So here we are. The three-week stretch of cupcakes has come to a close, and San Diego will get its most difficult challenge so far this season on Thursday against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Denver is firing on all cylinders as an improved defense and deeper wide receiving corps have propelled the Broncos to a 5-1 record.
The Chargers have always played Manning well, dating back to his days in Indianapolis as well as the first two years of his Broncos career. San Diego was the only team to beat Denver at Sports Authority Field in 2013 and the first in the regular season since Peyton's third game as a Bronco. But with injuries to its top three running backs, three of the top four corners and two starting linebackers, San Diego is simply at a talent disadvantage.
Still, as we've seen from the last two weeks against Oakland and Kansas City, division games are never easy regardless of the talent disparity. In the three games between Denver and the Chargers last season, the Broncos only outscored San Diego by a total of eight points. But that was last year, and this year's Chargers have their work cut out for them in Denver. If the Chargers are to leave Denver with another Thursday night victory over Peyton and the Broncos, it'll take a few special performances. Here are three Chargers who need to step up on Thursday.
Okay, before you scoff, hear me out. This isn't so much as a criticism of Allen's season so far as it is a challenge. Allen's been sneaky productive for San Diego in his second year, quietly compiling 34 receptions and 354 yards through the first seven games. Both marks lead the team. But the one thing missing from Allen's season has been a trip to the end zone, a trip that he took a total a total of ten times last year.
While only 22 years old with many more highlights to come, some of the most memorable moments of Allen's career, thus far, took place in Denver. In San Diego's Thursday night win in Week 15, Allen only racked up two receptions but both ended with a Chargers touchdown. Against a team like Denver, San Diego could ill afford to settle for field goal after field goal, and both of Allen's second quarter scores came on third down, changing what was a 10-3 deficit into a 17-10 Chargers lead at halftime.
Allen also was the catalyst to San Diego's near-comeback against Denver in the divisional game, catching two late touchdowns to pull the Chargers within one possession. As San Diego's running attack that was so key to the Week 15 win crumbled, Allen stepped up and revived the Chargers' hopes. While San Diego lost, Allen totaled 142 yards on nine receptions.
For the most part, Allen has avoided a sophomore slump, but he's yet to add to his ten career touchdowns. If San Diego is to win Thursday, Allen will need to rise to the occasion once again.
Donald Butler is the third-highest paid linebacker in the NFL, but through the first seven weeks of 2014 he's played like a third-string linebacker. Butler was San Diego's top free agent in the past off season and he was rewarded handsomely for his four years as one of San Diego's top defensive playmakers.
But so far this year, Butler has looked lost. His vision and first step seem to be off as he's consistently been baited into pick plays and fallen behind runners. Opposing offenses are finding ways to eliminate him from running plays early, and he's struggled in pass coverage. Against the Raiders, he dropped an interception that bounced right off his mitts.
If Butler wasn't being paid like the Clay Matthews and Patrick Willis' of the world, then his struggles so far would be of less concern. But you don't have to look far back in Chargers history to find a player who earned a big contract then didn't justify it. I apologize for the Derek Cox reference as I'm sure you've all tried to erase him from your collective memory, but if Butler doesn't return to his 2011-12 form soon, head coach Mike McCoy and defensive coordinator John Pagano will have a tough decision to make when Manti Te'o returns from his foot fracture.
But since the Notre Dame product isn't ready to return to action, Butler will line up alongside Kavell Conner on Thursday. Butler will still make all the calls and checks on defense, and his adjustments will be key in the game of chess that Peyton plays with defenses. If Butler doesn't return to being at least an above-average player on Thursday, it'll be a long night for the Chargers defense.
Cornerback is one of the hardest positions to play in sports, and because the cornerback is on an island their play is criticized more heavily. With that said, I don't know how Richard Marshall still has a job in the NFL. The 29-year-old has made a living as a backup, but he's been thrust into action again this season with all of the injuries to San Diego's top cornerbacks. If you watched the win over Denver last year, you saw pedestrian receiver Andre Caldwell leave Marshall in his dust on a common double-move route. One step to the right by Caldwell sent Marshall five feet to his left, allowing Caldwell to go back towards the pylon and catch an uncontested touchdown.
Marshall's struggles weren't left in 2013. In the second quarter of Sunday's loss, Junior Hemingway's route nearly spun Marshall out of his shoes and if not for a inexcusable drop by Hemingway, Marshall would've watched him waltz in for a touchdown. In the third quarter, Dwayne Bowe easily beat Marshall and was open on a critical Chiefs third down in the red zone, but dropped the ball. Those two drops helped keep a Chargers team that was being blatantly outplayed either in the lead or within one score of it.
Marshall's bad play eventually came back to haunt San Diego, as his fourth quarter holding call on what would've been a drive-stalling third down stop kept the Kansas City drive alive. The Chiefs ended the drive with a touchdown.
Different from Allen and Butler, this type of performance has almost come to be expected from Marshall. But with Brandon Flowers, Jason Verrett and Steve Williams all likely out on Thursday, the Fresno State Bulldog will be thrust into action once again. For the Chargers' sake, let's hope he improves.