No matter how much talent both teams have on the perimeter and at the skill positions, Monday night's game between the San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals will be won in the trenches. Not really ground breaking stuff, but if Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers continuously have time to set their feet, it's going to be a long day for both defenses.
Today won't be about the signal callers. We'll get to them, but today we're going to see which team has the advantage when Arizona's offensive line matches up against San Diego's defensive front seven.
San Diego dodged a few bullets getting the Cardinals in week 1. Last year's first round pick Johnathan Cooper is still nursing a turf toe injury. Enter Ted Larsen, their version of Rich Ohrnberger, the swing interior lineman. The interior line was a disaster for Arizona in '13, ranking 28th in adjusted line yards. This is concerning for the 2014Cardinals because they have broguth back their starting center and right guard. Those two combined to miss 49(!) blocks last year.
This bodes well for defensive lineman Sean Lissemore, Kendall Reyes, Corey Liuget, and both starting inside linebackers, Manti Te'o and Donald Butler. Other than Lissemore, this group struggled against the run in a bad way last season. Reyes seemed to play on roller skates all year, and the linebackers were hesitant. On the rare occasion the linebackers were in a position to make a play, they'd whiff on tackle. Still, because this isn't an overpowering group, there's no real reason the Chargers shouldn't be able to hold their own up front, if not control the interior line of scrimmage.
We got a glimpse of what Liuget looks like when healthy in the preseason against the San Francisco 49ers. He can be a game changer. San Diego will need a big performance from him if they want to stay off the field Monday night. The Chargers regularly run stunts with Liuget and Reyes like the GIF above. If executed properly this should lead to pressure.
Getting Pressure From the Edge
In typical Raider fashion, they let their two best players go this offseason. One of them, Jared Veldheer, signed with Arizona this offseason. Though he only played 5 games in 2013, Veldheer didn't miss any blocks in the run game. He's a major upgrade from who they had a year ago. Arizona was 28th in adjusted line yards when they ran behind the left tackle, so Veldheer should really help them in the run game. Also a reliable pass blocker, it's going to be a challenge for Melvin Ingram or Dwight Freeney to "win the edge" against him.
Something I did notice as a weakness in watching Veldheer is that rushers can get up under his pads and walk him back into the quarterback. Certainly something to keep an eye on.
On the right side, Bobby Massie is known for his 2012 rookie year, were he was off to a "Mike Harris" type start to his career, only to right the ship and play well down the stretch the second half of the year. He didn't play much last year, so I took at look at him this preseason. In week 3 "tune up" versus the Bengals, he had 4 of what I would call negative plays. He missed a block in the run game, got stood up at the line and his man made the tackle for a gain of 1, and in the passing game got beaten twice (once on a corner blitz.) That was only one half, so it's safe to say that he can be taken advantage of. If Pagano chooses to slant guys up front like he did Week 3 versus the 49ers, it could be a long day for Massie.
Running Backs and Tight Ends
It's no secret that a Bruce Arians led offense wants to throw the ball and throw it often. Even though he drafted a tight end in the second round, it's hard for me to imagine that the Chargers will game plan as if the Cardinals will use a tight end very much.
In 2013 Arizona ranked dead last in running a play with a tight end on the field. I think the Chargers can get away with using Te'o, Butler, or Marcus Gilchrist on a tight end, since they're not a focal point of the offense. Jarret Johnson is one of the best edge setting linebackers in the game, and I didn't see anything to make me think Arizona will be able to get the edge on Johnson.
Speaking of focal points, Andre Ellington. He is good. He's better than good. The 187th pick of the 2013 draft is likely to cause the Chargers many, many problems. His elusiveness is off the charts, and knowing how San Diego tackles as a defense, I wouldn't be surprised to see Ellington break a long play.
Just when you think the play is dead, Ellington squirts through a hole, or makes a linebacker miss, and gains 10. He's very patient, and does a good job of seeing the cutback lane. Though it doesn't show in his 40 time, Ellington has enough speed to break off a long play. Ellington is just as scary as a receiver. Expect to see him lined up all over in attempt to get him the ball in space. He's the type of runner that can make an average offensive line look much better than it is.
Now that I've hyped Ellington up to Barry Sanders, how to you stop him? Well, you have all 11 defenders swarm to the ball. You get pressure on the quarterback to limit any of Ellington's opportunities. If we're talking 1-on-1 match ups, I put Eric Weddle on him. This makes sense in my opinion given that there is no threat at tight end, and honestly, who else do you trust? I don't think that will happen, though. So....
Who has the Advantage?
Even with the addition of Veldheer, the Cardinals line has a lot of work to do. The defensive front-seven is certainly the weakness of the Chargers, but having Freeney and a healthy Liuget out there gives them the edge. Ellington is a soon-to-be stud, and if San Diego can make Arizona a one-dimensional team that will make like 10 times easier on Pagano. Much easier said than done, though. The tipping point is that right side of the line for Arizona. If Ingram is who fans think he is, he should have a big day come Monday night. He will not have a more favorable match-up this season. All eyes will be on Melvin to make plays.