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Playbook Confidential: Chargers Bye Week

Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers rushes with the ball (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers rushes with the ball (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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I want to start everyone off during this bye week with an XTRA 1360 World of Sports interview of Norv Turner that really brightened my day last Thursday.  If you don't have fifteen minutes to listen, then at least skip to the 12:20 mark for the last three minutes, which were fascinating.  That was the part where they used a question that I had submitted via twitter!

Q: Do you have a name for the package when Mathews and Tolbert are on the field at the same time, and is that something we could see more of as the season goes on?

Norv Turner: Well, really the reason we've done it, it really has more to do with our tight ends because they've been beat up and obviously Randy McMichael has played an awful lot of snaps... but what we do actually when Ryan and Tolbert are in the game together, we actually put Vincent Jackson in the slot and play with three wide receivers.  People have played coverage to Vincent and it gave us some opportunities to get a couple runs and get some passes to the backs but obviously the reason we're doing it is to try to get another receiver into the game and get the ball up the field a little bit more.  Yeah, we're going to use it... we number our personnel groups, it's "20" which means two backs in the game and no tight ends so that's the personnel group.  They bounced around a lot of names, the players, they find a lot of different names that I probably couldn't mention them to you on the air.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, they literally call it "20".  How cool is that?  I was correct in noting that they always use them together with three wide receivers, but had missed the fact that VJ is always in the slot with this group.  I figured the point of it was to get more home run hitters on the field, but the real reason is tight end depth/wear and tear.  Forget "RUN MOAR".  Forget "PASS MOAR".  I'm too close, I'm switching to "MOAR 20".

Continue reading for a discussion of running to the middle on the first play of the game, and some playbook confidential bye week "beautiful mind" pattern hunting.  Grab the log from the Broncos game and turn off the week filter to see the whole season so far.

Q: These fans call us every Monday, they want to know why you run off tackle on the first series of every game.  Could you just give me an answer to give them please?

Norv Turner: Well I know people look at those plays and say they are up the middle or off tackle, they are different plays... we actually have had decent success...  I think every team, every situation, every team you're playing you have a plan that you're trying to put together and I don't put a lot of stock in, I don't think you're going to win the game or lose the game on the first play of the game.  We've actually had a couple times this year where we've had a pass and a run checked, and we've gone to the run because that's the look we got.  We're not against throwing the ball in any situation, usually people are complaining that we're throwing the ball too much so I guess I'm encouraged that they don't like the run on the first play of the game.  We spend a lot of time obviously, putting the entire thing together.  Sometimes it isn't the run that's the issue, it's the formation we're in we want to see how they're going to play us, sometimes it's a personnel group, we want to see how they're going to match up with a personnel group and I guess early in the game you are kind of getting a look at the other team and seeing how they're going to match up to the things you're doing.

Well that pretty much sums up JKvandal's writeup of personnel and play calling doesn't it?


So far through five weeks we've seen 351 plays run by the San Diego Offense.  This is a passing team that runs the ball 40% of the time.  They use shotgun 46% of the time, and a fullback on 24% of plays.  First down is about a coin toss between run and pass, 2nd down shows a 33% chance of run, while 3rd down runs only ever happen in very specific circumstances.  They've attempted to convert three 4th downs, and failed on all three tries.  Keep that in mind next time you're screaming for Norv to take a chance!

Down Run Pass Total
1st 89 75 164
2nd 36 77 113
3rd 11 60 71
4th 2 1 3
Total 138 213 351


So far, runs to the left have been the most successful, with the middle being the most popular choice.  There's some fuel for the Sign On SD Clary haters club in there somewhere.

Rushes Average
Left 31 6.4
Middle 83 3.7
Right 24 4


It's also the case that the closer they get to the end zone, the more likely they are to run.  I'm not sure if this is some universal thing that all offenses do, the way defenses are playing the Chargers, or if this is Norv's vanilla.

Area of Field Run Pass
Own Half 39% 61%
Opponents Half 40% 60%
Red Zone 49% 51%
Goal to Go 62% 38%


Let's next take a look at the running back playing time distribution.  It might seem like Mathews runs the ball a lot more, and he does, but it's not like his presence is the massive run tell I was worried it could become.  It's more that Tolbert gets a lot of his playing time in very obvious passing situations.  I think this table shows that Norv is managing a platoon near perfection; maximizing specialties without giving too much away, while distributing wear and tear.  Mathews is coming on strong, but still can't get the third down, goal line, or two minute drill job from away a healthy Tolbert.  MOAR 20.

Halfback Snaps Running Plays Passing Plays Run % Playing Time %
Mathews 186 86 99 46% 53%
Tolbert 149 40 109 27% 42%
Hester (as HB) 24 12 12 50% 7%


I drew up this table looking to see where our first downs come from in terms of originating down.  The offense has a baseball-like overall .300 batting average for any given play to result in a first down.  Hey, I warned you I was going all beautiful mind on this one.

Down Total Plays First Downs Conversion Percent
1st 164 36 22%
2nd 113 34 30%
3rd 71 37 52%
4th 3 0 0%
Total 351 107 30%


There hasn't been a blowout in either direction for the Chargers yet this season, so playcalling has not seen much in the way of garbage time.  Playing with a tie most closely matches the overall run/pass balance.  The team still favors the pass when leading, although not by much.

Run Pass
Tied 39% 61%
Leading 48% 52%
Behind 31% 69%


Next we'll look at the Personnel groups used overall.  There's nothing shocking in these next two tables.  There are really four workhorse groupings and then a bunch of gimmicks.  "12" is the most popular group, with "11" next in line, then the fullbacks at "21 and "22".  "22" is a guaranteed run while "11" is a guaranteed pass.  Can anyone find some keys to predicting run/pass out of "12" or "21"?  Just like last week's individual game against the Broncos, "12" asserts its dominance on 1st and 2nd down, but gives way to "11" on 3rd down.

Personnel Run Pass Total
10 0 1 1
11 16 93 109
12 49 70 119
13 7 2 9
20 2 6 8
21 31 35 66
22 30 5 35
23 2 1 3

Personnel 10 11 12 13 20 21 22 23
1st 0 34 65 5 2 36 21 0
2nd 0 27 40 4 5 28 8 1
3rd 1 47 14 0 1 1 6 1
4th 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 1


Some more random bullets:

  • 12 is the most likely setup for play fakes (still only 15%), and most play fakes are with Mathews (hat tip to Derek Snyder!)
  • Mathews has more snaps than Tolbert in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th quarters (roughly 60%/40%), but for some weird reason, Tolbert owns the 2nd quarter by a significant margin (60%/40% the other way).  I think this is because they have had a lot of end-of-half two minute drills and no end-of-game two minute drills. 
  • Out of 351 snaps, only 30 have had more than 10 yards to go.  That's pretty mistake free football.  Most of those greater than 10 to go plays were on 2nd down, making the majority of screw ups on 1st down.  Thirteen out of seventeen (non penalty related) negative plays were lost yardage on runs.
  • Options for trickery and more wrinkles that I think Norv has in his bag of tricks include: MOAR 20, more four wide, handoffs to WRs, LT-style halfback pass (never to Rivers though), and Crayton Wild-whatever-his-mascot-was.  He's also definitely marinating something with the weird reverse wishbone he's run twice (once each the last two games).
  • Eighteen shotgun runs have yielded 6.1 YPC.  Ok, add shotgun runs to the list in the previous bullet.
  • I couldn't really come up with any scripting patterns to game-opening drives, other than the fact that they are definitely making sure to get at least one look at the three major personnel groups ("11", "12", and either fullback group).  Two of five game opening drives were three and outs.  The other three moved the ball some, but none scored TDs.  They are more inclined to run (50%/50%) on that first drive than the rest of the time as well.  Somebody find something...please!
  • MOAR 20