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Chargers at Broncos: Winners and Losers

And we’re back.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There are very much two ways to look at yesterday’s loss to the Denver Broncos.

The pessimistic view would be that the Chargers defense couldn’t stop one of the weaker offenses in the league, the Chargers offense had no answer to the No Fly Zone, and it was only the Chargers getting an interception after the ball had somehow bounced off the feet of two players that gave them a chance to make a comeback. Without that freak play, the scoreline would probably have ended up as a closer representation of the performance in the game.

If you prefer to be optimistic, you could point to the fact that the Chargers played by no means their best game, but were still just a blocked FG away from taking the Broncos to OT in Mile High, one of the toughest places to play in the league.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Were there some real causes for concern? Of course there were - and don’t you worry, we’ll get to those - but the performance wasn’t a complete disaster for a Week One game.

There were always going to be problems. Players are never quite sharp for Week One at the best of times, and Keenan Allen hadn’t played more than a handful of meaningful snaps in a football game for nearly two years. Jason Verrett hadn’t had meaningful snaps for close to a year, and is going to need time to put complete faith in his surgically repaired knee. It was natural for there to be rustiness.

This was an OL playing with three completely new starters. Matt Slauson was back, but he’s moved to LG, meaning that the leader key communicator on the OL was Spencer Pulley - who was making his first ever start in the NFL. They were never going to gel immediately.

Sure, it’s disappointing the Chargers are the only team in the AFC West to be 0-1. I completely get the feeling of ‘here we go again’ (and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking that at points during the game). But dropping a game to the best defense in the league on their turf is no embarrassment. The Chargers didn’t play well, they missed some big opportunities, and they still probably should have taken the Broncos to OT. A bad team doesn’t do that.

We’re onto Miami.

Biggest Winners:

1: Kenny Wiggins

Something I didn’t expect to be saying after Week 1: Kenny Wiggins might be the best OL on the roster. Hell, I didn’t even expect Wiggins to still be on the roster by the time the regular season came around.

A few months back, the Chargers wrote their standard offseason hype piece about Wiggins, saying how the veteran wasn’t going to give up his starting job. Everyone laughed, and figured that Wiggins would stay as a starter for a couple of days in camp, slide down the depth chart as Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney overtook him, and eventually get cut with the younger players outplaying him.

Instead, the hype piece was right. Wiggins really wasn’t letting go of that starting spot. Wiggins had a great camp and preseason, Forrest Lamp tore his ACL and Dan Feeney didn’t impress enough to overtake Wiggins, and the veteran (if you can call a guy who’s only started 10 games in his career a veteran) went into Week 1 as the deserved starter.

On paper, Wiggins probably looked like the weak link of an already patchy Offensive Line, but he was superb against Denver. He was pretty good in the running game - he might not have been moving defenders a long way backwards, but he didn’t make many mistakes, and he did a really nice job of getting to the second level more than once to seal off linebackers.

Where Wiggins really excelled, though, was in pass protection. If every lineman had pass blocked like Wiggins had, Rivers wouldn’t have been touched all evening. He was fantastic. Wiggins stonewalled his man consistently, standing his ground well and not letting the rusher disengage from his grasp.

The thing I like most about Kenny Wiggins is that he’s savvy. He’s replaced D.J. Fluker at RG, and the two couldn’t be any more different. Fluker really struggled at adjusting to the defense and picking up stunts, twists or exotic blitzes. Wiggins is great at it. He consistently has his head on a swivel, and always knows who his assignment is. You can often see Wiggins getting a hand on a rusher only to see a blitzer coming, and disengage to go and pick up the new threat.

In another life, Kenny Wiggins is the best secret service bodyguard there is. You want to lay a hand on his client? You sure as hell aren’t going to get there without a fight, no matter how well disguised you might be. If Isaiah Thomas was crouching down behind Yao Ming, Wiggins would know. And then he’d eat Isaiah Thomas.

If Anthony Lynn is serious about giving out the ‘Captain’ job based on performance, Kenny Wiggins should be first in line for the ‘C’ patch against the Dolphins. He came into the league as an UDFA, and he’s been cut six times (three by the Chargers). I can’t think of many 29 year olds with that track record that are still in the league, let alone starting. I have no idea where this new Kenny Wiggins has come from, but I’m not complaining. Long may it continue.

2: Jatavis Brown

Jatavis Brown is going to be one of the best ILBs in the entire NFL. He’s not too far away already.

I only have one word to describe Jatavis Brown against Denver, and that word is ‘monster.’ The box score shows that Brown has 14 tackles, with 11 of them being solo tackles. The problem with box score scouting is it doesn’t tell the whole story. Tackles are a meaningless stat without context, so allow me to provide the context: if the Chargers had beaten Denver, Jatavis Brown’s tackles would have been why.

When I watch a game live, I’m generally too caught up in the moment to specifically take note of individual players on each play, which means that I thought Jatavis Brown had a pretty good day, but nothing special. When I watched it back - oh boy.

The Chargers DL had an okay day against the run, but they weren’t great. Jatavis Brown saved them. There were numerous occasions throughout the game (mainly in the second half) where Brown single-handedly made a run stuff at or around the line of scrimmage. I would give you an exact figure for that (I think it was about 6), but I forgot to write it down and I lost count at some point. (Yeah, I can’t count up to 6. The British Education System isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be.)

Jatavis Brown is supposed to be a LB who specializes in coverage, but one who’s lack of size could make him a vulnerability against the run. Against the Broncos, he was okay in coverage (he gave up a catch on third and long to A.J. Derby that allowed the Broncos to extend their drive), but he was phenomenal against the run. I’m talking Luke Kuechly levels of dominance, at times.

According to Jatavis himself, he put on 15 pounds of muscle this offseason to help fare better against NFL blockers. On the evidence of the Broncos game, that’s as obvious a decision to have made as for a vegan to not eat a hamburger. Even though they taste really good...

It’s just one game, so I’m not going to get carried away (to be honest, right now I just want a hamburger). If Jatavis Brown can keep up this level of performance? I smell a Pro Bowl. At least.

3: Younghoe Koo

Yeah, I’m putting a Kicker who had his vital kick blocked on the list of Winners. I’ll explain.

The Chargers had given Koo a total of ONE kick in preseason, which was a chip shot from 27 yards. There was really no way of telling if he was actually good enough for the NFL, rather than trusting the Chargers staff to have made the right decision - and I trust the Chargers to make the right personnel decision as much as I trust emails from Nigerian Princes.

The good news is, Koo looked great. Every PAT went through right down the middle, and his kickoffs had a lot more distance to them than they did in preseason. He was called upon to make his first ever NFL FG with five seconds left in the game, needing to convert the 44 yarder to tie the game and take it to OT - in primetime with the whole world watching. Sergio Dipp was watching. Rex Ryan was definitely watching. Kickers are his favourite part of the NFL. They use their feet!

The Mile High air might make it easier to kick FGs, but the Mile High crowd certainly doesn’t. They were loud, and they were braying for Koo to miss. He nailed it perfectly. Okay, so Vance Joseph called a timeout and it didn’t count, but he had no way of knowing that. Koo never once looked troubled by the pressure, and that’s a really good sign. The blocked kick wasn’t his fault. Koo did his job perfectly every time he was called upon. Considering he had zero NFL experience up until that game, that’s a win in my book.

Biggest Losers:

1: Ken Whisenhunt

I don’t make a habit of putting coaches on this list (I think I did it once all of last season), but Wiz isn’t getting a pass for this one. He got his gameplan completely wrong and failed to adjust, even when the Chargers were down 21-7 and looking out of the game.

He decided to chip Von Miller with RBs and TEs, which I have no problem with. You can’t defend Von without it. That’s no excuse for ignoring the TEs completely in the passing game.

As good as Von Miller is, the ‘No Fly Zone’ is equal to him. There’s not a team in the league who can test the Broncos CBs and come out on top. If you want to move the ball on them, you have to get the TEs involved. That’s especially true for the Chargers, with Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry presenting a huge mismatch for the Broncos in the passing game. Their LBs and Safeties cannot cover Gates or Henry.

Hunter Henry played 43% of the Chargers snaps. He had 0 targets. Antonio Gates caught two passes, both of which came late on.

I don’t often criticise co-ordinators, because the gameplan is complex, and they usually know what they’re doing as part of the bigger picture. Not this time. Wiz decided that to stop a problem on the Broncos defense, he would remove the one matchup advantage his offense had on the Broncos, and he didn’t deviate from that even when the Chargers offense were clearly floundering.

The initial gameplan calling for the TEs to help protect Rivers is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when your offense is going nowhere and you’ve got one of the best young TEs in football just sitting on the sideline - even though you know he’ll cause the Broncos major problems? That’s inexcusable.

Whisenhunt probably didn’t come under as much criticism as he could have last year, with Mike McCoy and injuries giving him a pass. But this isn’t 2013 anymore. The Chargers offense struggled last year, and his gameplan was really poor on Monday Night. You have to be able to make adjustments when your original gameplan isn’t working, and Whisenhunt didn’t do that on Monday Night.

In his postgame press conference, Anthony Lynn was asked about the lack of targets for the TEs, and his response was: “We have to get those guys more targets. As coaches, we have to do that. We have to find those guys and dial up plays for them. They’re too good players to not get targeted. That’s on us.”

More specifically, it’s on Wiz. I’d bank heavily on the TEs being more involved next week against the Dolphins, but that doesn’t change the loss to the Broncos. Wiz didn’t do his job on Monday Night. That can’t happen again.

2: Gus Bradley/Tom Telesco

Remember how I said I don’t like to put coaches on this list, and that I don’t like to criticise co-ordinators? Yeah, I’ve changed my mind this week.

Hayes Pullard was signed by the Chargers eight days before the game against the Broncos. He’s not a reliable veteran, but a seventh round pick that got cut by the Browns and the Jaguars. Gus Bradley knows Pullard from Jacksonville, so he brings him in. That’s fine. What’s not fine is Hayes Pullard playing 32 snaps.

You know how many snaps Hayes Pullard played last year on defense?

28. For the entire year.

Gus Bradley needs to take the blame for Hayes Pullard, (who, no disrespect intended, is Just a Guy, and not a very good one) playing more snaps than Korey Toomer, who was one of the best players on the Chargers last year and a turnover machine. Pullard did nothing in his 32 snaps. Toomer forced a crucial fumble in his 27.

Toomer isn’t the perfect LB (he misses more tackles than you’d like), but he makes plays every week. Big plays. Turnovers. Hayes Pullard does not. His snap count needs to go way down next week, and Korey Toomer’s needs to go up.

Tom Telesco also needs to share the blame here, because the depth at LB right now is pathetic. The backups are Hayes Pullard, as well as Nigel Harris and James Onwualu, two UDFAs from this year. If there’s an injury to a Charger LB, one of these three becomes a starter. How have the Chargers found themselves in a position where the depth is that bad?

‘Injuries’ isn’t a valid excuse here either, because Denzel Perryman is the only LB banged up. The depth is terrible regardless. It’s Week One. The Chargers are going to get injuries, and the chances are at least one of their starting LBs gets hit. What are the Chargers going to do when that does happen? Play Hayes Pullard next to Nigel Harris or James Onwualu?

If I’m Telesco, I’m on the phone right now trying to strike a trade for another team’s cast-off at LB. They don’t even have to be good. The bar is not set particularly high here. The Chargers just gave 32 defensive snaps to a guy who the Jaguars didn’t even want on their roster. I’d take Manti Te’o back at this point.

Yeah. It’s gotten that bad.

3: Matt Slauson

Joe Barksdale wasn’t great against the Broncos, but he just about did enough to stay off this list, considering the matchup he had. Russell Okung wasn’t great either, but he was serviceable. (Spencer Pulley was actually pretty good). Matt Slauson was the weak link of the OL in Week One.

Matt Slauson suffered from the same syndrome that Joe Barksdale did in his first year as a Charger - the line’s they joined were so bad, being barely competent was enough to get you heralded as a star. Slauson was decent at center last year, but he wasn’t great. He’s moved to LG (a position he’s played in the past), and he really struggled against the Broncos.

Slauson commited a false start on the very first Chargers offensive play, and things didn’t really get much better from there. He was really poor in the run game, which you wouldn’t expect from an old-school, no-nonsense guy like Slauson. He wasn’t moving guys, but was getting moved himself, missing blocks and ending up on the floor far too often. A RB is only as good as the weakest part of his offensive line, and Slauson did Melvin Gordon no favours on Monday.

If the Chargers want to have any hope of making the Playoffs this year, they’re going to need an OL that can create running lanes for Melvin Gordon, and consistently get a push for him so that the Chargers aren’t backed into third and long so often. That didn’t happen against Denver.

The good news is, Matt Slauson can definitely play better than he did against Denver. The bad news is we said that about Joe Barksdale all of last season, and he never took that step up. Let’s hope that Slauson recovers from his rocky start.

4: Dan Feeney

Dan Feeney hasn’t had a great start to his career as a Charger. The team moved him around between Guard and Center in camp, but Feeney didn’t look comfortable in camp or preseason, and wasn’t able to win a starting job. He was always going to get used on Special Teams to earn his stripes, but instead finds himself the villain after being responsible for the blown block that allowed Shelby Harris to deflect Younghoe Koo’s kick.

Here’s a quote from about Feeney on Special Teams, and it makes for grim reading:

“We were kicking [Feeney’s behind] the whole game,” Wolfe said. “We were knocking him back the whole time. Every time they tried to kick a field goal, we were getting a push.”

“Wolfe said he knew what would happen on the kick after the timeout. Wolfe told fellow defensive lineman Shelby Harris that Feeney was going to concentrate on him. Feeney wouldn’t want Wolfe getting through again. The gap inside of Feeney would then be open for Harris, and Wolfe told Harris to attack it.”

Harris did attack it, the gap was open, and Harris was able to deflect Koo’s kick away.

Dan Feeney should absolutely not be used as a scapegoat for this game. He messed up on one play, and the Chargers had multiple other missed opportunities. The worrying thing is that Feeney was getting whipped on every snap.

At this point, I think the best thing for the Chargers to do with Feeney this year is Redshirt him. Ignore the fact that he was a 3rd round pick that they were expecting to contribute this year. He had a ropey camp and struggled badly in his first NFL game. His confidence is going to be in the gutter, and continuing to use him will hurt both him and the team.

Feeney’s struggled so far, but that doesn’t automatically make him a bad lineman or a bust. He’s one game into his NFL career. He might not be as good right now as Chargers fans had hoped he would be, but he was a Day Two draft pick for a reason. This wasn’t a reach - in fact, he very easily could have gone in the 2nd round.

Is it worrying that he’s struggling so far? Absolutely. Would I have been a lot happier if he hadn’t allowed Shelby Harris to block that kick. No, I am a Chargers fan, I know only suffering and sadness Yes. Does that make him a bust? Not a chance.

Just like it’s one week into Dan Feeney’s career, it’s one game into this NFL season. The sky isn’t falling because the Chargers are 0-1.

There are still 15 games left of this season - at least - and the Chargers are going to be competitive. Just sit back, and enjoy the ride.

As much as you can, anyway. They are still the Chargers, after all.