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Chargers vs. Raiders: Winners and Losers

Did somebody say two game winning streak?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers are alive, baby!

Okay, so they eked out a win by a single point thanks to Jon Condo - a 2x Pro Bowler and normally perfect LS - botching a simple PAT snap and allowing the Chargers to drive down the field and kick the gamewinner, but who cares about the semantics? They went into the house of a divisional rival and were able to grind out a win, which is something the Chargers have really struggled with in recent years. Not this time.

By no means was this a perfect game. The run defense still struggled, and the offense were able to put up just 17 points, despite the defense forcing multiple turnovers. But in the end, the Chargers did enough to get the win. That’s a sentence we haven’t been able to say much around here lately, so embrace it. The Chargers did enough.

That’s not to say it was a forgone conclusion. They are still the Chargers, after all. It’s a testament to how awful the Chargers have been at closing out games that even when they had the ball in comfortable field goal range, I was convinced they were going to lose. Gordon was going to fumble, or Rivers was going to mishandle the snap, or Kaser was going to mess up the hold in a repeat of last year, or Novak was going to miss the chip shot. It didn’t matter how, but they were going to find a way to lose. If I was a fan of any other team in the NFL, I wouldn’t be too nervous to watch a 32 yard FG.

Novak managed to make the kick without needing to use his superpower, which means he can store it up for the game at StubHub against Denver on Sunday, which raises a philosophical question. If Nick Novak does his business in a gatorade bottle and no-one is there to see it, does it actually happen?

Onto more serious matters - this Denver game feels like it’ll define the rest of the season. If the Chargers lose to Denver, they probably head into the bye at 2-6 and with too much damage done to repair. If they can beat the Broncos at home, that puts them at 3-4. They get to play the Jets and Browns after the bye, which I’ll pencil in as a win - always a risky move with the Chargers, but for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume they don’t ‘Charger’ either of those games. That’s five wins; here’s the rest of the schedule:

@Patriots, @Jaguars, Bills, @Cowboys, Redskins, @Chiefs, Raiders.

Are there four more wins in there, which would take the Chargers to 9-7 - a winning record and a shot at a postseason birth? I think there could be. The bolded games are the games to play after the bye, when Denzel Perryman will hopefully return to the fold. Perryman is exactly what the Chargers have been so desperately missing as of late, and this could be a much stouter defense in the second half of the season.

There’s no point in getting carried away. This all very much depends on beating Denver this Sunday. If they can’t do that, it’s back to reality and a Top 10 pick for the 3rd year in a row.

Biggest Winners:

1: Philip Rivers

When I look back on the greatness of Philip Rivers, two recent games are going to come to mind: The 2014 win over Seattle, and the 2015 loss to Green Bay. Both times, Rivers led the Chargers into battle against an elite team and played nearly flawlessly. He’d consistently throw balls from ridiculous angles into the tightest of windows, delivering dime after dime, to which the defense had no answers.

This wasn’t a Philip Rivers performance on the same level, but I bring it up because this game against the Raiders gives me hope that Rivers may yet have some games like that left in the tank.

He was great against the Raiders. He had one misfire deep to Hunter Henry and another head-scratcher where he tried to throw deep to Travis Benjamin with numerous Raiders defenders around him, but those two plays aside, Rivers played good, smart football.

The problem with Rivers this season hasn’t been his arm, but his head. He was panicking in the pocket, staring down receivers, not properly cycling through his reads and deciding where the ball was going to go before it had even been snapped. The Chargers OL has done a phenomenal job of keeping Rivers clean so far this season - he’s been sacked just three times in six games, tied for least in the league - and since his horrendous performance against the Chiefs he’s rebounded strongly, with six TDs to a lone interception.

Hopefully, Rivers is finally behind an OL that he can trust to protect him, and the last three games are the upshot of that. Rivers still has the arm of a top tier QB. If he’s able to recover his composure and get back to being one of the best QB’s mentally in the league, there’s a real chance for the Chargers to go on a late run this year. The Superbowl window in the Philip Rivers era may not be shut just yet.

2: Hunter Henry

Hunter Henry is an elite TE.

That might be a controversial statement, but I fully believe in it. He’s an incredible weapon for the Chargers, and it’s just a shame it’s taken them this long to work it out.

In a weird way, Henry’s minimal usage in the early weeks of the season might have been his own fault for just being too good at football. Henry is a superb blocker for a TE, so the team relied on him to help stay in and chip pass rushers, as well as lead the way for Melvin Gordon. That was fine, but a waste of one of the best receiving TEs in football.

Henry is the complete package. He’s a superb blocker but an even better receiver. If I had to sum up Hunter Henry in a word, it’d be ‘smooth.’ He just gets it. He knows how to get open. He’ll catch almost anything thrown his way. He’s a guy you should be targeting 10+ a game. He can be a safety blanket for Rivers near the line of scrimmage, but he’s also athletic enough to make plays downfield, as the final drive of the Raiders game showed.

Recently, the Chargers have been doing a much better job of getting Hunter Henry involved. His talent just couldn’t be ignored. He’s beginning to get snaps over Antonio Gates, and he’s running some ‘delay’ routes, where he’ll stay in for a second to chip and help pass block, before leaking out and running a route as a receiver. That’s the perfect thing to do with Hunter Henry.

This just comes down to my personal football philosophy, but if I was building a team, I’d look for two Hunter Henry’s as a very high priority. A player like him just offers so much to a team in both the run and pass game. He’ll clear space for Melvin Gordon before going and catching a 20-yard pass on the next play. Could you imagine the damage you could do with two Hunter Henry’s?

In Week 1, the Chargers didn’t give a single target to Hunter Henry. That was a huge mistake. The Broncos weakness in the passing game is to TEs. Evan Engram had a ‘breakout’ game last week against the Broncos, with 5 catches for 82 yards and a TD. The Broncos knew he was the Giants main receiving weapon with everyone else lying in a hospital bed, but they just couldn’t stop it.

Having Henry in to block and help deal with Von Miller is fine, but he needs to be unleashed in the passing game. I’d like to see close to 10 targets for Hunter Henry this week. He’s just too good to waste.

3: Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams has been incredible this season. He’s matched Casey Hayward for play, and that’s not an easy feat. Jason Verrett’s injury would have been a major blow to a defense lacking severely in CB depth if it wasn’t for the emergence of Williams as a legitimate threat at CB.

He got his first interception of his career against the Raiders - sure, it was a ‘gimme’, but it was entirely deserved. The Chargers couldn’t get any points after that turnover, but Williams had another big play late in the game, stopping Michael Crabtree on a 4th and 2 and giving the ball back to the Chargers.

There’s going to be a post looking at Williams in more depth later this week so I won’t wax lyrical about him for too long, even though I really want to. Honestly, with Williams playing this well, I’m not sure the Chargers will keep Jason Verrett around.

Think about that for a second. Williams was by no means a lock to even crack the 53 at the start of Training Camp. He was just another name in a group with players like Trovon Reed and Craig Mager. He’s now playing like a Top 15 CB in the league, and he’s made this season a heck of a lot more enjoyable. Long may his play continue.

Biggest Losers:

1: Tre Boston

The only thing I wanted out of Tre Boston when he was signed was to be an upgrade over Dwight Lowery, who I did more than my fair share of criticising while he was here. Honestly? We’re six weeks in, and I think I’d rather have Lowery back.

I didn’t have outrageously high expectations for Boston. He was on a cheap contract for a Panthers team with zero depth at safety and still found himself cut, so he clearly wasn’t thought of highly over in Carolina. After seeing him as a Charger so far, I understand why.

He’s not been comfortable in coverage to this point. He’s late coming over when he’s in zone coverage, and his lack of aggressiveness against the Raiders let Seth Roberts catch two passes over him, simply by virtue of wanting it more.

It’s the lack of the aggressiveness that’s most damning. He’s a liability in the run game thus far. He takes bad angles, doesn’t secure tackles, and generally just looks like he’d rather avoid contact wherever possible.

It’s like having 10 men on the field there. Be aggressive. Go and meet the ballcarrier. Do something - something other than back up 20 yards, lose sense of where you are and miss the tackle.

Boston is talented enough to up his play, but so far he’s been a real disappointment, with no real reason to assume he’ll magically turn the corner. The Chargers safeties are still a real problem.

2: Travis Benjamin/Tyrell Williams

Speaking of people who don’t like contact...

Travis Benjamin should be taken off punt returns. He’s got the speed to be a real force on Special Teams, but he just doesn’t have the heart. Ever since he joined the Chargers, Benjamin decided that he didn’t want to take any unnecessary hits, and his first instinct as a punt returner is to head out to the sideline, rather than turn upfield. It’s probably only a matter of time before he loses his punt return role, and he’s already being phased out of his role as a starting WR. Benjamin played just 32% of the offensive snaps on Sunday, and that was with Mike Williams playing just 11. When Williams gets healthy, Benjamin’s role on this team will diminish to just a part-time gadget player. The Chargers have an out in his contract after this year, and they’re going to take it. Benjamin will not be on this team in 2018.

Another WR going to suffer from the addition of Mike Williams is his namesake, Tyrell. He’s struggled to make an impact this season and that was furthered against the Raiders. Tyrell had 3 catches but fumbled on the only meaningful one as he was running in open space. That’s not how you keep a starting job. There’s still a role for Tyrell Williams in this offense, but it’s going to be a more limited one until he can show the team that he can be trusted to produce.

3: Kyle Emanuel

Emanuel came into this season as a starting LB. He struggled in coverage early on, and he’s gone from a starter to playing 17 snaps against the Raiders - just 29% of the defensive snaps for the day.

Emanuel is excellent against the run, but the fact that he’s playing so few snaps despite the Chargers being so bad at defending the run tells you just how highly the coaching staff values him elsewhere.

I don’t know what the future holds for Emanuel as a Charger. He’s just not quick enough to play as a LB in this system, and he’s not big enough to play with his hand in the dirt among the DL. There’s a role for him somewhere, but it’s on the coaching staff to find a way to put him in beneficial situations. For now, though, Emanuel’s ‘role’ is that of a ‘role player’, and he’s going to have to get used to sitting on the sideline watching Hayes Pullard play nearly every snap in the game.

(Yes, I know Pullard got an interception on Sunday. He’s still not good enough at football for the NFL.)