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San Diego Chargers need to get back to basics

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The San Diego Chargers are scuffling a bit after barely beating the Raiders and then losing to the Chiefs. Here's how they can get back to being one of the league's best teams.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The sky isn't falling, you guys. The Chargers lost to a division rival who made fewer mistakes than San Diego. You're going to lose those games 9 times out of 10. There are a lot of excuses being made for the Chargers. "The Chiefs were coming off of a bye week" being the main one, but it didn't feel like the Kansas City had this incredible game plan that they put together. The Chargers didn't lose this game because the Chiefs had an extra week to prepare. The other excuse was injuries, and while San Diego seems depleted with injuries, I didn't get the feeling that either coordinator for the Chargers did a good job of complimenting each other. Let's start on defense.

Questionable Gameplan

You don't have to watch more than 4 plays to notice the stark difference in talent between Dick Marshall and Jason Verrett/Brandon Flowers. Marshall was a liability last Sunday, we know this.  My issue was with the game plan and how the players were being used. You have to take away what the other team does best in the NFL. Make them one dimensional or make them beat you with their weakness. If they do that, hat tip. John Pagano has yet to do this consistently against competent teams in his tenure and that continued against the Chiefs.

What do the Chiefs like to do on offense? Run the ball. Run it some more. Throw off play-action. Screens, slants, curls. This is an offense that is limited by its quarterback who doesn't take chances downfield and holds on to the ball. Kansas City ran a play on 1st down 25 times. 15 of those were run plays, 10 were pass plays. Those numbers are a little skewed because those passes include screens, swing passes to the running back, and other quick passes. One of those passes was thrown over 10 yards. One. When you face the Chiefs, knowing the Quarterback doesn't like to take chances and the receivers are average at best, why are you playing 10 yards off? I already know what you're thinking. "Protect your backup corner, you don't want to get deep." That logic makes perfect sense if you're going against a team that pushes the ball downfield.

Nine.

That's the number of passes Alex Smith has thrown over 20 yards. 9! On passes over 15 yards, Smith is 32nd in the NFL, completing 17% of his passes. By playing off you're not protecting your corner, you're making life easier on a quarterback who only throws to wide open receivers and receivers who struggle to get open against tight coverage. Play tight coverage, have help on the inside to take away any in-breaking routes, and force Smith to complete throws downfield and outside of the numbers. If he does that, then you deserve to lose.

He didn't. That's because he wasn't forced to, at least consistently. This is another reason why it's so maddening watching a Pagano coached defense. It seems like he's so worried about getting burnt by the blitz. The problem is the exact opposite happens when he blitz. You're going to give up a chunk play here and there. That shouldn't affect your play calling. Sunday when Smith was under pressure or blitzed, he went 2-7 for 22 yards and was sacked 3 times. He also pulled the ball down twice and ran because when he sees pressure, that's what he does, Smith takes off. When he wasn't under pressure Smith was 18-24 for 202 yards. I'm not suggesting you blitz every time. I am suggesting that dropping Dwight Freeney in coverage and rushing 3 guys against a quarterback who struggles to make contested throws isn't what you call creativity. I'm not big on complaining about the refs(phantom face mask), or the what ifs(Reggie Walker late hit) because San Diego was bailed out by a couple easy drops on 3rd down.

Getting Back to the Basics

When you have arguably the most accurate passer in the NFL you put the ball in his hands. Frank Reich is doing a good job of that this year. Sunday on 1st down Philip Rivers went 9-11 for 133 yards and 2 touchdowns. The offense also drew 43 yards in penalties due to defensive holding or pass interference. Even the running game did well as Branden Oliver ran for 56 yards on 12 carries. Those are very impressive 1st down statistics.

My issue was the play calling on the following downs. I know it's easy to second-guess the play calling after a loss, but I think most of us can agree that this offense has been too vertical the last few weeks. On 2nd and 3rd down Rivers was 8-20 for 72 yards. There was a drop. There were a couple off-target passes. There were way too many heaves down the field. There are a couple negatives here with these deep passes. With these deeper routes, you're asking your line to block about a second and a half longer. There were two possessions in the 1st half where that second and a half cost the Chargers 1st downs. On one 2nd down deep pass, King Dunlap is beat and it results in a sack. That results in a 3 & out. On a 2nd down ball, D.J. Fluker trips, and that' s a sack and 3 & out. So, these four possessions went Chiefs score, Chargers 3 and out, Chiefs score, Chargers 3 and out.

To me, that's on Reich. You see that your defense is struggling, you don't take shots down the field. There's nothing wrong with throwing the ball, you have Rivers, it makes a ton of sense. How you throw the ball is important. The underneath throws that this offense has thrived on for the last year and a half has yet to be stopped by the opposing team. If you want to take a shot on 1st down, that's fine. That's the best down and distance to do so. Doing that 2nd and 3rd down hurts your team on both sides of the ball. This offense isn't built to convert on 3rd and long. For the season the team has been very, very good at converting. Their average yardage to convert has been a hair over 6 yards, and they were converting over 53% on 3rd downs. That's good for 2nd in the NFL. Sunday, the average yardage to convert was 9.9. Only 2 of those came fewer than 5 yards. That's not the recipe for success and that's why we saw the team convert only 3-10 on 3rd downs.

3.

That's the number of carries Oliver had on 2nd and 3rd downs combined. Three! Even worse, Oliver only had "consecutive touches" 4 times throughout the game. Oliver looks like he's running with his head on fire how hard he runs and has a knack for breaking tackles. This is a good combination to have. Giving him back to back touches wears on the defense. We saw that in the 4th quarter when he went for 12, 13, and 4 yards. Why not keep feeding him? What's almost equally as frustrating as watching a Pagano led defense is Mike McCoy is a genius when it comes to coordinating the run game. This is where head coaches intervene.

Getting Away from the Bad Habits

I'm a lot less worried(San Diego is 5-2, take a chill pill) than most are, but I've seen bad habits form over the last few weeks. The vertical passing in this offense has been successful, but that doesn't mean it's the best idea for the team. This team is best when they are sustaining long drives. The "death by 1,000 cuts" offense can be so frustrating for the defense.It also keeps the defense fresh and limits the amount that they're on the field. It's in the teams best interest to return to that motto. Get back to running the ball with horizontal passes. Taking shots down the field is fine, it just can't be an every series thing. The defense will be fine(average) once/if they get healthy and stop making boneheaded penalties and get back to swarming to the ball. Can't keep the bad tackling up.

Short week with Denver on deck Thursday night. Going 1-2 in the division puts even more pressure on yourself for the 2nd half of the season. Have to find a way to pull out a victory.