Just when you think things can't get any worse, the Chargers lay an egg like last week's game in Minnesota.
Disinterested, sloppy, undisciplined and clearly dysfunctional, San Diego was completely manhandled and let Philip Rivers take a merciless beating in a 31-14 drubbing at the hands of the Vikings. It was embarrassing and now it's behind us, so it's let's shift our focus to the visiting Cleveland Browns.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Browns aren't very good. Sure, they have some promising young talent, but they're poorly coached and struggling on both sides of the ball. They are very beatable by most NFL standards, but it's hard to muster much in the way of confidence while Mike McCoy is stumbling his way through the weekly game plans.
Since I don't trust McCoy to find the keys the victory on his own, I'm going to give them to him (and you), free of charge. So, without further adieu, let's cover my four keys to a Chargers victory.
Let's start on defense, where the first key to the game is attacking the line of scrimmage with varied and repeated blitzes.
While the Browns offensive line is pretty solid at the tackle positions, it bears a striking resemblance to the Chargers' line in that it's soft (vulnerable) in the middle. Cleveland is the perfect team to attack via the blitz for a few reasons. First, they have a hard time running the ball. Second, Josh McCown is prone to holding the ball too long. And, finally, there isn't a single receiver the San Diego secondary shouldn't be able to blanket without much difficulty.
What does all that mean? It means for once the Chargers can be comfortable being more aggressive than usual because there is very little risk in doing so and, as we all know, nothing drives this coaching staff more than its aversion to risk. So, if you'll forgive the bad pun, now is the time for John Pagano to release the hounds. Doing so should result in a multi-sack effort, which leads us to our second defensive key.
If the Chargers do decide to go with a blitz-happy defensive game plan, the next defensive key is as a simple one - be alert.
Watching tape on the Browns' offense is painful because it means studying Josh McCown who, outside of being the poster boy for lousy NFL signal callers, should never be studied for any reason. He's slow getting through his progressions, holds the ball too long, has horrible footwork, and is embarrassingly inaccurate. In other words, he's a lock to turn the ball over under duress.
So, like I said, be alert. He's going to make more bad throws than good throws, and he's pretty much going to dare the Chargers secondary to make plays on the football. We've heard about the playmakers on the back end of this defense and this is their chance to step up. They should be able to force a few turnovers by simply having their heads on a swivel and anticipating the bad throws we all know are coming.
Now that we've solved the Brown's offense, it's time to attack their defense, which is why the first offensive key is stretching the field early with Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd and Stevie Johnson.
The Browns blitz a lot, which means they also play a lot of man to man coverage. Normally I wouldn't be too keen on challenging this group but the Chargers are catching them at a good time. Star safety Tashaun Gibson (groin) and budding cover corners Joe Hayden (ribs) and Justin Gilbert (hamstring) all were limited participants in practice this week, with Gibson currently listed as questionable. That makes this the perfect time to challenge this group.
Everyone expects the Chargers to try to establish the run early, which makes sense given the state of the offensive line, which is why this is the perfect time to stretch the field with quick release timing patterns. They don't need to go back to seven step drops and 40-yard bombs, but a few 15-20 yard passes over the top should go a long way toward loosening up the Browns' defense and establishing an early rhythm.
Having loosened up the defense with a few deep balls early in the game, the fourth and final key is finding ways to get Melvin Gordon loose on the edges of the defense.
The Browns can't stop the run. They're coughing up an average of 158 yards per game on the ground (4.9 ypc) will play without starting defensive end Desmond Bryant and inside linebacker Craig Robinson on Sunday, and have an otherwise unimpressive group of linebackers outside of Karlos Dansby. If ever there were a game for Gordon to break out, this is it; it just isn't going to happen running so many draw plays. The Browns are ripe for a gashing, it's just up to the coaching staff to recognize and take advantage of that opportunity.
As it happens, the Bolts have had a fair amount of success springing Melvin Gordon for big runs when they attack the edges of the defense. It worked wonders in Cincinnati and again last week, even if they didn't do it enough. Since the Browns figure to be in full-blown attack mode in an effort to harass Philip Rivers, it will be crucial for San Diego run right at Cleveland's ends and outside backers which, if properly executed, should slow down the pass rush and produce a few explosive plays.
Got that, ball coach McCoy? Was that simple enough to follow?
This should be the perfect game for the Chargers to throw caution to the wind and mercilessly attack a badly undermanned and poorly coached Browns squad. It's time to stop fearing what might go wrong and take a shot at making your own luck for a change. If the Bolts blitz as often as possible and stay alert on defense while stretching the filed and getting Melvin Gordon outside on offense, they should make fairly quick work of the Browns. Unfortunately, that means we need to trust Mike McCoy to play to win for a change, and there is no indication he's ready to take that leap.