For the 2nd straight week, the Chargers needed Philip Rivers to play big. For the 2nd straight week, he may have had the worst game of anyone on the team. Rivers finished with 24 completions on 41 attempts (58.5%) for 232 yards (5.65 YPA), with 1 TD pass and a pair of terrible interceptions, which crushed any possibility of a late comeback.
For the 2nd straight week, Rivers was strangely inaccurate. He often missed chances to take advantage of what Denver was doing defensively, and switch to better plays. Worst of all, he reverted to trying to take big plays which weren't there late in the game - on the 1st INT, he stared down Floyd and missed Royal for an easy 1st down and out-of-bounds to stop the clock. On his 2nd INT, he stared down Gates and missed Floyd on a LB right in front of him - a play which could have gone for a TD had he made a better decision.
Running Backs: C minus
Branden Oliver led the Chargers in rushes with 12, and he gained a paltry 26 yards with those chances (2.16 YPC). Oliver was more productive as a receiver, with 4 catches on 4 targets for 44 yards. Oliver is still struggling to find the (admittedly small), and simply doesn't have the burst to exploit the small amounts of space he does get. That said, I felt he ran well in space. Donald Brown contributed 5 caries for 18 yards (3.6 YPC) and also added 4 catches for 48 yards on 6 targets. Ronnie Brown added 2 carries for 9 yards, and as would be expected. All 3 running backs were solid in picking up blitzes when necessary.
Receivers: C plus
Tough game and a tough finish to a tough season for WR Keenan Allen. Allen was limited to 3 catches on 8 targets for 18 yards, while trying gamely to battle through an ankle injury and broken collarbone. WR Malcom Floyd also had a rough day, finishing with 3 catches for 34 yards on 7 targets. The most efficient WR was Eddie Royal, who gained 27 yards on 3 catches (4 targets), along with some really strong downfield blocking. WR Seyi Ajirotutu only pulled in 1 catch on 4 targets for 17 yards.
TE Antonio Gates was the most productive offensive player for the Chargers, finishing with 6 catches (one of which was another terrific one-hander) on 7 targets for 54 yards and a TD catch. Beyond Gates, there was some limited playing time for TEs David Johnson and John Phillips, who were used as blockers and were no more effective as blockers than they've been for most of the season.
Offensive Line: B minus
The offensive line played a smarter, more complete game this week than against New England, allowing only a handful of pressures. Starting with RT D.J. Fluker, who played a very strong overall game against OLB Von Miller. Fluker didn't allow any sacks, and was generally solid as a run blocker, but his otherwise good game was marred by a critical Personal Foul penalty. LT King Dunlap likewise played a very strong game against OLB DeMarcus Ware, allowing only a pressure or two. C Chris Watt rebounded nicely off his game against the Patriots, not allowing a sack and diagnosing stunts and blitzes quite well.
On the bad side, RT Johnnie Troutman had a very rough game as a run blocker, getting beat multiple times by the quickness of DT Derek Wolfe, although he held up decently in pass blocking. Again LG Chad Rinehart had about as bad a game as possible without allowing a sack - he allowed multiple pressures to NT Terrance Knighton and DT Malik Jackson, and might as well have been invisible in run blocking - more than once he simply whiffed on a block by lunging forward or getting beat with a late step.
Defensive Line: B minus
Another solid game up front for the Chargers defensive line started with DT Corey Liuget. Liuget regualry faced double-teams, but managed to battle them to a standstill and allowed teammates to get to the ball carrier, finishing with 3 total tackles. DT Kendall Reyes also played well, doing a nice job of fighting off blockers and not getting washed out, adding a tackle. DT Ricardo Mathews ended up with 1 combined tackle, and also did a solid job of occupying blockers and not getting moved around.
DT Sean Lissemore also played well for the 2nd straight week, managing to hold his ground and not get moved off the line of scrimmage - finishing with 2 total tackles. DT Tenny Palepoi also recorded 1 tackle, and played decently in his reserve role.
Linebackers: B minus
For the 2nd straight game OLB Melvin Ingram played like an impact player. Ingram finished with 4 combined tackles, with 1 sack and a forced fumble of QB Peyton Manning (another sack and forced fumble was wiped out by a penalty). OLB Dwight Freeney managed to get a QB hit, but missed about 3-4 chances for tackles for losses. OLB Jeremiah Attaochu struggled to get pressure, as he hasn't shown the ability to consistently beat anyone except by running around them. Olb Jarret Johnson added 2 combined tackles, and did his usual strong job controlling the edge of a running play coming his way.
ILB Andrew Gachkar continues to justify the coaches trust, collecting 6 total tackles, 2 of them for losses, although he did have a couple of running plays where he couldn't find the ball carrier. ILB Manti Te'o also played another solid game, finishing with 6 total tackles, although he missed one or two chances for tackles for loss. ILB Kavell Conner ended up with 5 tackles, although he struggled when put in zone responsibilities in pass defense, and wasn't as good at playing aggressive near the line in run defense.
Secondary: C plus
CB Brandon Flowers had a 2nd rough week in a row, allowing multiple big completions down the field, while recording 6 solo tackles and no passes defensed. CB Shareece Wright was not attacked as often, and he ended up with only 1 tackle - although he was beat for a critical big play by WR Emmanuel Sanders, and flagged for a critical defensive interference penalty against WR Wes Welker.
SS Jahleel Addae had a very strong game, recording 9 combined tackles and a number of big hits with stopped ball carriers cold - although his tendency to launch into players and not wrap up as much is something of a concern against larger players who could bounce off. FS Eric Weddle allowed one big completion to TE Julius Thomas, but otherwise played a solid game finishing with 8 combined tackles. S Marcus Gilchrist ended the game with 3 combined tackles, one of which was for a loss.
Special Teams: C minus
KR Eddie Royal - substituting for Keenan Allen - had the Chargers best return of the year, a 58 yard return late in the 2nd quarter which set up Nick Novak's only successful FG of three attempts - from 30 yards. Otherwise, Allen had only 1 return for 3 yards. KR Chris Davis managed 47 yards on 2 returns. Substitute P Mat McBriar did a nice job filling in for Mike Scifres, with 4 punts for a 49.8 yard average, and a 43 yard net average.
Here's the 2nd area where Chad Rinehart hurt the Chargers. Rinheart was beaten twice on PK Nick Novak's 3 FG attempts, one of which resulted in a block by DT Derek Wolfe from 47 yards, and another may have caused Novak to pull his 37 yard attempt, resulting in a miss off the left upright. As usual, Novak did not produce any touchbacks.
This week didn't feature any horrendous punting decisions by Head Coach Mike McCoy, no bad challenges, and generally solid use of timeouts. That said, I think McCoy has to get more involved in the offensive game planning, as the offense has struggled badly to score points against admittedly good but exploitable defenses in New England and Denver.
Defensive Coordinator John Pagano has come up with a very good formula the last few weeks - selective aggressiveness mixed with a bend-but-don't break style which has allowed the Chargers to vastly improve their defensive showing, especially inside the red zone. According to Football Outsiders - the Chargers defense has improved to 9th overall in Weeks 10-15 (-14.2% DVOA), versus 31st overall in Weeks 1-9 (15.1% DVOA). While getting key players healthy is a significant factor, Pagano has also done a good job of mixing and matching his players to put them in better situations.
I didn't agree with the game plan devised by Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich. In my opinion, the Chargers' best chance for offensive success was to utilize the mismatch Gates presented against SS T.J. Ward, or the Denver LBs. Reich also could have exploited Royal against Denver's reserve CBs. Instead, the 1st half focus was on power running - minus RB Ryan Mathews - and attacking Denver's starting CBs in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris - arguably one of the top 5 CB tandems in the NFL.
Also, either Reich or Rivers has to get better at taking advantage of moments like this - a clear advantage for the Chargers with 3 WRs against 2 CBs on the wide side of the field. This pass wasn't a WR screen to the left (which might have gone for a TD), it was a pass to the right to Brown - who didn't gain any yards on the play:
5 Biggest Hidden (i.e. Non-Scoring, Non-Turnover) Plays:
- 5:02 left in the 4th Qtr. 3rd and 20 at the SD 44. Manning throws complete to Demariyus Thomas for a 13 yard gain, setting up a 49 yard FG by Connor Barth and a 19-10 Denver lead.
- 7:54 left in the 4th Qtr. 3rd and 12 at the DEN 22. Protecting a 16-10 lead, Manning escapes the pocket and throws incomplete to Welker, but Welker draws a Defensive Interference Penalty against Wright, resulting in a 9 yard gain and a 1st down.
- 0:18 left in the 2nd Qtr. 3rd and 5 SD at DEN 12. Rivers throws incomplete in the endzone to Keenan Allen, who appeared to interfered with by Cb Chris Harris. The Side Judge starts to pull, the chooses not to throw a penalty flag, costing SD 1st and Goal at the DEN 1, and forcing a (successful) Novak FG attempt.
- 2:00 left in the 2nd Qtr, 3rd and Goal DEN at the SD 1. C.J. Anderson appears to score a TD, but the play is challenged and overturned during an automatic review. Denver settles for a FG and a 9-0 lead.
- 8:39 left in the 2nd Qtr. 1st and 10 SD at DEN 15. An Offensive Interference Penalty against Gates, immediately followed by Fluker's Personal Foul, results in 2nd and 31 from the DEN 36. Novak's FG attempt from 47 yards is blocked 2 plays later, preserving a 6-0 Denver lead.
Looking Ahead To:
Seeing if the Chargers can manage to outscore what's been an equally incompetent San Francisco 49ers offense on Saturday night to keep their postseason hopes alive.