Finally, after months of overanalyzing mini camps, practices and glorified scrimmages, the time has come to discuss meaningful football games. I don't know about you, but tthis football fan loves identifying the keys to winning real football games. As it happens, there is one individual matchup in this weekend's game between the Chargers and Lions which figures to not only determine the outcome of the game, but will tell us great deal about how this season will go for the Chargers, as well.
Whether the fans and coaching staff realizes it or not, the most important matchup in this game, the one that will give us a feel for how this season will go, is the one pitting Chargers' sophomore center Chris Watt against five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Simply put, Watt's performance against Ngata this weekend will dictate not only the outcome of this game, but how the San Diego offensive line will look as the season progresses.
If you watched Watt closely during the third pre-season game against the Seattle Seahawks, you know there is legitimate reason for concern about how this matchup will pan out. Mostly asked to block defensive tackle Brandon Mebane one-on-one with occasional help from D.J. Fluker, Watt looked intimidated, struggled with technique and was physically overpowered. Mebane steamrolled Chris, blowing up running plays and collapsing the pocket with ease. And, if you believe some of the whispers around town, that performance has the coaching staff quietly reconsidering whether the Notre Dame graduate is, in fact, the long term answer at center.
Obviously, it's crucial that Chris Watt play well against Ngata if the San Diego offense is going to have any sort of success against a very good Detroit defense. Ngata is perhaps the standard-bearer for 4-3 nose tackles (1-technique). He is big, incredibly powerful possesses a quick first step, and will in all likelihood spend most or all of the game lined up outside of Watt in an effort to force the Chargers to block him with their two least experienced offensive linemen (Watt & D.J. Fluker). In fact, if he isn't lined up there, someone on the Detroit coaching staff should be fired before the game is over.
While the Lions will definitely dare the Chargers to double-team Haloti with Watt and Fluker, the game plan for "blocking" Brandon Mebane during the pre-season suggests San Diego will at least try to handle Ngata one-on-one with Chris Watt whenever possible. This isn't to suggest offensive line coach Joe D'Allesandris won't double team the Lions' mammoth defensive tackle from time to time, but I have a feeling he will use this game as an opportunity to cast his young center into the fire feet first as a means for testing his mettle.
As far as this game is concerned, this is a critical test because Watt's ability to handle his assignments will go a long way toward determining whether the Chargers beat the Lions. Think about it; how can anyone expect an NFL team to effectively move the ball and score points if their center is getting thrown around like a rag doll? Another showing like he had against Mebane will drag down the running game, erase the clean pocket Philip Rivers so desperately needs in order to be successful and, in all likelihood, encourage the Lions to attack the A-gap with reckless abandon. Make no mistake, if Chris Watt doesn't play well, the Chargers lose.
From a big picture perspective, a poor performance from Chris could trigger the start of a prolonged re-shuffling of the offensive line. It may not happen right away, but it wouldn't be far off. Rumors have already surfaced that the coaching staff might be reevaluating their stance on Watt as the long term answer at center, with Trevor Robinson being the favorite to replace him. A bad game on Sunday could eventually lead to a competition between Johnnie Troutman (yes, I said Johnnie Troutman), Chris Watt and D.J. Fluker for the starting right guard position when Troutman's broken arm heals.
No one here wants Johnnie Troutman to get back on the field, I just don't trust Mike McCoy's ability to his urge to go with the "known quantity" if Plan A doesn't pan out. The fear here is, the slightest chink on Watt's armor could easily lead them to re-think the entire right side of the line, especially considering D.J.Fluker's pre-season struggles at guard. This must be avoided at all costs because it doesn't take a genius to figure out a continued shuffling at any spot on the line impacts the entire line, which has a negative trickle down effect on the offense as a whole.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the matchup between Chris Watt and Haloti Ngata is the most important matchup on the field Sunday. If this group doesn't gel quickly, there is no reason to believe it ever will should the coaching staff return to juggling right guards, as they did in 2014. Simply put, Mike McCoy, Frank Reich and Joe D'Allesandris need Watt to clean up his technical short comings and work through the jitters that plagued him against the Seahawks because absolutely nothing good comes from the sort of uncertainty that leads to Johnnie Troutman sniffing the field for anything other than warmups and positional drills.
Make it happen, Chris, we're all begging you...make it happen!