So my father, who sounded as sick as I was last week, called me up towards the end of Miami Dolphins' first drive to let me know that the sky was falling. Again an opposing team was showing how easy it was to run on the San Diego Chargers' defense. Again it looked as though the Chargers were not getting much of a pass-rush.
I said the same thing to him that I roughly outlined in my game preview, that once the Chargers started to score the Dolphins would be forced to abandon the run and the game would be easily won. I didn't know that the Chargers wouldn't score a touchdown until late in the third quarter, but I believed that eventually Miami would not be able to keep up with the Bolts' offense.
The Chargers deserved to win yesterday's game. In making up my Bolts & Dolts list, I found plenty of Bolts and not a lot of Dolts. I think the team played about as well as it could have considering their current health situation. However, even if Pittsburgh is without Troy Polamalu next week, there are a few players and coaching strategies that need to be improved if the Chargers want to beat a stronger opponent.
More details on all of the above after the jump.
Philip Rivers - 18/33, 303 passing yards, 5 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD. The rushing touchdown I saw live. Right before the play happened I said out loud "The defense is not respecting the run at all. Philip should just run it in." Next week, when the Chargers are inside the Steelers 10 yard line, the defense will at least have to keep somebody in the area to watch for a run by either a RB or Rivers. It will clear a little bit of space in the coverage. It will help things. That was not just a momentary success and six points, that was a big play that should help future red zone conversions.
By the way, does anybody throw a better deep ball than Philip? His passes to Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson were right on the money every time but one (he overthrew VJ because of pressure). What was once considered a weakness is now one of Rivers' greatest strengths. If the offensive line can keep him from getting killed the rest of the season, he'll be in the MVP running.
Vincent Jackson - 5 catches, 120 yards. This game made me flip-flop on VJ. Did I think he was great? Absolutely, but I thought of the potential 2010 free agents for the Chargers he was one of the expendable ones. No way. Not a chance. The entire offense, which used to revolve around Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson, now revolves around Vincent Jackson. Unless he's being double-covered and going up against at least one All-Pro Cornerback, you can pencil him in for a dominating game. The Dolphins shied away from putting the rookie Sean Smith on him, so instead he made Will Allen look foolish and slow all game. I think VJ has progressed to the point where he's every bit as good as Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Greg Jennings and other top WRs around the league. His football smarts have caught up with his freakish physical tools and he cannot be stopped.
Antonio Gates - 5 catches, 64 yards. Do those numbers blow me away? Not at all. Was it a dominating performance like VJ's was? Nope. However, the one thing that bothered me about Antonio's 2008 season was that Rivers lost his favorite third down target. Well, that has not been the case this season. Third and long, third and short, whatever the yardage is the ball is probably going to Gates and he's probably going to get the first down. Even when he caught the ball a yard and a half shy of the first down marker, he somehow knew where the first down was and dragged three Dolphins players the two yards to get it. That's what he's best at and that's what the Chargers need from him.
Malcom Floyd - 2 catches, 65 yards. After seeing both Floyd catches from last night, my wife turned to me and said "Why don't they throw to him more? He's great!" This will be a theme revisited later, by the way. My answer to her was that Malcom has a difficult time staying healthy. Just as I said that, the cameras show Floyd being checked on by the trainers on the sidelines. Oh boy. Malcom has the talent to be every bit as dangerous as Jackson, he just has to stay healthy. Although no injuries were reported after the game, I'll be keeping an eye on the practice participation reports this week for his name. I think he is somebody who was sorely missed in the playoff game last season and I would much rather go into Pittsburgh with lots of mismatches outside the numbers.
Legedu Naanee - 4 catches, 40 yards. He certainly learned from his mistake. Every time he got his sticky hands on the ball he would take off upfield. No more dancing around and possibly losing the game for him. I liked the screen passes to him too, as I think he may be the quickest receiver on the team and he has top-end speed if he finds some space as well. This was another one of those games that the coaches will look at and will say to themselves "Let's continue to get him the ball more often" because it's always a positive play.
Jeromey Clary - For all of the crap Clary took as the weak-link of the offensive line last season and into the offseason, the man deserves an apology. He has been the Chargers best offensive lineman so far this season and seems to win the battle against whatever pass-rusher he's facing about 90% of the time. His technique is vastly improved over 2008 (when I thought he was serviceable) and he holds his blocks longer than anyone else on the line. If you watch the pressure on Rivers these last few weeks, it almost always comes from up the middle or from whomever Marcus McNeill was trying to block. Outside of one missed assignment that turned into a sack on Rivers against the Raiders, I cannot remember Clary making a mistake or causing a sack.
Kevin Burnett - 13 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QB hits. Kevin returned to being the monster we all saw in the preseason. A theory I had, and had mentioned once or twice, was that once the season started the defensive playbook was vastly expanded and Burnett was forced to play catch-up again. His monster game against Miami, where he seemingly made every tackle, lends credence to that theory. According to the box score, Burnett was the only Chargers player to touch a Dolphins QB behind the line of scrimmage. He led the team with 13 tackles, and the next closest guy was Stephen Cooper with 8. He also played a fair amount of man coverage on Anthony Fasano, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, as where as zone coverage where he was quick to make the tackle. Kevin Burnett could not have had a better game.
Larry English - 2 tackles, 1 pass defended. I have one gripe about Larry English and it's that he goes outside on his pass-rush too much. I guess it's fine, because he's usually fast enough to get around the blocker, but with no pressure from the defensive line the QB can get away from him by simply stepping up in the pocket. I know the kid is young and inexperienced, but by time the playoffs roll around I'd like to see him trying the occasional spin move, swim move or bull-rush so that the offensive tackle doesn't know what to expect every play.
As for this game, Larry made three big plays that stand out to me. One was the play in which Chad Pennington left the game with a shoulder injury. The announcers missed it, but it looked to me that Chad hurt his shoulder because English grabbed Chad's arm while he was throwing. Even if that didn't happen, Chad had to get rid of the ball quickly because Larry got there to force pressure very quickly. The second play was Larry's defended pass, which was brilliant (he saw the screen and stopped to swat it down instead of trying for the sack) and saved a huge play (the RB had blockers and nobody in front of him). The third play was a non-play. A dead ball that the referees didn't whistle dead until after Chad Henne started making his reads in the pocket. Larry got there, grabbed Henne and then stopped himself from completing the sack. If he made the rookie mistake of throwing Henne to the ground, it would've been a 15 yard penalty and an automatic first down for the Dolphins.
Luis Castillo - 4 tackles (2 tackles for loss). With Jamal Williams out of the lineup, Luis is seeing a lot more double-teams than he's used to. Still, he may be playing the best football of his life to start the 2009 season. He wins every one-on-one matchup, is playing the run like he's a Nose Tackle and is generally using his speed and agility to get where he wants to be and screw up the play for the opposition. During obvious passing downs (like 3rd & long), I would sometimes see the Dolphins block him with two guys and have a RB standing by watching him in case he got by the offensive linemen. They knew that if the Chargers were not coming with the blitz, Castillo was the main guy to worry about. It's great to have such a dynamic player on the line still, and things will get better for the defensive line as Ogemdi Nwagbuo continues to improve and Jacques Cesaire gets healthier and in game shape.
Defensive Secondary - 9 passes caught by WRs for 67 yards. The strength of the Chargers is in the passing game on both sides of the ball. The Bolts' WRs are fantastic and the CBs are just as good. Antonio Cromartie may not have an interception this season, but that's because defenses are starting to throw away from him the same way they did with Quentin Jammer. Analysis time! Let's look at how often opposing QBs have been avoiding throwing to their WRs and how successful they've been when they've tried to:
In 3 games, Chargers opponents have targeted.....
- Wide Receivers 38 times. They have completed 21 of the passes to WRs (55%). 25 of the passes to wide receivers have been thrown at a player defended by Cromartie or Jammer. They have completed 10 of those passes (40%).
- Running Backs 27 times. They have completed 21 of the passes to RBs (77%).
- Tight Ends 12 times. They have completed 8 of the passes to RBs (66%).
Do you see now why opposing offenses might try throwing to the RBs, TEs or slot receivers more when they play against the Chargers? After 3 weeks of games, statistics say that you only have a 40% chance of completing a pass to one of your top 2 receivers against San Diego. If you don't count the Louis Murphy 4th quarter TD, where Cromartie and Clinton Hart were standing around pointing at each other, Antonio and Quentin have yet to give up a receiving touchdown this season.
Darren Sproles - 18 carries, 41 rush yards, 2 catches, 14 rec yards, 6 kick/punt returns, 76 returns yards. I know some people won't be happy about this. "It's not his fault, it's the offensive line's fault." I get that, and I agree with you. However, I cannot go another week pretending that Darren Sproles is a suitable #1 running back. I gave him the benefit of the doubt going into Baltimore because his only other time starting was against Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Darren's abysmal 2.4 Yards Per Carry is starting to wear on me though. While I appreciate the weapon he is and wouldn't want to see anybody else returning kicks for the Chargers, I'm left wondering where the initial "Michael Bennett Plan" went. You remember it. It was when the coaching staff told us that if anything happened to LT, Bennett would take over as the starter and Sproles' role would remain unchanged. It hasn't exactly played out that way.
By comparison, and it's a legitimate one because they're running behind the same mangled offensive line, Michael Bennett is averaging 3.1 Yards Per Carry. Does that make him an All-Pro? Heck no, but it makes him an improvement over Sproles. I wouldn't want the offense calling run plays every time Bennett comes on the field, because then it becomes obvious, but I would like to see him used more when the offense is trying to run time off the clock or get short-yardage. There's really no downside to it. Bennett has proven to have soft hands, went nuts with screen passes in the preseason and is a bigger, stronger runner with great speed. Why not keep Sproles fresh and useful?
It'll never happen but if I was Norv....Darren would get taken off of punt returns. I'm sorry, but when the ball is bouncing 10 feet in the air and there are 5 defenders within a foot of it...LEAVE IT ALONE. Who care if it's going to bounce back to the 10 yard line. Don't jump on it at the 15 and risk fumbling it with no teammates in sight to bail you out. Also, has nobody ever explained the term "fair catch" to Darren? I think they may want to before he gets killed or loses and game by trying a field a punt on the 7 that he has no business fielding.
I didn't think I'd be saying this, because I love the philosophy of throwing all of the time, but I really cannot wait until LT comes back.
Chris Chambers - 0 catches, thrown to 3 times. I'm left unimpressed by Chris Chambers this season. I don't know if he's just so beaten up that he cannot be effective anymore, but for the amount of money he's getting paid he should be able to contribute something. He's so bad that while I was taking notes during the game I started writing down when he was not on the field, which thankfully was quite often. Just about every time the Chargers spread out with 3 or 4 WRs, and specifically on their drive at the end of the first half, Chambers was sitting on the bench. Even when he had the ball thrown to him, it was the same thing we've seen already against Baltimore and Oakland. Instead of making a play for the ball, Chambers seems to try to get a flag thrown for defensive pass interference. Right now, although he's paid like a top 10 WR in the league, Chambers is the 4th best WR on the Chargers.
Offensive Line - 2 sacks allowed (4 tackles for loss allowed), 2.5 team YPC. I was tempted to do an individual Dolt for everyone except Clary, but decided against it. They all deserve it though.
I can't hate on the -ski brothers too much because they're backups, and Brandyn Dombrowksi is playing backup on a completely different position. However, there are certain plays where they look lost. The Kendall Langford sack happened because he threw Dombrowski to the side like he was nothing. The hit on Rivers that looked like it might knock him out of the game happened because Dombrowski was beaten and Scott Mruczkowski lost his assignment and was left blocking air while a blitzer ran free. I was really hoping Vasquez would be back for this game because I think it'd be a big help, but no such luck. Hopefully he's back for Pittsburgh.
Marcus McNeill does not deserve the big contract he's probably going to get. His feet are slow and his balance isn't great. I'd love to say that Joey Porter bull-rushed past him to get to Rivers on his sack, but in reality he just hit McNeill in a way that made Marcus lose his balance and fall backwards. He is not looking like a Pro Bowl Left Tackle these days, and the fact that Norv Turner told the announcing crew that he's been disappointed in McNeill this season speaks volumes. To put it simply, there's constant pressure being put on Philip Rivers by whoever McNeill is trying to stop.
Kris Dielman......I feel like I should wait before I say anything. He's lost a lot of his consistency. He has a good play followed by a bad play, and visa versa, a lot. He also may have lost a step because his blocks to open holes for the RBs always seem late. I don't know what it is with him, but I don't see what I used to see from him. He's not holding blocks, he's not pushing people around. I'll wait until I really say whether or not he's having a bad season, because he's getting a lot of the brunt of Nick Hardwick not being there. The penalty to forearming the defender's helmet was a sign that Dielman is frustrated though, so at least he knows there's an issue.
There were no defensive Dolts this week. Everyone played at either a level expected of them or higher.