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Week 1 Grades: San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals

It wouldn't be an NFL season without the Chargers blowing a double-digit lead on Monday Night Football. However, while the loss was frustrating (and in the case of the offense, troubling) there were some silver linings to pull out of a very sloppy overall effort.

One of the brightest spots for the Chargers on Monday night
One of the brightest spots for the Chargers on Monday night
Norm Hall

Quarterbacks: C+

Nothing in Philip Rivers' stat line indicates anything other than an average performance. He completed only 58% of his 36 attempts, and averaged only 6.6 YPA. Ironically, Rivers' one INT was almost certainly not his fault (to be discussed below), and one which was overturned by a dubious defensive holding penalty was a terrible decision. He was fairly effective down the field, going 3 for 7 for 86 yards.

That said, Rivers was also victimized by several crucial dropped passes. He did a marvelous job of making downfield touch throws, especially on 2nd half completions to WR Malcom Floyd and TE Antonio Gates. And considering the amount of double A gap blitzes he faced, he was very good buying time in the pocket, avoiding sacks, and stepping up in one instance to get a 1st down.

Running Backs: C+

The Running Backs combined for 20 carries, with Ryan Mathews getting 12 for 40 yards and a TD, Danny Woodhead 6 for 5 yards, and Donald Brown with 2 carries for -2. I'm sorry, but 23 combined touches is not nearly enough for this group. Mathews' 20 yard TD run was a thing of beauty, as he read the play, cut left into the hole created by Gates and LT King Dunlap, then broke a tackle on his way to the end zone.

Woodhead was primarily used in pass protection, where he was solid. Otherwise, he was used mostly the same way Norv Turner used to use Lorenzo Neal and Jacob Hester - sent in motion to determine if the Cardinals defense was in zone or man coverage. The running backs (when thrown to) were productive, combining for 26 yards and 8.6 YPC.

Receivers: C

Aside from Malcom Floyd, who had a nice returning effort with 6 targets for 4 catches, 50 yards and 1 TD, none of the other WRs were able to make much positive impact on the game. WR Keenan Allen finished with 5 catches on 9 targets for only 37 yards - he was used mostly on shallow cross routes.

Among the TEs, Gates had by far the most productive evening, hauling in 6 catches for 81 yards on 10 targets. The night would have been better had Gates not missed a crucial 3rd down catch which would have extended a 3rd quarter drive and kept Arizona off the field. Ladarius Green unfortunately was M.I.A. as he finished with 2 catches for 24 yards on 2 targets.

That brings us to the dumpster fire which was WR Eddie Royal. Royal finished with 1 catch for 20 yards on 6 targets,. HIs other five targets - a Rivers overthrow, 3 drops (2 on 3rd down) and stopping on a cross route AFTER Rivers threw the ball, leading to the INT by Jerraud Powers. I suppose I should also note Royal managed -1 yards on 2 trick plays. Royal's game is especially egregious because of the coaching decisions (see below).

Offensive Line: C

The line suffered a huge loss when C Nick Hardwick left the game (and now the season) His ability to set protections and recognize pressure is simply not replaceable. That said, the offensive line didn't allow a sack, and the pass protection and blitz pickups were solid. In the running game, however, the line really struggled. RT D.J. Fluker battled through an apparent knee injury, and had some difficulty in run blocking, but did a solid job against OLB John Abraham and DE Matt Shaughnessy, as did LT King Dunlap.

The worst overall game might actually have come from LG Chad Rinehart, who drew the nightmare matchup against DE Calais Campbell. As was the case in the playoff game last season, Johnnie Troutman looked extremely uncomfortable at RG. He struggled to get leverage in the run game. Why he's not switched back to LG - his natural position - while playing is beyond me. In relief of Hardwick, Rich Ohrnberger did a workmanlike job.

Defensive Line: B

DE Corey Liuget carried over his strong preseason showing into this game, recording a sack, a tackle for loss, and 2 QB hits. He also did a nice job bottling up runs coming his way. The rotation of Sean Lissemore and Lawrence Guy did a nice job holding the middle of the formation. The weakest game probably game from DE Kendall Reyes, who was regularly washed out on runs to his side, and too often - especially one Hidden Play #1 below, spun inside and created a huge running lane for QB Carson Palmer to escape through.

Linebackers: B

I can't imagine a more frustrating game for OLB Dwight Freeney, who had multiple pressures of Palmer, and was a good handhold away from 2 or 3 sacks. His burst was strong, and his patented spin move was very effective against LT Jared Veldheer. On the other side, rookie OLB Jeremiah Attaochu made the most of his limited pass pushes, getting through to Palmer and getting a strip sack - his 2nd impact play of the game. Otherwise, OLb Melvin Ingram was a non-factor either in the run or pass game, and instead drew another late hit personal foul. On the inside, ILB Manti Te'o had by far his best game against the run, doing a nice job of shooting gaps and wrapping up the ballcarrier, finishing with 7 tackles - 1 fort loss. He looked a bit lost in space on extended plays, and was faked by Palmer for the TD pass to Stepfan Taylor. ILB Donald Butler recovered a fumble, but was otherwise almost a total non-factor.

Secondary: B

Arizona targeted CB Shareece Wright in pass defense for much of the game, primarily using WR Michael Floyd. Floyd gained 119 yards on 5 receptions, 63 coming on one pass play. Now, let's get to the good, starting with Wright, who was good in run support, and also did a nice job of making tackles in space and preventing yards after the catch. Now, to the new duo of CB Brandon Flowers and CB Jason Verrett, who were simply terrific. Flowers was tasked with stopping WR Larry Fitzgerald, and he allowed Fitzgerald only 1 catch for 22 yards on 4 targets. Verrett was almost as good, finishing with a pass defensed, allowing only 3 catches for 25 yards, and strong tackling.

At Safety, the results were a bit more mixed. SS Marcus Gilchrist struggled a bit with limited opportunities against TEs Rob Housler and John Carlson, and missed a gimme INT opportunity, but he did force the 1st fumble of the game against RB Andre Ellington. FS Eric Weddle was solid in coverage with 2 passes defensed, but like his partner, missed a golden opportunity to convert an INT opportunity in the 1st quarter.

Yes, I know Richard Marshall played. No, I don't want to discuss it.

Special Teams: A-

Attaochu made the first of his two impact plays by blocking a punt in the 2nd quarter. What was so impressive was not merely the sped he showed in getting to the kick, but the athleticism and smarts he displayed by going to the spot where the ball leaves the foot, and avoiding contact with P Drew Butler. Coverage teams were strong, led (again) buy Attaochu and ILB Kavell Conner.

In the kicking game, Nick Novak converted his lone FG chance of 36 yards, and producing one touchback in 4 tries. P Mike Scifres was able to drop 2 of his 6 punts inside the 20, and was unlucky when coverage teams couldn't find the ball before it bounced into the end zone. There were only 2 punt returns, which were handled by Eddie Royal and gained a combined 17 yards.

Coaching: D

On his only challenge of the game, Head Coach Mike McCoy came up aces. He threw the challenge flag on Arrington's fumble, and was rewarded when replays conclusively showed Butler recovering the ball. This stalled an Arizona drive into SD territory and saved at least 3 points. For at least one week, McCoy was not faced with his personal bete noire, a decision to go for it on 4th and short.

My strongest complaint is reserved for new Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich. Arizona had been 20th out of 32 teams defending the TE last year and had allowed 17 TD passes according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 (FOA).That's combined with no S Tyrann Mathieu, and the 1st game for rookie S Deone Bucannon.It stands to reason the Chargers would have maximized their advantage by playing Gates and Green simultaneously.  Lastly, Arizona's defense was most successful in 2013 when facing "11" (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) personnel.

That's right folks... the Chargers went away from Arizona's defensive weakness by not playing Gates and Green, featured "11" personnel, which played to Arizona's defensive strengths AND essentially traded Green for Royal. Add to the list the lack of interior blitz beater routes for Danny Woodhead (i.e. slant, texas) against frequent interior blitzes, the lack of WR bubble or tunnel screens, or RB screens of any kind.

This was a maddening game called by John Pagano. On the 12 plays where the Chargers sent 5 or more rushers, Palmer completed 5 of 9 passes, took 2 sacks, and scrambled once. Secondly, FOA had Arizona as bottom five in the league in DVOA when using "max protect" blocking. Third, Arizona's offense is designed to go down the field - which means the QB has to hold the ball. Fourth, the biggest defensive play came when Pagano called a blitz - the Attaochu strip sack. Fifth, Flowers and Verrett were terrific in coverage. Pagano should have been attacking all game long.

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

  1. ARZ 3rd and 10 from the ARZ 9. 6:10 4th QTR. Against a 4 man rush, Palmer finds an open lane and scrambles 12 yards for a 1st down to sustain what turned out to be the game-winning drive.
  2. SD 3rd and 8 from the ARZ 29. 7:34 4th QTR. Rivers mishandles a hot snap from C Rich Ohrnberger, resulting in a 14 yard loss and pushing the Chargers out of FG range and taking away the change for an 8-point lead.
  3. ARZ 1st and 10 from the ARZ 36. 2:13 3rd QTR. Palmer overthrows TE Rob Housler down the middle, setting up a perfect INT opportunity for SS Marcus Gilchrist, who drops the INT.
  4. SD 3rd and 3 from the SD 42. 2:29 3rd QTR. Rivers finds Gates open for a 1st down near midfield, but he drops the ball, killing the drive.
  5. ARZ 1st and 10 from the ARZ. 2:12 1st QTR. Palmer throws late towards TE Rob Housler, and FS Eric Weddle has a chance for an INT near midfield, but he can't hold onto the ball.

Looking Ahead To:

Seeing how well the Chargers handle adversity. Short week, bad loss, hot weather, defending champs coming to town.

Author's Note - One Play I Really Liked will be moving to a separate post coming out in the next couple of days.