Lost in the disastrous performance from the offense last week was the borderline brilliant game plan from John Pagano and execution of the defense. Per DVOA, it was the second best performance from San Diego of the season. Donald Butler was a ghost, Brandon Flowers put up a stinker, but everyone else gave an either solid performance or was outstanding. The defense will need another strong performance against the second-best offense in the league.
New look this time around
When these two teams faced off six weeks ago, the Chargers were still playing Butler every snap, relying on a pass rush from Tourek Williams and Reggie Walker, and Richard Marshall was playing on an island.
This time around, San Diego will have Flowers, Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu and Manti Te'o. All of whom we can expect big contributions from. Darrell Stuckey didn't play in the last meeting, and he's been a major part of the Chargers sub package and what they do in coverage. The changes are almost wholesale.
Players who were struggling have since been demoted to part-time roles, and in Kendall Reyes' case, it's paid dividends.
Stopping the Run
Denver is running the ball at a very successful rate the last three games. Per DVOA, Denver has posted two of their best performances of the season in the last weeks. They're averaging 5 yards a carry these last three games, and it's not because they have a low number of attempts. They've run the ball 109 times in those games.
The offensive line, in my opinion, has been inconsistent and can be taken advantage of, specifically: the right side. Former Charger Louis Vasquez is out of his element playing right tackle and it's showing. He'll be matched up against Melvin Ingram and, if last week was any indication, Ingram should be able to use his athleticism and win in space.
The Broncos have had success in two areas: hooking the end man on the line of scrimmage, allowing the RB to get to the outside, or their guards getting to the next level and sealing off the inside linebackers. Jarret Johnson is one of the best in the league at setting the edge, so the former shouldn't be a problem.
However, the latter might be.
Sean Lissemore does a good job of occupying blocks but we still see the inside linebackers playing as if their feet are stuck in mud or playing lateral too much. Kavell Conner has been aggressive, but that means nothing if his sidekick isn't playing downhill. Corey Liuget played like a star last week and Reyes did a good job of holding his own. If they can keep that level of play up, the Chargers have a chance against the run.
For a team with as many weapons as they have, the most impressive player in the past three games is probably running back, C.J. Anderson. He only played 2 snaps the last time these two teams met, but is the workhorse now, logging 80 carries the past three weeks.
The reason he's had so much success is that he's creating on his own. He'll have a linebacker in the hole at about 3 yards and just run through the tackle, or have a safety at the second level and make him miss or give him a stiff arm to keep the run alive. He's turning 3 yard gains into 7 yards, 7 yard gains into 20 yards. He's an impressive back.
PFF has him listed as forcing 24 missed tackles in the last three weeks. That's not counting the plays where he just made guys whiff. San Diego will have to tackle much better than they did last week when they missed 9 tackles. The Bills were able to have success last week because they were physical up front, winning their one-on-one battles and not making mistakes. They only missed 2 tackles, something the Chargers have to replicate.
Teams no longer fear Manning?
The passing game for the Broncos isn't anywhere near as high–flying as it was the last time these two teams met. Watching the last two games, Manning has attempted 45 passes, he's faced a single high safety 37 times. I believe Pagano should continue to attack this offense like that.
In the first half against the Chiefs, Kansas City played soft coverage with two high safeties and Denver was able to run the ball as well as pick them apart with easy pass plays. The Chiefs played primarily middle of the field coverage in the second half with a robber in the middle to take away the short crossing routes, forcing Manning to beat them outside of the numbers. That extra man in the box also gave them an extra run defender.
Whatever route they choose, the Chargers must play bump-and-run against these receivers. No free releases, nothing easy. Denver ran 10 screens in the last two weeks, with a whopping 8 of those screens coming against the Bills a week ago. The press coverage limited the YAC opportunity against the Bills and even forced a couple incompletions.
Why is playing a single high safety and press coverage "safe", you ask? Manning is taking only about 5 deep shots a game these last few weeks. He's know for his ducks but these have been ugglyyyyy fluttering ducks. A lot of these just die in the air. Here's a look at two of them:
The Chargers will have to rely on either Jahleel Addae or Darrell Stuckey to have enough range to make the play and whichever cornerback to at least be in a position to make the play. Manning just doesn't have the arm for these long–developing play–action passes any more. On three–step deep routes, he's fine.
Making Manning uncomfortable
The pass rush was as good as we've seen on a consistent basis a week ago. Here's a look at some numbers.
Not listed is a batted pass by Tourek Williams, as well as a batted pass and a QB hit by Attaochu. Just having Jerry's speed around the edge forced Brady to move when he really didn't have to. That'll loom large this Sunday.
The average depth of tackle for Ingram and Liuget are absurd. When a player can win the 1-on-1's and finish, it gives the defense a great chance to get off the field, and that's exactly what they did.
Below is Ingram's sack where he just overwhelms the right tackle.
What I liked was Pagano going back to putting his best 4 rushers on the field.
Below you'll see Attaochu rushing with speed around the edge, forcing Brady to step up, and because Ingram beat his man from the inside, he's able to disrupt the throw. It should also be noted that Attaochu's batted pass came from when he was lined up as a defensive tackle.
With the Broncos' quick passing game, it'll be important for the guys up front to get their hands up and bat passes down if the rush doesn't get home.
That's what the guys up front have to do to slow down this offense: win up front; cause disruption. They have to get this Bronco offense behind the chains and force them to throw the ball farther than 10 yards.
I think Pagano did a good job of getting his best eleven players on the field last week, to hell with what position they play. If it's three OLB's that have to be on the field on obvious passing downs, so be it. If it's four safeties that are the best in coverage, use them.
It'll be interesting to see how aggressive they chose to be blitzing-wise. The Bills were very successful, but they only blitzed once. The Chiefs blitzed 10 times and had moderate success.
The Chargers only blitzed the Patriots about 17% of the time, likely because of the success they were getting with their front 4. There were some good effective blitzes mixed in there from the safeties that I liked, though I'd really wish Pagano would put an end to blitzing his inside linebackers. I can't remember the last time those double A-Gap blitzes have worked.
Who Matches up with Whom?
We pretty much knew who would match up with the Patriots receivers. I thought the game plan against Rob Gronkowski was good. He's a special receiver and for the most part they held him in check.
This will be the second game in a row where there's no real great matchup for Brandon Flowers on the outside, though I don't think it'll be as bad as Julian Edelman. I'd expect Flowers guards speedster Emmanuel Sanders, and Shareece Wright — coming off 1 of his best games — will have his hands full again with Demaryius Thomas. Wes Welker has been a bigger part of Denver's offense lately and he'll probably draw the Chargers' only option in the slot: Marcus Gilchrist.
None of these are favorable matchups for the Chargers. They'll need to rely on pressure and hopefully the "robber" in the middle of the field can break up some passes with big hits. The defense can do a better job of setting the tone. If Julius Thomas does indeed play, I'd bet we see a mix of guys guarding him, much like they did against Gronk.
If the Chargers want to have a chance, they'll need to be stingy in the red area. Denver is 9–for–18 on touchdown chances in the last 3 games. They've stalled a bunch of drives. I don't have a prediction this week because I don't have a feel for this game. I'm much more confident than last week, but this is still a very tough matchup.