Kyle Emanuel vs Broncos RBs/TEs
With Gus Bradley taking charge as his first game as the Chargers new DC, it’s fair to expect a few teething problems, and one of those will likely be Kyle Emanuel getting caught out in a situation he just can’t win. Emanuel is a superb run defender but is a liability in coverage, as he just doesn’t have the speed required to keep pace with his assignment. Gus Bradley will likely try to protect Emanuel in coverage as much as he can, but as bad a head coach as Mike McCoy was - and he was awful - he’s an excellent offensive mind, and the Broncos will more than likely try to isolate Emanuel in a one on one situation as much as they can.
Luckily, the Broncos don’t have a real threat at TE, as Virgil Green is one of the weakest starting TEs in the NFL, and backup TE Jeff Heuerman has just 9 catches in his NFL career. The problem is going to come at RB. Eventually, Kyle Emanuel will be left alone to guard one of CJ Anderson, Jamaal Charles or De’Angelo Henderson (who ran a 4.48 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine), and it’s probably not going to end favorably for the Chargers.
If you have Kyle Emanuel as a starter, you’re going to have to accept that he’s going to give up a play or two in coverage. It’s Gus Bradley’s job to protect Emanuel as much as possible against the Broncos. The Broncos don’t boast a strong offense, and they’re likely going to need to rely on one or two big plays to score points. That could easily come if Kyle Emanuel finds himself in a matchup that he can’t win.
Von Miller vs Joe Barksdale
Von Miller is the best pass rusher in the NFL. Last season, Joe Barksdale gave up the most sacks out of any offensive lineman in the entire NFL. The hope is that Barksdale returns to the 2015 form that saw him earn a $22m deal from the Chargers, rather than continue to play at the level he did last year. Either way, he’s going to have his hands full tonight. I don’t believe that there’s a single OL in the NFL capable of guarding Von Miller 1vs1. He’s sacked Philip Rivers at least once in each of the last four meetings, and I don’t see that streak ending tonight.
Miller’s burst off the line and quickness is unparalleled, and if Joe Barksdale is left on his own to defend Miller, the Chargers will lose. It’s that simple. Negative plays, sacks, and turnovers will kill drives and momentum, and Von Miller is capable of winning the Broncos games by himself. The Chargers are going to need to double team and chip Von Miller all night, and even that won’t completely stop him - but it will hopefully slow him down enough for the Chargers to get some drives going.
You know who I think the X-Factor in this battle could be? It’s Sean Culkin. Football is weird like that. In the Chargers original group of UDFAs, Culkin was probably the one I was least excited about. I was convinced he’d be no more than a camp body. Four months later, and I’m asking him to help stop the best pass rusher in football to win this game for the Chargers.
Last year, the Chargers used Hunter Henry to try and stop Von Miller, and he didn’t do too badly. Not only is Culkin a better blocker than Henry (and pretty clearly the best blocking TE on the Chargers roster), but the Chargers are going to need Henry as a receiver tonight. Why not stick with the idea of having a TE in to help Barksdale, though, and give that responsibility to Culkin?
It’s a huge ask for an undrafted free agent playing in their first NFL game - hell, I’m not even sure Culkin is going to be active tonight - but I’d like to see the Chargers try it.
Chargers WRs vs The ‘No Fly Zone’
The Broncos have the best trio of CBs in the NFL, and it’s not really close, either. Chris Harris is the best CB in the league, Aqib Talib isn’t far behind him, and Bradley Roby would be a #1 or #2 CB on any other team. The ‘No Fly Zone’ moniker extends to their safeties as well, however, and cutting T.J. Ward may very much have been addition by subtraction. Justin Simmonds joins the excellent Darian Stewart at safety for the Broncos and possesses impressive coverage skills.
I think Keenan Allen is an elite WR when healthy, and I’m not worried about him tonight. The Broncos secondary will limit him, but he’ll win his fair share of the battles. The problem is the other WRs. Mike Williams isn’t healthy, which leaves just Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, and a banged up Dontrelle Inman.
In the two games against the Broncos last year, Tyrell Williams was limited to just four receptions for 32 yards. In two games! The Chargers are going to need a WR not named Keenan Allen to create separation, and I’m not sure how much success they’ll have with that.
Luckily, I have another wild card in mind, and I’m picking Travis Benjamin. The way the Chargers win this game is by running the football. They need to keep pounding the ball down the Broncos throats and take advantage of the very injured Broncos DL (they’re missing starter Jared Crick and backup Zach Kerr, with Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis also nursing injuries). If they can have consistent success running the ball, that’ll set up the deep pass, and Travis Benjamin is too fast to be covered one on one - even by the No Fly Zone. If the Chargers can’t get the ground game going and are forced to go to the air, it could be a long night for the Bolts.