man coverage on Allen, but mistakenly passes him off to Woodyard thinking it's zone.
  6. Either way, the net effect is the same. Woodyard on Allen underneath is a mismatch, and the routes run on the right have cleared out the Denver defense. Rivers makes a great throw from a congested pocket and hits Allen in stride. Allen finishes the play hurdling Webster, then pushing S Mike Adams into the end zone.

Looking Ahead To:

Raiders Week, part deux, and with all of the Chargers' chips on the table. Also hoping that Miami and Baltimore just stop with their ridiculous miracle wins.

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