I know football isn't all about the quarterbacks. Notably, there are 52 other players available for each game, a bevy of coaches on the sideline (Kansas City has 23), trainers, doctors, etc. I get all that. On the other hand, when a player takes roughly 10% of the team's salary cap (as Peyton does), or 7.7% (like Phillip Rivers), I think it's fair to hold that player more responsible for a team's performance. And also - they're freaking quarterbacks!
So it's not incorrect to label today's Chargers @ Broncos (#SDvsDEN) match as a contest between the two QBs. One fact that has been brought up ad nauseam is that these two teams have played before by virtue of being in the same division, and more importantly, the Chargers won one such game in Denver. They did so by holding the Broncos to 48.8% fewer points than their average from the other 15 games. This included a stretch in the middle of the game where the Broncos punted four straight times and then threw a pick for good measure. I took a look at the game tape of the two quarterbacks to see how the Chargers were so successful. I focused on the second half as I feel like the Chargers really did a great job protecting their lead the whole half.
Having said that, one of the most important sequences came at the end of the 1st half. In the first Denver @ San Diego match, the Chargers had 4th and 1 late in the 2nd quarter and did this:
The slants are well covered. If this were 3rd and 5, a quick throw probably works, but with the safety and a linebacker both zoning on the first slant, it is unlikely the Chargers will pick up the first down with a short pass. On the deeper route, the corner is correctly playing with inside leverage, but he doesn't know the pass will go to the sideline.
If the Chargers threw this exact ball against this exact coverage 100 times, how often do you think they convert? 40? 20? 10? Scoring this fortunate TD proved crucial as the Chargers won by only one score. I don't mean to imply the Chargers would have lost had they not gotten this, but the fact remains that good teams find ways to score touchdowns in the red zone. And a little luck never hurt anyone. I guarantee Peyton will admit a little luck throwing all those TDs.
With a lead in the second half the offense did a great job protecting it. By putting together several long drives, consistently working the play clock down, and converting 3rd downs, the Chargers shortened the game and probably eliminated one meaningful Denver possession. I don't have to tell you what Peyton can do with one possession. This is how the Chargers offense succeeded in the 2nd half:
The Denver run defense is very stout in the middle, but things get dicier on the edges. Overall, the team ran for 177 yards on 44 carries for a neat 4.0 average. On runs to the edge, the Chargers took advantage of a Denver defense that was A) missing Champ Bailey in the secondary and B) focusing on containing Phillip Rivers and the receivers. The Broncos were very committed to coverage and thus gave up some numbers in the run game. For example:
Ryan Matthews (yellow circle) has come on strong this year after dealing with injury issues in the past. This is on the Chargers' first possession of the second half. Notice how they have 6 blockers between the left hash and the sideline against only 4 Broncos up front. That means they can double team the best Denver defender and still have someone left over to block the DB on the 16 yard line.
Star linebacker Von Miller almost gets Matthews, but can't and the run is on. Denver is going to miss his ability to not only get the quarterback, but really set the edge against the run. He immediately gets his man on his heels and almost makes a huge play in the backfield.
Matthews gets free though and runs it all the way in for a TD.
The Chargers also took advantage of Denver mistakes for huge conversions. Their next possession began on the 1 yard line after a Denver punt with 9:52 left in the 3rd. Denver stopped them for a three and out, then this happened:
Encroachment on the punt allows San Diego to convert.
Still not out of the woods, the Chargers take advantage of what must have been a blown coverage to get Antonio Gates wide open on a short cross:
After this first down, they run the ball effectively before Rivers takes a sack at midfield. However, by milking the play clock, by the time Denver fair catches the punt, only 48 seconds are left. The Chargers were able to run an extra 7 and half minutes of game time and flip field position because of the dumb penalty.
Manning, to his credit, puts together a nice drive including this conversion on 4th down:
Footwork isn't great (not even alien robot QBs are perfect), but it's an easy pass. The Chargers are very concerned with Julius Thomas and the Denver run game, leaving 3 to cover 3 up top.
After the Denver TD, San Diego receives a kickoff with 10:25 left in the 4th. They convert a crucial third down when this happens:
The ball would have been caught without interference.
It takes a little luck to win games, especially in the playoffs.
San Diego is showing pressure on the left side of the line, which would free Julius Thomas for an out route as the receiver clears the DB on a go. But the blitz will actually come from the corner circled at the bottom of the frame. Notice how the safety on that side is inching up? He's getting ready to cover the outside receiver that was the corner's original responsibility.
The Chargers get the ball needing to burn clock:
The backfield needs to start charging Von Miller rent; he's living in there for free. Ryan Matthews does a great job of avoiding Miller and running hard into a VERY slim hole. A cut block clears the backside linebacker and this run goes for 8 yards. San Diego gets a TD on this drive and more importantly, leaves only 2:36 on the clock.
Manning had a few nice passes on the last possession as San Diego dropped into a deep Cover 3, leaving the middle of the field wide open. But the game was basically over. After reviewing the tape carefully, this is how San Diego stopped the vaunted Denver offense:
Running the ball
The Chargers offensive line did a good job kicking outside and showed good chemistry on double teams and getting to the next level. Ryan Matthews was huge in this game and has really helped the team down the stretch. His availability and effectiveness today will be crucial for the Bolts.
Encroachment, blown coverages, pass interference, even a missed tackle from the erstwhile amazing Von Miller helped the Chargers' cause. As you know, Von is out for the season and Denver may find it hard to replace his production on the edge. If San Diego is able to run effectively early in this game, look out.
They got some luck with the TD pass to Allen and the dropped punt. Let's say the TD pass is knocked away; assuming the rest of the game went as it did, Denver would have been down only 6 on the last drive. That is certainly significant as they ended up needing an onside-kick to try and tie (they didn't get it).
Mike McCoy is a bit conservative for my tastes, but he needs to remember that two of the biggest plays in this game were the 3rd down TD to Keenan Allen on an aggressive route to the end zone and a cornerback blitz that resulted in a TD. If the Chargers win today against Peyton, they face either Brady/Belichick or Luck/Pagano, neither of which are afraid to air things out. In the NFC, the 49ers/Panthers are a bit conservative but not so of the Saints/Seahawks. My point is that McCoy is going to have to make some smart gambles to win the Super Bowl
The good news for San Diego fans: all of these are repeatable in this afternoon's game (luck isn't repeatable per se, but they certainly need some of it). They have shown that establishing the run game and shortening the game works. They probably need a good Ryan Matthews to do so.
The good news for Denver fans: The secondary may improve with a healthy Champ Bailey, allowing Denver to devote more resources to run defense. Ryan Matthews - enough said. They will need some luck to swing their way, but that's the nature of the game. Finally, one thing I haven't mentioned was that Denver had 2 meaningful 3-and-outs in the first half - if they are able to take an early lead, San Diego's plan to run the ball may go out the window.
Either way, this should be a fun game.
#YouMakeTheCalls #YMTC #QBCorner