Philip Rivers experienced a mid-career resurgence under new coach Mike McCoy and led San Diego to the playoffs last season. With flexible personnel on offense and an adaptive defense, this team is primed for another postseason
This time last year, we were wondering about Philip Rivers’s long-term future with the Chargers. Team president Dean Spanos had hired a new GM, Tom Telesco, who’d brought in a new head coach, Mike McCoy. The former Broncos offensive coordinator had a very distinct system that, in several critical ways, was antithetical to systems Rivers had worked in under Cam Cameron and Norv Turner. Some peopled snickered when McCoy told Peter King he expected Rivers to complete 70 percent of his passes in 2013.
But then Rivers did. Or almost. He was over that mark entering December but wound up dipping to 69.5 percent (still the highest in the league.) No doubt, the system’s quick, three-step timing passes based largely off pre-snap reads factored heavily in Rivers’s success.
But amidst that success, the Chargers were still 5-7 entering Week 14. That’s when McCoy changed approaches and started pounding the rock. After averaging 27 rushing attempts a game over the first three quarters of the season, the Chargers averaged a staggering 39 in the last quarter. They weren’t particularly explosive, but they were steady enough to control tempo.
With this approach, they reeled off five straight victories, including one in overtime against the Chiefs’ backups, an ugly performance that was quickly forgotten after their road thumping of the Bengals in the wild-card round. They almost came back late in a lethargic performance at Denver before losing that divisional game to a superior Broncos club. All in all, not a bad debut under McCoy.
So which Chargers team will McCoy call on in Year 2? The quick-passing one, or the rock-pounding one? He has virtually the same roster as a year ago (a rarity in today’s NFL), leaving both options on the table.
The guess here: it’ll be the passing one. It’s the most modern and the best fit for San Diego’s personnel. Which is basically to say it’s the best fit for Rivers. In that system, Rivers has extraordinary control at the line of scrimmage. The reason McCoy plays up-tempo is not so much to hurry the defense but to give his quarterback ample time to direct traffic before the snap.
With 2013 offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt now the head coach in Tennessee, new coordinator Frank Reich wants to use more no-huddle. Reich, who spent his playing career in a no-huddle system backing up Jim Kelly in Buffalo, should jibe with Rivers.
They’ll have flexible personnel, which is essential for a good no-huddle. The key force behind that flexibility: the tight end. Not their future Hall of Fame one, but third-year backup Ladarius Green. Green has only 21 catches in 20 career games since entering the league as a fourth-round pick, but his rawness started to fade away down the stretch last season and is expected to be mostly gone come September. He has what Antonio Gates has always had: an ability to “out-athlete” linebackers and safeties, lining up not just at the edge of the formation but also in the slot. This isn’t to say Green will have the success Gates has had, but being what some in the organization describe as the team’s fastest player, he’ll pose similar logistical problems for opponents.
Green’s emergence won’t coincide with Gates’s decline. Even at 34, Gates is still the focal point of San Diego’s passing attack, at least in the eyes of most defensive coordinators. While he’s lost a little speed, quickness and agility, he still has the box-out skills and short-area on-the-move dexterity to be productive. Last season, Gates drew the majority of double-teams. With Green expanding in what should be a two-tight end base, double-teaming the eight-time Pro Bowler may prove more expensive in 2014.
Chargers Report: The Word of the Day is ‘Confidence’
A lot of double-teams going to a tight end benefits pass-catchers out of the backfield. Usually that will be Danny Woodhead, whose 76 receptions last season trailed New Orleans’s Pierre Thomas by one for the league lead among running backs. While Ryan Mathews, coming off a career-best 1,255-yard season, is the feature runner, Woodhead is the more significant piece in a flex scheme. Besides running angle-routes out of the backfield (a staple tactic of McCoy’s, often coupled with a tight end shallow cross), Woodhead is effective from any wide receiver spot, especially in a 3 x 2 empty set. And thanks to sharp lateral agility and low-to-the-ground balance, he’s a surprisingly potent ball-carrier, including between the tackles. His willingness and aptitude in pass protection are also pluses.
It was surprising that Telesco signed Donald Brown in free agency. Telesco was part of a Colts front office that drafted Brown in the first round five years ago, which means he was part of a Colts front office that also saw his first-round investment toil in mediocrity. Brown improved over his last two years in Indy, but with Mathews heading the ground game and Woodhead heading the passing game, it’s hard to see where his reps will come. Maybe he was signed more for 2015; Mathews is in the final year of his contract and still carries the label “injury prone” even after having just played in all 16 games for the first time as a pro.
Another reason to think McCoy will go back to more quick-passing and less heavy set running is the Chargers don’t have a particularly special offensive line. It’s an overachieving group that’s better at road-grading than pass-blocking. In a quick-striking aerial attack, pass-blocking is less relied upon. Which is why the Chargers are willing to start King Dunlap at left tackle. Last year’s first-rounder, D.J. Fluker, looks cut out for a long-term right tackle role given that he’s monstrous in the ground game but has slow footwork and hip flexibility when backing up. Between the tackles are guards Chad Rinehart (who may not be better than nasty utility backup Rich Ohrnberger) and either rookie Chris Watt, Jeromey Clary (on PUP all camp) or Johnnie Troutman (coming off a quietly solid sophomore season). At center is Nick Hardwick, one of the best pre-snap signal-callers in the league.
That makes two, as Rivers last year was better in the pre-snap phase than every quarterback not named Peyton Manning. This year a lot of his pre-snap work will focus around Keenan Allen, a superb intermediate route runner entering just his second season. Allen’s fundamentals and knack for making wide-radius catches late in the down should translate to around 85 receptions in 2014. Working opposite him hopefully will be Malcom Floyd, if the gangly deep-threat can come back from a career-threatening neck injury. If he can’t, Vincent Brown again will play a bigger role. No 4 wideout Eddie Royal is strictly a gadget slot player.
Just like we can’t pinpoint what San Diego’s exact offensive approach will be in 2014, we can’t pinpoint the defense either. With John Pagano, you never quite know. The longtime Chargers assistant and third-year coordinator is one of the best defensive game-planners and play-callers in the NFL.
Last year Pagano was effective with various blitz packages and dime-based coverage disguises in his 3-4, and that will be the case again. Exactly how he gets into these ploys is the mystery.
He has much better personnel to work with this time around. His two most explosive edge players, Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram, are back after missing most of 2013 with injuries. Freeney, however, is coming off a torn quad, something particularly challenging for a 34-year-old. Making the necessary long-term arrangements, Telesco spent a second-round pick on the future Hall of Famer’s replacement, Jeremiah Attaochu, who hopefully will only have to play a complementary role this season. Prior to the Week 4 quad injury, Freeney had shown his old speed-to-power combustibleness while adjusting to a new 3-4 outside linebacker position. If he can recapture that, this defense could be terrorizing, as there is a great diversity in the players around him.
The most diverse is Ingram, who has a burst off the edge and can also work laterally through traffic against the run and drop back to cover the flats (see his crucial playoff pick of Andy Dalton). Ingram should assume an every-down role this season, relegating Freeney to third-down duties behind Jarret Johnson, another versatile player whose forte is setting the edge.
Cleaning up Johnson’s edge-setting will be inside backers Manti Te’o and Donald Butler. Te’o’s energy and effort exceed his physical abilities, which means he must read the field better if he’s to have a long career. Butler, with solid all-around speed, is more of a playmaker. He’ll have plenty of opportunities if the defensive line—strong on the edges with nimble Kendall Reyes and powerful Corey Liuget but questionable in the middle with 3-4 utility lineman Sean Lissemore at nose tackle—can play to its full potential. That may be a lot to ask, though, given the paucity of quality backups to spell these guys.
Something else Pagano has that he didn’t last season are corners who can play man-to-man. One is veteran Brandon Flowers; the other is first-round rookie Jason Verrett. Flowers brings physicality along the boundary. The undersized Verrett relies more on athleticism and figures to play the slot. He’ll initially do so in nickel, assuming he beats out heady but unsteady Richard Marshall. Incumbent outside starter Shareece Wright will get a crack at the No. 2 job. Wright slogged through most of last season, often playing with a debilitating cushion in off-coverage. But, like the rest of this team, he came on strong down the stretch, using his lanky build advantageously.
Having man-to-man corners is a huge coup for a coordinator who excels at calling coverage disguises tailored to the opposing quarterback’s tendencies. Pagano’s disguises have often had to hide his corners. Now, they can accentuate them. And with the man-to-man factor, there’s more leeway for moving the safeties.
Expanded leeway for Eric Weddle is like an expanded strike zone for Clayton Kershaw. There may not be a better five-tool safety in the game right now. Teaming with Weddle, often in centerfield (though possibly over the slot in nickel), is Marcus Gilchrist, who will be more comfortable now that he’s a year removed from converting from cornerback to safety. Also keep an eye on Jahleel Addae, an undrafted second-year pro who is viable in dime packages.
Nick Novak was like virtually every kicker in 2013: highly successful. He made 34 of 37 attempts and was 11 of 11 from beyond 40 yards. Mike Scifres might be the best placement punter in the game. Last season he left 30 balls inside the 20 and had just one touchback. Keenan Allen is too valuable to keep using on punt returns, and Danny Woodhead is arguably too valuable to use on kicks. The Chargers have a good all-around return man in Eddie Royal; they should use him.
This was a 7-9 caliber team last season that managed to go 9-7. Now it’s a 10-6 caliber team that should contend for another playoff berth.