Part of the reason I (and several others) have suggested that the Chargers should stop trying to attack vertically is that the offensive line isn't capable of protecting Rivers long enough to allow downfield routes to develop, resulting in incompletions, sacks, and turnovers.
One thing the Chargers have been reluctant to do is employ extra blockers, which would allow Rivers to hold the ball longer, and throw deep downfield. This play is great example of the Chargers going with "max protection," which almost always involves having 2 extra blockers on hand to pick up extra blitzers. What this means for the offense is that there are only 3 eligible receivers going downfield. The number of blitzes determines how many receivers are double teamed.
The Play: 11:27 remaining in the 2nd Quarter. Chargers 1st and 10 at their 48 yard line.
The Chargers use "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). Here's a diagram of the play.
The Chargers' Offense, from left to right.
- WR Keenan Allen (13). Allen runs a Dig (i.e. intermediate crossing) Route.
- RB Donald Brown (34) on Rivers' left. He stays into block, then releases late.
- TE Antonio Gates (85). Gates runs an Out Route.
- TE David Johnson (88). Johnson stays in to block.
- WR Malcom Floyd (80). Floyd runs a Post Route.
The Broncos' Defense (from the defense's right to left).
- Up Front: DE Quanteras Smith (93), DT Sylvester Williams (92), DT Terrance Knighton (98), DT Malik Jackson (97), OLB Von Miller (58).
- In the Middle: LB Brandon Marshall (54), LB Steven Johnson (53).
- In the Secondary: CB Chris Harris Jr. (25), SS T.J. Ward (43), FS Rahim Moore (26), CB Aqib Talib (21).
- The Broncos are running a 4-3-4 defense by personnel. However, with Miller lined up on the line of scrimmage, the look is closer to a 5-2-4.
Elements of the Play
Figure 1 shows the pre-snap business. Before the snap, Philip Rivers brings David Johnson in motion to the left, then straight back, so that he ends up next to Rivers. None of Denver's defenders match Johnson's motion, which would normally indicate that Denver is playing zone defense. However, note that Denver has 5 players at the line, which normally would indicate blitz.
At the snap, Figure 2 shows Denver sending what appears to be a 6 man rush. In addition to the 5 man front, LB Steven Johnson rushes into the B gap on the right side (between Troutman and Fluker). DT Malik Jackson dives inside and is picked up by Troutman, while OLB Von Miller's outside rush is handled by Fluker. David Johnson will have the responsibility of picking up Steven Johnson's rush. Meanwhile, Dunlap picks up Sylvester Williams, Rinehart and Watt double team DT Terrance Knighton, and Brown moves forward into the "2 hole" between Watt and Troutman.
At this point in Figure 3, RDE Quanteras Smith bails out of his blitz, and drops off into shallow zone coverage. He moves towards the middle, probably to pick up Brown as an outlet receiver - this is the result of good defensive play design and good scouting by Denver Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio and his staff - they're looking for the outlet receiver on this play. David Johnson does a nice job picking up Steven Johnson's blitz, giving Rivers a chance to get the pass away.
In Figure 4, Rivers is about to let go of the ball. Denver is some form of Cover 1. SS T.J. Ward retreats to the deep middle. LB Brandon Marshall could be playing either the "Robber", or possibly off-man on Brown - if he attempts to get downfield. The following Denver defenders are playing off-man coverage: CB Chris Harris on Allen, FS Rahim Moore on Gates, and CB Aqib Talib on Floyd. Note that Gates is still coming out of his break, when Rivers is letting go of the ball.
Figure 5 - This is what happens when you mix good anticipation and freakish athletic ability. Rivers leads Gates away from Moore, and puts enough air under the ball that Gates can locate it and make the play. Gates makes a ridiculous one-handed catch, resulting in a 15 yard gain and another 1st down.
Here's a GIF of the play:
The Chargers have not been able to take many deep shots this season, mostly because of the struggles of the offensive line. I liked this play precisely because it showed the Chargers' coaching staff making a smart adjustment, taking advantage of their opponent's aggressiveness, and using it to try and generate a big play donwfield. The execution of the play by everyone involved was strong to sensational.
Further, while I think Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich has struggled this season, this is another play which demonstrates his ability to be creative and make smart adjustments. Hopefully, Reich will be able to put all the pieces together in his 2nd season calling the plays.