Don't give up on the San Diego Chargers. They may have lost in ugly fashion to Tennessee, but things are going upwards in southern California.
1-2. That's the record of the San Diego Chargers heading into a pivotal matchup with Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys in San Diego on September 29th. You could make a point that the Chargers should be 3-0. You could also argue that they should be 0-3. It is what it is, and the Chargers must keep looking forward, or they'll be in danger of falling behind badly in the AFC playoff hunt. There have been many positives for San Diego this season, but there have been just as many negatives. Here are some takeaways:
- Philip Rivers is back. Mike McCoy told reporters during the offseason that his goal was to have Philip Rivers complete 70% of his passes. So far, that's been exactly what he's done. He completed 20 of his 24 attempts yesterday (83.3%), and has completed 70 of his 100 attempts on the season, which is exactly 70%. He is playing with confidence again, and he is being fast with his decision making. Through 3 games, he's only thrown 1 interception, and that interception was a tremendous play by Brian Cushing. Rivers is averaging 8 yards per attempt, and is second in the league in passer rating, behind only Peyton Manning. His play really has me excited for the remainder of the season. If he continues to play this way, he'll be a contender for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award.
- The offensive line is vastly improved over last years. D.J. Fluker, the Chargers first round pick a few short months ago, is playing like the best offensive lineman taken in the entire Draft. There were questions about his pass protection skills coming out, and he has only given up one sack so far. The entire unit has really surprised so far. They've only given up 5 sacks, and three starters either didn't play at all, or they left the game with injury. They have also opened up more running lanes for the backs this season. San Diego ran for over 100 yards in the loss to Tennessee, and also in Philadelphia. As the season moves forward, the line will gel more and more, and as a result, their play will get better and better.
- Danny Woodhead is all the Chargers hoped for and more. At this point, he is leading the team in receptions, with 17, and had 7 yesterday. He is clutch for the Chargers. He had the key reception of the game last week in Philly, converting a 3rd-and-short that led to Nick Novak's game-winning field goal. He has also made plays in the running game. He leads all running backs on the team with a 4.1 yard-per-carry average. He has officially filled the void left by Darren Sproles.
- Philip Rivers' targets are legit. Eddie Royal is proving to be one of Philip Rivers favorite targets. Royal leads the league in touchdown catches, with 5. Antonio Gates is playing like the Antonio Gates of old. He leads the team in receiving yards, with 228. Malcom Floyd has played tremendously, he was on his way to a 200 yard performance last week until he got hurt. Keenan Allen has made a couple of clutch receptions, and Ladarius Green is improving greatly. Vincent Brown is still progressing nicely as well. Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green will only get better with time, which will give the Bolts 2 stud tight ends, and 4 more than capable options at wide receiver.
- The injury situation. Manti Te'o has yet to play a regular season snap with his foot injury. He may very well make his debut against Dallas next week, though. Donald Butler missed the game against the Titans with a groin problem. D.J. Fluker missed the game with a concussion that he suffered early in the week. King Dunlap left the game Sunday with a concussion. Chad Rinehart also left the game with turf toe. Shareece Wright did not play with a hamstring issue. Corey Liuget hasn't been healthy all season. He hurt his shoulder in the second preseason game, against Chicago, and has since sustained a hamstring injury. Malcom Floyd suffered a scary neck injury last week against the Eagles. Melvin Ingram tore an ACL during OTA's, and may not play this season. The injuries continue to pile up at an alarming rate. If things continue, the Chargers will be put on Philip Rivers back, and they will try to make him carry them through the season, which will lead to more risk-taking by way of playcalling, which will lead undoubtedly to turnovers, and in the end, lost games. The Chargers need to get and stay healthy if they even want a sniff of the playoffs.
- Playcalling. When the Chargers have been in position to put games away this season, they have strayed from what got them the leads in the first place. Against Tennessee, the Chargers at one point called nine straight run plays, which led to just one first down. Philip Rivers was playing great, and he was completing anything he wanted. The conservative approach ultimately led to their demise. The Titans got the ball at their own 7 with just over 2 minutes left, and drove the length of the field to win the game. If San Diego got just one more first down, the game would have been over, but bad play calling negated any chance of it playing out like that. The same thing happened against Houston as well. Teams can score points in a hurry these days, so one of the keys to winning the game is keeping your foot on the gas, even when you have a 21-point lead. We saw it in games yesterday. Green Bay snatched a loss from the jaws of victory, and Chicago nearly gave up a 21-point lead to the Steelers, before pulling away. Moral of the story: Go for the throat of the opposing teams. Go for the blowout. Rack up as many points as you can, or else you are at risk of blowing a lead and losing the game.
- The defense. The defensive unit as a whole can't get the job done. San Diego has the worst pass defense in the NFL. In week one, other than Houston's first play from scrimmage, a Jarret Johnson tipped pass that led to a Cam Thomas INT, Matt Schaub did whatever he wanted to the Chargers. The corners were playing off the whole night, letting Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins and Co. run wild in the secondary. The only "positive" was the fact that they kept Arian Foster quiet, although Ben Tate did what he wanted to. Last week, Michael Vick had a career day passing the ball. The Eagles gained over 500 yards total in that game. They kept LeSean McCoy in check when he ran the ball, but when he caught the ball out of the backfield, he went berserk. DeSean Jackson had 191 receiving yards in the game. Yesterday, Tennessee had over 400 yards of offense... Over 400 yards. Chris Johnson had 90 rush yards, but the ground player of the game had to be Jake Locker. He had a 38-yard scramble and a key TD run. One play that sums up the secondary's season is the game-winning throw by Jake Locker to Justin Hunter with 15 seconds left. Hunter, the Titan's second-round pick in this past Draft, was covered man-to-man by Crezdon Butler, who hasn't even been a Charger for a week. He had no safety help on the play, which is inexcusable. Sure, Hunter got away with a push on the play, but still. The one rule in situations like that is don't get beat deep, and that is exactly what happened. The pass rush has been virtually nonexistent. Dwight Freeney has gotten a ton of QB hurries, but the unit only has 5 sacks all season. Without consistent pressure, and sacks, there is going to be even more pressure on the struggling secondary. I do believe a healthy Charger defense would be doing a lot better, but injuries are unfortunately a part of the game.
- The Injury Report Fail. Donald Butler determined last minute that he wasn't going to be able to play, and he wasn't added to the inactive list in time, which left a dead spot on the active roster for the game. Tourek Williams was supposed to play, but the injury report debacle negated any chance of it. That is an inexcusable mistake by the Chargers staff, and it cost them a player in the game.
- Jahleel Addae. This guy is a pleasant surprise for this team. He had a couple huge special teams plays in the preseason. Yesterday, he tackled punter Brent Kern after a fumbled snap, and upended Kenny Britt When he tried to make a reception. It is a surprise to me that the former Central Michigan safety went undrafted. He's done nothing but make plays so far. I look forward to seeing him grow in this defense.
- Reggie Walker. He had a sack of Jake Locker and was second on the team in tackles. He hasn't been a part of the team long, and his play can only get better with him better understanding the system. I expect him to be a key reserve player once Manti Te'o returns. He'll provide much needed depth on the defense.
- Mike Harris. He was called upon to play left tackle when King Dunlap left, and he did not give up a sack. He's developed a ton since last season.
Why to Remain Optimistic:
- The Chargers, in my opinion, should be 3-0. Even with the plethora of injuries to both the offense and defense, the Chargers have been in position to win every week. The week one debacle could easily have been avoided if the Chargers just gained one first down on their last possession. The same goes for yesterday. If the Chargers convert that last first down, the game is over. A healthy Chargers team would have meant a completely different outcome. If everybody that either didn't play or left the game was healthy, San Diego could have easily put up 35 on the Titans. There is no doubt that playing their 3rd and 4th string options at inside linebacker had an impact on the outcome of the game. I'm looking forward to seeing this team play when everybody is healthy. They could be scary good.
- Philip Rivers is on fire. As long as Philip Rivers continues to play the way that he has been playing, the Chargers will be in every game that they play. He puts this team in position to win. When the rest of the team catches up to him with their play, this team will get on a roll.
- The receivers are playing better than expected, and they are improving. Eddie Royal is playing the best football of his career, and the touchdown he scored yesterday should have stood. Antonio Gates is playing healthy, which should scare opposing defenses. If Malcom Floyd returns and plays like he was before the injury, he'll go over 1,000 yards this season. Keenan Allen was projected to be a 1st round pick this year, and we stole him in the 3rd. He'll develop into a solid starter, possibly even a star, in the next year or two. He already has made a couple of clutch receptions for the Chargers. Vincent Brown is also developing well, which gives the Chargers 4 legitimate options at wideout. Ladarius Green is getting better and better. With everbody in the league wanting to emmulate the New England Patriot's offensive philosophy, with two stud TE's, San Diego is quietly doing the same. If Ladarius Green continues on this path, the Chargers will have an offense that has too many weapons for any defense to handle.
- The trio at running back is working well. Mike McCoy has a nice rotation set up for the backs. Ryan Mathews starts, Danny Woodhead comes in on 3rd down and obvious passing situations. Ronnie Brown comes in to help in short-yardage and possible passing situations. Danny Woodhead is leading the team in reception, Ronnie BRown has the only Chargers rushing touchdown, and Ryan Mathews has been a different player this year, for the most part. Fozzy Whittaker is also a legit back. He wasn't supposed to even make the team, but he played and earned his roster spot.
- Ryan Mathews had a costly fumble inside the 10-yard line last week in Philly, and he had an absolutely terrible run yesterday that costed his team points on third-and-short. The Chargers haven't had a 100-yard game by a running back in 22 consecutive games. That is awful. They need to improve in this phase of the game if they want to win.
- The injury bug is back. Butler, Floyd, Fluker, Wright, and Te'o, and Ingram have missed games. Dunlap may or may not miss a game, as well as Rinehart. If they want to have a shot to win many games this year, they must get and remain healthy.
On Sunday, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and the red-hot Dallas Cowboys come to Qualcomm Stadium to take on Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Before, I had predicted this game going in the Cowboy's favor, with the score 24-21 for the road team. If the Chargers even want to be in the game, they better hope everybody gets healthy throughout the week. If the Chargers are completely healthy, minus Melvin Ingram, this will be one hell of a game. IF the Chargers are healthy, I'll give the nod to the home team, 30-27. If they are not, however, I think Dallas does what they want on both sides of the ball, and win 35-20.
All in all, I think the Chargers are better than I thought they would be offensively, and this team is only going to get better with time. Tom Telesco knows how to evaluate talent, and he will add depth and talent every year, and will have this team stacked in the next year or two. Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt are doing wonders for Philip Rivers, and thing will only get better for him with time. Bottom line is: This team is going to be fine with time. Everybody knew this team wasn't a player or two from a championship. In a year or two, this team will be a contender, and a power in the AFC.