Systems, game plans and in-game decisions loom larger in the NFL than in the other major American sports. Coaching can mitigate a little for lack of great talent, emphasize strengths, minimize weaknesses, take advantage of what opponents do not do well or take away the things that they do. Mike McCoy, Ken Whisenhunt and the San Diego Chargers offensive coaches have brought that unit up to speed much faster than I thought they could and I love the offensive system so far. Unfortunately, it looks as though the defense has regressed, especially the secondary. I can also fault the coaches for going into run-out-the-clock mode too fast against the Texans and John Pagano’s disastrous play calling on the Titans' last drive. The screw up with the inactive list before the Tennessee game was (hopefully) a rookie mistake that will not be repeated.
I could hear the outrage over not giving an A at this position as I typed this. Philip Rivers is on pace for a spectacular year and the only thing that needs to improve is his consistency. In the two wins, Rivers has exceeded or got really close to 400 yards passing. In the two losses, he has not cracked the 200 yard mark. A lot of that does lie on the coaching, but it is there. While I like the 11:2 TD to INT ratio, those two picks went for defensive touchdowns and let’s be honest here; weren’t we all worried that the 2012 Rivers had returned with the "pick six" in the Texans game? Still, if this holds through the season, Rivers will challenge the 5,000 yard passing mark, with 44 TD’s and 8 picks. That will merit an "A" or "A+" if he keeps it up.
Running Backs: B-
If I were grading this strictly on rushing, the Grade would be a D or C-. Ryan Mathews has a 3.5 YPC average. The Bolts are 18th in the league in rushing yards and have one rushing TD in 4 games. What brings the grade up is the 3 receiving TD’s and 33 receptions, with quite a high average yards per reception. The pass blocking, when the receivers are not in patterns has been good. In a passing oriented league and system, the receiving stats are more important. One final word; I hope we are not, but I suspect we are seeing Ryan Mathews ceiling.
Eddie Royal’s resurgence and the rejuvenation of Antonio Gates have been great things to see for the Bolts’ fans. Malcom Floyd was having a great start to the year until the unfortunate collision in Philadelphia. Keenan Allen has started to show the promise that led many draft commentators to call him the steal of the draft. Ladarius Green has looked like he will be an awesome weapon, once he gets regular snaps. Low man for WR receiving yards is Vincent Brown and there has been some speculation that his skill set may not mesh well with the system.
Offensive Line: B+
1.5 sacks per game, the league’s 7th ranked scoring offense, and a new confidence from the team’s QB and RB’s. This unit has turned from disaster to a solid asset. A real source of hope for this unit is the performance of the back-ups last Sunday. So far, King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker have exceeded expectations and Chad Rinehart is a fantastic addition. Nick Hardwick is solid (as usual) and even the much maligned Jeromey Clary has (mostly) performed well. I am not certain what Mike Harris has been doing since last December, but he certainly should continue doing it. Coach D’s work with this unit only reinforces his rep as fantastic O-line coach.
Defensive Line: C-
The Bolts defense is #25 against the rush and 30th overall in total yards allowed. The line has contributed to that by not changing the line of scrimmage backwards, keeping the linebackers clean to tackle ball carriers, or pressuring opposing QB’s. A 3-4 line is supposed to occupy blockers so that linebackers can make the plays, but that has not happened much, yet. Cam Thomas has the team’s one INT for the season.
Having both starting inside linebackers banged up or out has not helped matters and going forward, the team’s depth will be tested at OLB. Donald Butler has simply looked ordinary to terrible this season, the other ILB’s have been bad and it is only the work of Dwight Freeney and Jarret Johnson that is giving this unit a C. Johnson leads the team in sacks with 2 and that is not his specialty, but he has been the best all around performer from this unit. Freeney was getting good pressure, but that will gone starting next game. While some of the problems can be blamed on the ordinary to poor play of the line, there are no real obvious playmakers from this unit to emerge yet this season and a 3-4 scheme demands at least one.
With the exception of Eric Weddle looking like Weddle again last week, there have been no bright spots or success from this unit so far this season. The expectation was that with Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason taking their league bottom position ratings with them out the door that the CB situation had to get better. That expectation has not been met so far in 2013. Weddle does lead the team in tackles (20) and passes defended (5), with most of the passes defended coming last week against Dallas. Marcus Gilchrist has looked lost and mostly useless at the other safety position. The team’s pass defense is #29 in the league for passing yards allowed and has let up 8 passing TD’s. If there is not improvement in this unit, any game involving a competent QB is in danger of becoming at best a shootout or at worst, a blowout. Hopefully, the improvement seen in the Cowboy game becomes a trend.
Special Teams: B
Nick Novak has missed one FG in 9 tries. Mike Scifres is punting well and the team has had no disasters with handling returns or with getting kicks blocked. On the other side of the ledger, the return game has not been spectacular by any measure and the Bolts have not blocked any kicks this season. As any fan since 2010 well knows, if you are not discussing the special teams, that is usually a good thing.
This is a 2-2 team after the first quarter of the season. The point differential after 4 games is +6. While fans can (rightly) point out that the team is two plays away from a 4-0 record, it is just as true that the team is 2-3 plays away from being 0-4. I and other staff writers expected the team to be 1-3 at this point, hence the "+" added to the C. The offense to this point is a good surprise, while the performance of the defense has been disappointing. With the schedule for the next 4 games, a 3-1 record is not unrealistic. If the Bolts can go 5-3 over the first 8 games of the season, I would expect the grades to improve for some units that really need to perform better for that success.