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Week 12 Grades: Chargers pull a Houdini against the Rams

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An otherwise solid performance is marred by crucial mistakes against the St. Louis Rams, and as a result, a game which should have been effectively over in the 3rd quarter isn't decided until Shaun Hill makes a Shaun Hill mistake in the last minute.

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Quarterback: B

This was the best game Philip Rivers has played since the win at Oakland in Week 6. Rivers completed 29 of 35 pass attempts (82.8%) for 291 yards (8.31 YPA) with a TD and an INT. The YPA total is deceiving, as Rivers attempted very few deep passes - only 2 were what would be considered deep passes. Yet, the Chargers maintained a strong YPA figure because the Rivers did a largely terrific job of getting the ball out quickly and accurately, which gave his receivers an opportunity to generate yards after the catch. I'll have more about this in the coaching section.

Now, about the INT - Rivers' Pick 6 to CB Janoris Jenkins was an awful decision which resulted in a (likely) 10 point swing. It's a ball which should never have been thrown - Rivers himself admitted the ball needed to be inside, but ILB James Laurinitis was crashing hard and forced the throw back outside. Yes, WR Keenan Allen slipped out of his break, but that doesn't change the fact that the pass was forced and shouldn't have been thrown.

Running Back: A minus

Just to be clear, this was basically an A plus for RB Ryan Mathews and meh for everyone else. Mathews was the Chargers' best player on Sunday, and he's injected some desperately needed play-making ability into an offense that has looked painfully slow the last several weeks. Mathews accounted for 105 yards on 12 rushes (8.8 YPC), which included a terrific 32 yard TD run featuring burst, elusiveness, and athleticism. For a (supposed) liability as a pass receiver, Mathews did catch both of his targets, for 8 yards.

RB Branden Oliver received the bulk of the carries Mathews didn't get, many of which were in the red zone. Oliver finished with 17 yards on 6 carries (2.7 YPC), and added 23 yards on 4 receptions (4 targets). Oliver, unlike Mathews, is hesitating when he touches the ball, and some plays which could go for 3-5 yards end up going for 0-2 yards. RB Donald Brown finished with 1 carry for 7 yards, along with 2 receptions for 20 yards.

Receivers: B plus

WR Keenan Allen was the most targeted receiver with 9, and he finished with 6 catches for 102 yards and a TD. Considering almost all of his receptions where within 10 yards of the LOS, he did a terrific job of running after the catch. As I mentioned above, I don't think the pick 6 was on Allen, however, he did fumble on a likely scoring drive in the third quarter, costing the Chargers at least 3 points as a result of not protecting the football. WR Eddie Royal added 6 catches on 6 targets for 50 yards, with some strong YAC runs. WR Malcom Floyd added 4 catches on 5 targets for 30 yards, and WR Seyi Ajirotutu added 1 catch for 8 yards.

TE Ladarius Green led the TEs in targets with 3, and finished with 2 catches for 34 yards. Antonio Gates finished with 2 catches for 14 yards on 2 targets. As a group, the TE booking was noticeably better from both Green and TE David Johnson. WR blocking was very good, especially from Floyd and Royal.

Offensive Line: B minus

This was the best all around game the OLine has played in several weeks. Let's start with LT King Dunlap, who largely neutralized DE Robert Quinn on pass plays, and did a solid job again in run-blocking. C Chris Watt had a very strong game as the starter - he did a nice job of picking up stunts, staying with blocks or not allowing opponents to disengage, and playing through the whistle. RT D.J. Fluker had a solid game in both pass protection and in the run game.

RG Johnnie Troutman was a bit up and down. There were several plays where he did a nice job driving his opponent off the ball, but, as usual, was susceptible to speed moves - he allowed the 1 really bad sack to DT Aaron Donald on an inside move. The worst overall game belonged to LG Chad Rinehart, who continues to get beaten with speed moves, stood up on run plays, and driven backwards into the pocket. However, Rinehart did do a solid job of getting out to block on WR screens, where his block sprung Allen's TD catch.

Defensive Line: C plus

DE Corey Liuget did not get to make a huge impact in the game, as the Rams double-teamed him regularly. That said, his biggest play was huge - a strip sack and forced fumble against QB Shaun Hill, leading to a TD return. DT Sean Lissemore was great in his return, doing a better job of disengaging from his opponents and managing to at least hold his ground in run defense.

DT Ricardo Mathews was fairly impressive in his snaps, collecting 2 tackles - 1 for a loss, and a couple of QB hits.DE Kendall Reyes was mostly a non-factor, though he wasn't getting washed out of plays as he has in the past few weeks. Reserve DL Tenny Palepoi also had a tackle for loss in his limited action.

Linebackers: B minus

OLB Dwight Freeney may not have gotten a sack, but he created all kinds of problems for Rams rookie LT Greg Robinson. Freeney had multiple hurries of Hill and forced at least a couple of incompletions. The same can be said for OLBs Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu, who despite not getting any sacks were able to regularly force Hill into rushed throws. Ingram did manage to get a Pass Defensed, in addition to his 2 tackles.

On the inside, ILB Andrew Gachkar continues to pay dividends. He does a good job staying clear of traffic, doesn't overrun the ball carrier, and makes good tackles. Further, his fumble recovery for a TD was a great example of situational awareness - as other players on both teams assumed the loose ball was an incomplete pass. ILB Kavell Conner again did a nice job attacking on running plays, though wasn't as a strong in pass coverage. ILB Manti Te'o again did a nice job attacking gaps, and was also credited with a pass defensed. Even ILB Donald Butler made a pair of solid plays where he attacked the ball carrier instead of playing passive or overrunning the play.

Secondary: C plus

CB Brandon Flowers made a terrific INT off of Hill early in the game, but was lucky later to get bailed out by a penalty after getting beat by WR Kenny Britt on a stop-and-go. Otherwise, the Rams largely avoid throwing his direction. CB Shareece Wright had another not so great game, finishing with only 1 Pass Defensed, while getting beat on multiple plays down the field as well as drawing a defensive pass interference penalty.

SS Marcus Gilchrist, right up until his game (possibly season) saving INT, was having an awful 4th quarter. He did finish with 5 solo tackles, but was guilty of allowing huge cushions against receivers and backs which he couldn't possibly have made up with his speed. His INT, however, was sensational - reading Hill, then timing his break at the perfect moment. The best overall game came from FS Eric Weddle. Weddle led the team with 6 solo tackles, and also had a pass defensed. It's true he had no turnovers or sacks, but was the only player who avoided negative plays.

Special Teams: C minus

PK NIck Novak continued with his strong 2014 season, converting FG attempts of 23 and 48 yards. However, he didn't get a single touchback on kickoffs, which is increasingly becoming a liability in the field position game. P Mike Scifres finished with 4 punts for a 49.3 yard average, but only a 38.3 net. That's because coverage units struggled to contain the explosive PR Tavon Austin, who very nearly returned a punt for a TD in the final 2 minutes of the game. Kickoff coverage units were solid.

The Chargers did manage to block a Rams FG Attempt in the 2nd quarter, when Darrell Stuckey ran right past Lance Kendricks and knocked down a low kick. That, however, was nullified by an awful mistake between PR Keenan Allen and Chris Davis, when Davis followed a blocker (without hearing or heeding Allen's warnings to stay away) right into Allen and the ball, resulting in a muff and a Rams TD shortly thereafter.

Shareece Wright also fell asleep on the Rams successful fake punt in the 4th quarter, turning his head and running downfield to block. He didn't seem at all prepared for the possibility of a fake in that situation - see Coaching below.

Coaching: B

Last week, saw one of the most poorly executed 2-minute drills I've ever seen. To his credit, Head Coach Mike McCoy made sure to rectify this problem with a very well executed 2-minute drill to close out the 1st half. Also, McCoy did a nice job saving his timeouts in the 2nd half, ensuring the Chargers would have an opportunity to win late if the Rams had tied or taken the lead. That said, allowing the fake punt was especially egregious, given both the game situation AND Rams' Head Coach Jeff Fisher's long-standing tendency to employ fakes or trick plays in late game/desperation situations.

Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich deserves credit this week for giving his offense a game plan for attacking what looked like a nightmare matchup on paper. Not only did the Chargers get back to the short passing game in a big way, they stayed with it even when the Rams occasionally made stops. Best of all, the Chargers featured routes with YAC potential. Lastly, Reich and Offensive line Coach Joe D'Alessandris deserve a lot of credit for getting Watt ready to play at a high level against a talented defensive front. One downside is whatever substitution pattern he's using which takes his best back off the field in crucial situations. Mathews should be on the field, especially inside the opponent's 20.

Defensive Coordinator John Pagano had a solid game, and managed to do a decent job with his line rotations while missing RT Ryan Carrethers, and still shielding liability players such as Reyes and Butler. I really liked his overload blitz early in the game which led to Flowers' INT. However, Pagano reverted back to his habit of showing blitzes only to back out, or use bizarre zone blitzes where DTs are dropped into coverage. There was also limited use of the Freeney, Liuget, Ingram, Attaochu front, even in obvious passing downs.

5 Biggest Hidden (i.e. non-scoring, non-turnover) Plays

  1. 2:00 remaining in the 2nd Qtr. Rams 2nd and 14 at STL 49. Shaun Hill finds WR Kenny Britt past the defense for a 51 yard TD pass and a potential 17-3 lead, but the TD is overturned by an Illegal Hands to the Face penalty against LT Greg Robinson.
  2. 1:54 remaining in the 4th Qtr. Chargers 3rd and 2 at SD 28. With a chance to ice the game, Rivers is sacked by DT Aaron Donald for a 5 yard loss, forcing a Chargers punt.
  3. 7:20 remaining in the 4th Qtr. Rams 4th and 4 at STL 26. Trailing by 10, the Rams come out in punt formation, and the Chargers fall for the fake - allowing Rams P Johnny Hekker to complete a 19 yard pass to WR Steadman Bailey and extend the possession.
  4. 10:55 remaining in the 4th Qtr. Chargers 3rd and 8 at SD 35. Rivers completes his only deep pass of the game, a 28 yard gain to TE Ladarius Green and a 1st down at the STL 37. Keenan Allen's TD catch and run occurs 4 plays later.
  5. 2:56 remaining in the 1st Qtr. Rams 3rd and 17 at SD 41, Hill completes a 19 yard pass to Bailey for a 1st down, plus a Roughing the Passer Penalty called against Dwight Freeney. Results in 1st and 10 at the SD 11 and an eventual 22 yard FG by Rams K Greg Zuerlein.

Looking Ahead To:

Seeing whether the Chargers can continue to build on their improvements the last weeks while eliminating the mistakes, just as the playoff run starts with a tough game at Baltimore.