There's no reason on earth the Chargers couldn't have won this game. The Chargers and Saints played roughly equal for the 1st 20 minutes. The Chargers then dominated the next 20 minutes. And then, with a chance to ice the game, adversity struck and the Chargers got dominated for the last 20 minutes.
I think here's enough bad teams on the schedule that the Chargers can win 8-9 games this season just by beating up on the NFLs weak sisters. I also think this Chargers team has a chance to be pretty good. They've shown it in stretches this season. But to get where they want to go, or at least for Norv Turner and A.J. Smith to safely enter the faraway enchanted realm of "Job Security," this team has got to start putting teams away when they get the chance.
That way, when referees decide that they want to call games as terribly as they did on Sunday night, the Chargers don't have to worry about it.
On with the grades:
As opposed to the last couple of games, I can't really fault any of Rivers' decisions. There's only one decision he made that I would take back, except that it resulted in a TD pass to WR Robert Meachem. Rivers' overall numbers were quite good, completing 64% of his throws for 354 yards, a second TD to Meachem, and a robust 8.4 yards per pass attempt. His interception was more the product of an uncalled DPI against the Saints defender draped on WR Malcom Floyd. The only black marks against Rivers this week would be his bad underthrow to Meachem early in the 2nd quarter - ultimately resulting in a FG instead of a TD, and 2 killer sacks that ended up pushing the Chargers out of FG range in the 2nd and 3rd quarters before the Ingram Play. The 5th sack and fumble at the end had more to do with LT Jared Gaither's groin injury than anything Rivers did wrong.
Running Backs: B+
Norv, can Ryan Mathews be unbenched now? Because this running game is dangerous when he's on the field, and pacific when he's off the field. Mathews totaled 18 touches for 139 total yards (80 on the ground, 59 through the air), and in a game the Chargers led for most of the 2nd half, it's fair to question why he didn't get the ball more. Behind Mathews, Jackie Battle was sleep-inducing with 10 yards on 4 carries, and 2 catches for 7 yards. Ronnie Brown had another solid game as the 3rd down and change of pace back, with a nice 21-yard draw on the Chargers' 2nd TD drive, and adding 47 yards on 5 receptions. Pass protection was not an issue for the backs.
Overall, a solid game for the receivers. The Chargers finally got some money's worth out of the Meachem signing, to the tune of 3 catches for 67 yards and 2 TDs. Floyd added 5 catches for 108 yards. The disappointment for me is that while he had a pair of nice catches, WR Eddie Royal continues to suck up targets. When your job is to be the slot receiver and get open fast, you need more than 2 receptions off of 5 targets. As for the TEs, Antonio Gates and Dante Rosario combined for 4 catches for 35 yards. In pass protection, TE Randy McMichael gave up a sack after being left 1-on-1 against DE Will Smith, although I'm inclined to think that probably wasn't by design.
Offensive Line: C-
Normally, in a game where Rivers is sacked 5 times, I'd be inclined to blame the offensive line a lot more. However, 3 of the 5 sacks were the result of 1) a TE being left on an island, 2) a jailbreak blitz where Rivers held the ball too long, 5) and an injured Gaither unable to do more than walk. 2 of the sacks, however, are attributable to poor play on the right side from RT Jeromey Clary, beaten by Saints DE Junior Galette, and RG Louis Vazquez, who got pushed into Rivers before being sacked by DE Cameron Jordan. More concerning was the number of hits Rivers took, a total of 6. Worse than anything though, was the Saints getting pressure with a 4 man rush in the 4th quarter, even though they couldn't generate any pressure without blitzing for the 1st 3 quarters. Generally solid run blocking saves this group from a worse fate.
Defensive Line: B
Corey Liuget was freaking awesome. When he was on the field, he was a 1 man wrecking crew, notching 2 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL and 2 passes defensed (One of these saved a late TD pass to Saints RB Darren Sproles). He consistently drew double-teams the entire game, freeing the LBs behind him to make plays in the running game. DT Aubrayo Franklin was also solid in the middle, while we also got our 1st Kendall Reyes sighting in a while - getting some decent push, notching some pressure and 2 hits on Saints QB Drew Brees. Of the group, DE Vaughn Martin was the only one not to make an impact of any kind.
This grade could have been much higher, except for that play (we'll get there in a moment). OLB Shaun Phillips had a nice game, tallying a sack, a TFL, and a hit on Brees. Likewise, ILBs Donald Butler and Takeo Spikes did a solid job cleaning up in the running game, and also helped control Sproles on the short routes. Butler also got in Brees' throwing lane on the INT (the one that counted), possibly affecting the bad throw. On the other side, OLB Jarret Johnson continues to do the dirty work in the run game, and doing it well. My biggest question relates to OLB Antwan Barnes... as in where the hell is he? 2 QB hits, and nothing in the way of impact. As a group, the LBs combined for 16 tackles.
This brings us to OLB Melvin Ingram, who has to learn very quickly that you cannot hit QBs in the NFL anywhere other than the numbers. You could even argue that by simply pressuring Brees into the INT, he'd done his job, made the game clinching play, and the hit was totally unnecessary. I love Ingram's hustle, but this is the 2nd time a late hit has given 2nd life to an otherwise beaten opponent (the Raiders were the 1st) - and this time it cost the Chargers a game they almost certainly would have won otherwise.
This really comes down to a few key points. TE Jimmy Graham was hurt. WR Lance Moore was out. The LBs kept Sproles under wraps. All you had to do was 1) not get beat deep by WR Devery Henderson, and 2) keep WR Marques Colston under wraps in the red zone. Epic Freaking Fail, unredeemed by CB Quentin Jammer not dropping a tip drill INT. These 2 receivers, plus Chargers practice squad castoff Greg Camarillo combined for 298 yards on 21 receptions. The Saints amazingly took an almost an entire quarter to figure out that Jammer can't cover fast guys anymore, and that CB Antoine Cason can't cover big WRs (remember Plaxico Burress?) at all. Once the Saints figured this out, and the Chargers stopped blitzing late, Brees had a field day. This wasn't even a strong game for the Safeties, who should have been free to help with Graham injured and Sproles under wraps. The only one of them to do anything decent was FS Eric Weddle, who had 7 tackles and 1 sack of Brees, but even Weddle was late with help on 2 of Colston TDs. And, what the hell happened to SS Atari Bigby? Crickets? Really, just terrible all-around play.
Special Teams: B
KR Richard Goodman had a couple of nice returns, and a couple of returns where he should have taken a knee. As as been the case all season thus far, Royal has not had an impact on punt returns. Coverage-wise, the teams did a solid job keeping Sproles bottled up on punt and kick returns (Sproles has been overrated as a returner going back to his Chargers days). PK Nick Novak had 1 FG of 20 yards, and a miss from 55. The best day belonged to P Mike Scifres, who dropped 3 of his 4 punts inside the Saints' 20, with no touchbacks.
Coaching Staff: D-
Many successful head coaches are so - not because they're great strategists, or game managers, but simply because they don't hurt their team. Norv Turner's "non-benching benching" of Mathews' crossed the line from sending the player a message to hurting the team on Sunday night. It was evident from the moment he was on the field that the Saints had no answer, and yet, he touched the ball 9 times in the second half, which the Chargers led for about 21 out of 30 minutes.
Secondly, does anyone in this organization have a memory of what happened with Kris Dielman last season? How, with this history, with a coach (Steve Fairchild) hired specifically to help Norv on game days, and with a timeout remaining, can NONE of the coaches see that Gaither is injured and unable to continue - effectively aborting their comeback attempt?
Third, attempting a 55-yard FG anytime other than the end of a half is outright stupid, unless your kicker was Morten Andersen, or is currently Sebastian Janikowski. It's even more stupid when you're trailing 14-10 on the road against a good QB. If you're going to take a gamble, why not attempt an onside kick following the 1st score and kickoff from midfield? The most likely bad outcome is a Saints 1st down at their own 40 yard line.
The lone bright spot was John Pagano's game plan on defense, which was aggressive, and unpredictable, and (minus one big mistake and one circus catch) really effective in keeping the Saints offense chilled for the 1st 40 minutes of the game (I especially liked the 1-4-6 look he showed in the 3rd quarter). The truth is, right until the penalty was called against Ingram, the Chargers defense was in control. Afterwards, the play-calling got as tentative as every defender excepting Liuget, and Brees took full advantage.
If Norv wants to reach the postseason, and by extension a 7th season in San Diego, these kinds of boneheaded mistakes simply cannot continue.
Hidden Plays (non-scoring, non-turnover plays that directly affected the outcome):
Author's Note: I'm not even addressing the Ingram late hit on Brees, as it's been covered above, and because you can define everything in this game as either Before Ingram's Goof (BIG) or Post Ingram Goof (PIG). It's too clearly a defining play to really fit in this section.
- 1st Quarter: Brees is sacked by Eric Weddle, resulting in a fumble. The ball is recovered by the Saints.
- 2nd Quarter: Rivers audibles to a sprint pass on 2nd and Goal from the 2 yard line in the second quarter. Meachem is open for a TD, but Rivers underthrows the ball. The Chargers end up settling for a FG.
- 2nd Quarter: On 3rd and 3 from the Saints 28, Rivers takes a sack and 8 yard loss, turning Novak's 40-something yard FG attempt into a 55 yard attempt.
- 3rd Quarter: On 2nd and 10 from the Saints 40, Rivers takes a sack and 12 yard loss. The Chargers end up punting the ball. This is the series BIG.
- 3rd-4th Quarter. Nursing a 24-21 lead, the Chargers go with a Mathews run to end of the 3rd quarter, and 2 incomplete Rivers pass attempts, taking a grand total of 11 seconds off the clock.
- Following the 2 minute warning, the Chargers have 1st and 10 at the Saints 45 yard line with all 3 timeouts. This is followed by the Vasquez allowed sack (Holding penalty against Clary is declined), the ridiculous, indefensible OPI against Gates, and the barely less ridiculous, indefensible holding call against Hardwick. It takes the Chargers 1:07 and a timeout to get back to where they were before the referees decided to ice the game.
One Big Play: Ryan Mathews' 13 yard TD run.
1st and 10 at the Saints' 13. The Chargers line up in a 22 formation, strong left. The Saints have countered with 8 in the box.
At the snap, Saints OLB Will Herring crashes down and out, anticipating the run left.
This is power football 101. No pulling, just "Can you beat your man?" Keep an eye out for CB Patrick Robinson (#21, top left).
Because Robinson has misread the play, he's picked up by Gaither - thus invisible. Mathews has to simply read the block by TE Randy McMichael.
Mathews reads the block and takes it outside. Note that Robinson has run so far inside, that even when he turns around, Gates will have him sealed off.
This is why Mathews has to be on the field. This is likely not a TD run with any other back on the Chargers' roster, as 2 defenders have the angle. But, with Mathews...
There's enough speed to beat ILB Curtis Lofton and enough athleticism to leap over diving FS Malcolm Jenkins to the end zone.
Things I Liked:
- Pagano's aggressiveness on defense in the 1st 40 minutes.
- Mathews running hard and protecting the football.
- Corey Liuget. Period.
- Rivers taking less dumb risks.
- Not getting beat by Darren Sproles.
Things I Didn't Like:
- The Chargers folded like a rookie poker player holding a full house following the Ingram penalty.
- The Chargers still doesn't understand the importance of killer instinct.
- Rivers taking hits and sacks waiting for plays to develop downfield.
- Norv not getting the ball into the hands of his best offensive playmaker 20+ times.
- The secondary. At all.
- The referees taking it upon themselves to ice the game in the last 2 minutes.
- The referees giving hack SS Roman Harper the benefit of the doubt against Antonio Gates, as though he were Troy Polamalu. All game long. Are you effing serious? Chiefs SS Eric Berry is a better player than freaking Roman Harper!
Looking Ahead To:
Monday night against Denver, for 1st place in October. Because we own Peyton Manning, right? Because that means that we don't have to worry about Demariyus Thomas, Eric Decker, and Brandon Stokley, right? Because we can block Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller with Jeromey Clary and a gimpy Jared Gaither, right? Because there's no way Norv Tuner will get out coordinated by Jack Del Rio, right? Because we're the home team in a nationally televised game and the refs will be on our side, right?