Like we do every year, we’ll be speaking with members of our sister sites each week to gain some insight into the Chargers’ upcoming opponent. For week one, we caught up with Andrew York of Hogs Haven to talk about this Sunday’s matchup between these two rising franchises.
Let’s get into it.
1. It’s the season opener and there’s plenty of storylines to focus on in this matchup. Above all, what’s the most-exciting thing about this week’s game (to you personally or the fan base) and why?
Andrew York: The most exciting thing in a “makes me nervous” sense is seeing how the offense functions with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. The offense has looked pretty lackluster in the preseason, but it’s only the preseason and Ron Rivera seems confident in what he sees in practice. Almost anything would be an improvement over what we had last year, which was one of the worst-ranked offenses in the NFL according to most metrics. Fitzpatrick has been a volatile QB in his career, but if he can capture a bit of the Fitzmagic he’s shown the last 2 years and the defense looks as good as last year, we should have a competitive team.
We will also be excited to see how the defense performs. Our expectations are higher there, but although we had a very good defense last year, it should be even better this year with very little turnover and what should be a few upgraded positions. In particular, our defensive line should be elite, so we’re hoping that will be evident on the field. Chase Young and Montez Sweat will make very good pass rushing bookends to the line, but the interior should be able to wreak some havoc with Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and getting Matt Ioannidis back from injury last year.
2.) The Washington defensive line is full of first-round talent and elite athleticism. If you were the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, how would you go about attacking the defense? Where are the weak spots on that side of the ball, if any?
York: The weak spot on the defense is definitely the linebacker corps. It’s still a little unclear exactly what the starting order will be there, but it will probably be some mix of Cole Holcomb, Jon Bostic, and Jamin Davis. Cole Holcomb was taken in the 5th round of the 2019 draft. He’s got tremendous athleticism and will probably be the best of the bunch on Sunday, but he’s still a 3rd year player and 5th round pick, so it’s fair to say he’s “unproven.” Jon Bostic is a veteran NFL journeyman; competent and able to recognize offensive looks, but not a remarkable starter. Jamin Davis was our 1st round pick this year and while he has tremendous athleticism, he’s very raw and has shown hesitation so far in the preseason. If I were an offensive coordinator, I’d use lots of matchups designed to exploit the linebackers in coverage. Lots of short passes to WRs on crossing routes or to TEs or pass-catching RBs exploiting the middle of the field. That would also serve to negate our pass rush.
3.) Similar to the last question, if you were the Chargers’ defensive coordinator, how would you go about defending the Washington offense? What can the defense expect to see come Sunday?
York: This is a little tougher to answer, because we may (should!) have a very different offense under Fitzpatrick, one that features more downfield passing. However, we haven’t seen much of that offense in the preseason, whether due to problems in execution or the coaches wanting to hide their plays. Washington has a deep RB group and I would expect them to go run heavy if the score allows it. I would also expect them to use WRs Terry McLaurin and Dyami Brown (a 3rd round pick this year) to stretch the field and use the occasional deep strike to keep the defense honest and stop you from loading up the box.
As a DC, I would attack the left side of the offensive line. Our LT Charles Leno Jr (formerly of the Bears) has looked like the weakest link on the OL, so I would send any blitzes and additional pressure to the left side of the line, rather than towards All Pro RG Brandon Scherff and rookie RT Sam Cosmi (who has looked really good in the preseason). I would also test how well I’m able to get pressure early in the game and start loading the box against the running game if the pass rush prevents Washington from long-developing plays.
4.) Besides the obvious players of Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson, and Chase Young, who are some other impact players on either side of the ball that you expect to have a potential breakout season in 2021?
York: On offense, my choice would be TE Logan Thomas. Signed as a free agent from the Lions last year, he is making a position switch from QB to TE so he is rather raw, but he’s been flashing more and more talent over time and visibly developed over the course of last season. His athleticism is through the roof, as he compares athletically to Rob Gronkowski. My sense from the preseason is that he’s become a trusted target of Ryan Fitzpatrick and the coaches want to feature him in the passing game. Another player to mention is RT Sam Cosmi, who is a 2nd round rookie, but has shined as PFF’s highest graded rookie OT of the preseason.
On defense, I would say DE Montez Sweat and LB Cole Holcomb. Sweat plays DE opposite Chase Young and has looked really good in the preseason, garnering a lot of 1-on-1 matchups with teams choosing to double and triple team Young. I think he’ll have a breakout year both due to his own development and due to the attention Young demands. Although I described Holcomb as “unproven” before (and he is), he compares athletically to Luke Kuechly and really started to flash in limited starts last year. He will have plenty of opportunity this year given the relatively weak state of our LB group, so I think he will be our most productive LB this year if he continues to develop.
5.) Give us a final score prediction and a few sentences on how you believe the game will go this Sunday.
York: These predictions are always tough, particularly in week 1. Both teams have good defenses and both teams have QBs learning a new system. Ultimately I’d give the edge to Justin Herbert over Ryan Fitzpatrick, but I think it could be a tough game for both QBs. I think the DL will win their matchup with OL on both sides to get pressure on the QB, so there could be a lot of sacks and risky throws. I think the key to moving the ball for Washington will be the running game, whereas I think the Chargers will go more pass heavy, with more talent in their passing game than running game (with Austin Ekeler injured). Ron Rivera teams also typically start slow and get better as the season wears on. Ultimately, I think it will be a somewhat low-scoring game and the Chargers will win by a field goal or less, maybe 20-17.