The Denver Broncos are a very good football team. That might even be selling them short.
Through week 7, they're the 6th best team of all time per DVOA. It's not just their offense — which is #1 in DVOA —their defense has been lights–out as well sitting comfortably at #2 in the DVOA rankings. As good as Denver has played, they've showed that they can be stopped on offense and exploited on defense. Let's start with what the Chargers have to do when they're on defense.
Take away Something
Two teams this year have had success against the Broncos' high–powered offense. The Seahawks were able to slow them down for nearly three–and–a–half quarters while the Jets were able to slow them down for nearly an entire half.
Both teams had complete opposite game plans, so there's no true "blueprint."
The blueprint is to get off the field on 3rd down. If you combine the Jets 1st half defense with the Seahawks defense all game the Broncos were 7-22 on 3rd down. New York chose to take away the pass while Seattle loaded up the box with 8 defenders and took away the run.
Loading the box like this led to Denver rushing for 36 yards on 20 attempts. That's incredible, but that's what a defense has to do. They have to take away something and force a secondary weapon to beat them.
Seattle got physical with the Broncos receivers, took away their screen passes, which in turn limited Demaryius Thomas. Their "other" receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, had a big game, but that's what good defenses do, they don't get beat by the other teams best player.
Rex Ryan did some crazy things against Denver a couple weeks ago. The Jets lined up 6, sometimes 5(!) guys in the box. It was a brilliant strategy. Ryan basically dared Peyton Manning to run the ball on them.
In the first half against the Jets, the Broncos ran the ball 14 times for 58 yards, which is exactly what Ryan wanted. 8 of those carries went for 3 or fewer yards. There were some chunk runs, naturally, but Peyton took the bait by running in these situations and taking the ball out of his hands.
Notice to the top of the screen there is a linebacker who is pressing the receiver, taking away any checks to a screen pass or quick throws. In the first half, the Jets were able to move Manning off of his spot on 9 of his 20 throws to go along with 2 sacks and 5 quarterback hits. The Chargers need to find a way to rattle him.
What does San Diego have to do?
Defensive Coordinator John Pagano needs to get back to his aggressive ways. Mix up zone coverages on the back end while bringing overload blitzes up front. We saw this during the Jacksonville and Jets games, but it disappeared from the last two games.
I understand there are injuries, but bringing the pressure gives the guys up front more favorable 1-on-1 match–ups, giving them a chance to not only move Manning of his spot, but also sack him. This blitz against Jacksonville was a thing of beauty.
The Chargers didn't get a sack here but inside linebacker Andrew Gachkar was able to force an errant overthrow. Sacks will be huge for the Chargers defense. Moving Manning off of his spot and causing him to throw off of his back foot will be equally as important.
Peyton is going to make some "wow" throws; multiple times, honestly. He's that good. The important thing for San Diego is to take away the easy throws. Take those short throws to boundary away. Big screen plays. Manning is the best "anticipation passer" in the NFL. The Chargers must take away his first read and make him beat them outside the numbers.
This is much easier said than done, but they can't let him get the ball out quickly and let his speedy receivers do the work. If the defensive backs don't get physical with the receivers and tackle well, this could get ugly. The trio of Eric Weddle, Jahleel Addae and Marcus Gilchrist must be sound tacklers in run support and eliminate any yards after the catch in the middle of the field.
Denver is 26th in adjusted line yards. The poor run blocking has been masked by Manning's brilliance in the passing game and new running back Ronnie Hillman, who Chargers fans should be very familiar with. Hillman is an explosive player that doesn't need much room to get going. If San Diego can control the line of scrimmage like they did a week ago, I like their chances to stop the run.
It's up to the second–level linebackers to finish the play, which they didn't a week ago. Based on what I've seen, I think the interior defensive line has one of their best games of the season tonight. I also think there will be opportunities for batted passes at the line of scrimmage.
Take What the Defense Gives You
On offense, the Chargers need to get back to the basics. We've touched on how Philip Rivers has been great throwing the ball downfield. Many wonder why there aren't more short throws. I wondered the same and after watching the Chiefs game, it was pretty clear.
Teams are putting a safety over Keenan Allen and daring Rivers to take a shot downfield, which he's doing.
The safety is creeping to the top of the numbers. This happened throughout the game. This is where Rivers, especially against Denver, needs to check to a run and trust that Branden Oliver can get 3 or 4 yards instead of heaving a deep pass. That's exactly what the defense wants and it's caused some drives to stall the last couple of games because the offense simply can't overcome 3rd-and-long.
The Chargers should rely on their running game tonight. We're slowly seeing the transformation of rookie Chris Watt as a starter. He played 23 snaps and Johnnie Troutman played 29 snaps, but Watt started the first two drives of the second half and got some excellent movement in the run game. He really adds an element and allows the team to run outside the tackles in their zone blocking scheme. Troutman simply doesn't offer that athleticism.
However, running right won't be easy. The best defensive player in football not named J.J. Watt mans the left outside linebacker for the Broncos. D.J. Fluker had problems with Justin Houston a week ago, and Von Miller will be an even tougher test, as he's more of a complete player. Last year he blew up a handful of plays in the backfield. Expect a lot of attention his way.
Demarcus Ware is a future hall-of-famer and still no slouch by any means. For the second straight week, the Chargers tackles will have their hands full. Frank Reich will need to be patient with the run game. Results usually come with more carries with Oliver. He's a hyper energetic running back that just doesn't slow down. There's no reason Oliver should get any fewer than 20 carries this game.
The Broncos have a pair of good cornerbacks on the outside. Chris Harris Jr. continues to play at a high level while Aqib Talib is no slouch. Denver seems to trust them on the outside leaving them without help over the top. This plays into San Diego's hands as they can convert with timing routes, aka curls, slants or out routes.
The Chargers' real advantage lies in the middle of the field. To move the ball in the air on Denver, they will have to attack the middle of the field, make their safeties cover. Get T.J. Ward 1-on-1 with Antonio Gates or, god forbid the team decides to use Ladarius Green (who only played 8(!) snaps last week.) When teams spread Denver out, Ward walks over a receiver. He just doesn't have the cover skills to be effective, and the Chargers should make him pay for that. The team should also test rookie corner Bradley Roby and make him prove he can make the tackle after the catch. This secondary can be beat, the Chargers will just have to give Rivers time.
Goals and Prediction
- Less than 40% on 3rd downs
- Fewer than 90 yards rushing
- Less than 50% TD percentage in the Red Area
- 5 or more combined QB Hits/Sacks
- Fewer than 5 missed tackles
- 22 or more carries with 85 or more yards rushing (3.86 yards per carry)
- Greater than 50% TD percentage in the Red Area
- Fewer than 4 combined Sacks/QB Hits
- Win time of possession battle by 4 or more minutes
- 45% or better on 3rd downs
The line is currently -8 and the over under is 52.5 implying that Vegas expects a high-scoring game. This is a tough spot for San Diego: possibly missing both starting corners to go along with a slew of other injuries facing the best team in football on a short week.
Many are betting on Denver and expecting a blowout. I have a weird feeling. My gut tells me San Diego. I believe Reich is able to dial it back a little bit and the Chargers are able to run the ball while controlling the clock and limiting Manning's opportunities. I also thing San Diego wins both sides of the line of scrimmage and gets a key stop on 3rd downs. Call me crazy, 27-23, Chargers.