The San Diego Chargers continued to make strides Saturday night as a team that's looking to improve on a 7-9 record from a year ago. The offense moved the ball, the defense got off the field, and special teams came up with 3 huge plays in the first half as the Chargers controlled the game from start to finish in a 24-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
With this being the last time we'll see the starters until Week 1 against the Texans, I'll go over the 5 biggest takeaways on each side of the ball, both good and bad. Let's start out with the offense.
Balance & Pace
The first half was evenly called, with 18 pass plays and 18 rushing attempts. That balance did wonders for the offense, keeping Arizona's defense honest so they couldn't pin their ears back and rush the passer. Philip Rivers wasn't sacked during the first half, which is a milestone compared to the way he's been under duress the first 2 preseason games.
The same offensive balance also helped the running game look better than it has in quite some time now. The Chargers rushed for 74 yards in the first half, just over 4 yards per carry. They actually ran for more than they passed for (71 yards) in the first half. It also helped them get into manageable situations on third down. The offense was 4-6 on 3rd downs in the first half.
The up-tempo pace was a new wrinkle this game, and Rivers looked much more comfortable in said pace. It'll be interesting to see how much this is actually a part of the offense, as both touchdown drives (92 & 80 yards) came from the up-tempo pace. What it does for Rivers is it gets him to the line of scrimmage with over 20 seconds on the play clock, allowing him to make the correct pre-snap reads needed to be effective in this offense. At times, Rivers still is locked into one receiver the entire play and missed open receivers, but for me, he took a big step in this game (even if his numbers don't indicate he did.)
There are still plays where Ryan Mathews leaves yards on the field. However, what I saw against the Cardinals is what the Chargers had envisioned him doing when they traded up to take him in the 1st round. I'm not sure Mathews ever went down on first contact. He put his foot in the ground and ran hard. Often running through people, making people miss, Ryan looked like a totally new back. I know he's run for more yards in games before, but this game was the best I've seen Mathews ever
Many will point out the fumble Mathews had, but there's not much he could do there. The defender put his helmet on the ball. That fumble happens to any other back in the league.
It'll be interesting to see how many carries he gets on a per game basis. He had 14 in the 1st half on Saturday, whereas last year he only had 20+ carries three times all year. Mathews being the power type back that he is, he's proven that the more carries he gets the better he is. Once Mathews is able to crack the twenty carry mark consistently, I think that's where we'll see him start to break these longer runs.
Offensive line still working out the kinks
There are still issues along the offensive line, and it's obvious. What isn't so obvious is who is making the mistakes.
This is the part where you call me crazy and any other form of stupid, but from what I see, D.J. Fluker is the best lineman on the team. Seeing him improve on a weekly basis has been fun to watch. Guess who made that 1st touchdown run possible? On that play Fluker drove the defensive end all the way down to the center. There were actually a handful of plays where he drove his man 3-4 yards down the line or off the ball. He's not lunging anymore in his pass protection, not one time did he get beat, and he also picks up "stunts" and recognizes them quickly, an all around impressive performance.
The problem is on the inside. I'd be more worried about the combination of Jeromey Clary and Nick Hardwick than I'd be worried about King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker. I know he's new to the position, but Clary doesn't seem to understand when to pass his man off, or recognize when the defensive line stunts. Because of this, Rivers is still getting hit, and one of those hits led to an interception. There was also a play on the first touchdown drive, when Rivers had to get rid of it quick and found Antonio Gates, where Clary was pulling and didn't block the right guy. He's still learning, but if I had to pick one person, he'd be the one I'm most worried about on the offense.
Defensively, the Chargers continued to be solid, as they had been the first two games. Derek Cox showed off his tackling skills on the second play of the game, and the safeties not named Eric Weddle are still a work in progress, but there's a lot to like from this unit.
3rd Down Defense
The first team defense limited the Cardinals to 2-7, which is a huge stepping stone as the season gets closer. Last year they ranked 29th in the NFL giving up 40% of conversions, a big reason why defense wasn't as good as some seem to think it was.
Whether it was Dwight Freeney creating constant pressure or the new cornerbacks making plays on the ball, the defense did a great job of getting off the field and getting the ball back to the offense on Saturday night. At this point, is anyone still concerned that there will be a drop off at corner? Cox made a great play on 3rd down against Larry Fitzgerald and Shareece Wright ran stride for stride with Patrick Peterson 40 yards down the field.
Up the Middle
I'm not talking about Cam Thomas here. He was solid and he played like the Chargers need him to play. Bront Bird and the safeties however were out of position too many times if this defense wants to be a top 10 defense.
I try to see what the team sees in Bird, I really do. When you play "Mike" you need to be aggressive, you need to be a thumper, you have to want to hit. That's not Bird's game. Bird looks very comfortable dropping into coverage, and reading the quarterback. When it comes to running plays, he wants no part of contact. If Manti Te'o is out for an extended period of time, this might be a major issue for the defense, especially starting the season out with three run-heavy teams. Bird just doesn't read and react on run plays like a middle linebacker on any level should. He waits instead of initiating contact, and it usually leaves him out of position. This is a domino effect, hurting Donald Butler's production.
Another player in a new position, Marcus Gilchrist moving to safety. Gilchrist was slow reacting Saturday night, and he's lucky the Cardinals didn't take advantage. Gilchrist, playing the deep safety role for much of the night, was turned around on one deep pass play, and he also got caught jumping the wrong route in the end zone. Luckily, the tight end dropped it. He also didn't aggressively fill the running holes like I had hoped he would. Gilchrist is going to have to trust what he sees and play with more aggression going forward.
The hoopla for Jahleel Addae is fascinating, but is it warranted? I love that McCoy stuck him in with the first team to see if he's ready to play, but I didn't see it. What I did see is 3rd & 2, he's in a position to make the tackle and get the defense off the field, and he misses the tackle. He needed to "find work" instead of just dropping into his zones.
Le'Ron McClain played 5 snaps in the first half, and 3 of those came on the goal line. If that's his usage, how does he warrant a spot? It would cost $1.6 million to cut him, and roughly $3 million to keep him. Being a subpar blocker and having minimal impact in this offense, I'm not sure what the reason is for him making the team.
How to get Ladarius Green on the field? I know it hasn't been against starters, but Green has shined this preseason, almost to a point where you could vouch for putting him in ahead of newcomer John Phillips, who hasn't been the great blocker that many of us has expected him to be. When you lack depth as an offense, and you have a guy like Green who can stretch the field down the middle, you find ways to get him touches. Does he warrant more playing time?
There was a lot to like in this final tuneup for the Chargers. Rivers is getting better, Mathews looks primed for a career year and the offense as a whole proved they can move the ball consistently.
On the other side of the ball, we learned that Freeney is motivated, and looks like he'll lead the team in sacks. He still has it. Jarrett Johnson isn't a slouch rushing the passer, either. The corners are new, but can cover better than last year's duo. We also learned that there are concerns up the middle on defense.
Was Saturday night's performance enough for you to feel confident heading into the season? Or is this still a bottom 5 team in the NFL like most people outside of San Diego feel?