After spending most of the season as an afterthought, receivers Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson proved to be the key to San Diego beating Tennessee 17-6 and advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. The duo combined for 11 receptions for 235 yards and a touchdown against a Titans defense geared to stop the run. And their explosive output allowed the Chargers to overcome the early loss of tight end Antonio Gates.
This is the impact general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner envisioned when they acquired Chambers in a midseason trade with the Dolphins. Chambers was languishing in Miami's vertically challenged offense, and when San Diego lost receiver Eric Parker for the season, it turned out to be the best thing for Chambers and the Chargers. It took a while for him to jell with the offense, but now San Diego realizes what it has in Chambers.
"Chambers is a much better player than I thought," receiver coach James Lofton said. "His explosiveness and speed has given us an added dimension in the passing game".
San Diego started taking advantage of Chambers' skills toward the end of the season by incorporating more vertical routes into their game plan. Chambers responded by hauling in 15 passes for 279 yards (18.5 ypc), with two touchdowns during the last month of the season. The Chargers averaged more than 30 points during that span and entered the playoffs confident they had an effective counter to the eight-man fronts they would face in the playoffs.
Turner depended on Chambers to help loosen up the Titans' eight-man looks all afternoon on Sunday. Chambers finished with six receptions for 121 yards, helping the Chargers (68 total rushing yards) overcome a less-than-dominant ground performance.
Jackson, who entered the contest averaging only 38 receiving yards per game, produced his first 100-yard game of the season (five receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown). Without Gates on the field and with the Titans in man coverage, the Chargers threw more deep crossing routes and comebacks to Jackson. Turner showed a lot of faith in the third-year receiver, saying he was playing "at a real, real high level."
The duo, who became only the third Chargers tandem to each surpass 100 receiving yards in a playoff game, will continue to be important factors in the passing game with Gates nursing a sprained toe and questionable next week against the Colts.
"It will be different challenge for us next week," Chambers said of the Colts. "When Gates went down in the middle of the game, it was too late for the Titans to revamp their game plan. But the Colts will have a week to prepare for us, so we have to be ready to step up."
At the very least, Chambers and Jackson have given the Colts' coaching staff something to think about. And just maybe that would help LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers ballcarriers come back next week for a much tougher game.
• Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow effectively ran the football at the Chargers' highly touted defense by incorporating more single-back sets into the game plan. By using a mixture of double tight end sets and three-receiver formations, Tennessee was able to limit the eight-man looks the Chargers could use to defend the running game. Though the Titans weren't able to upset the Chargers, their success on the ground out of single-back sets will surely be copied by the Colts next week.
• The Titans held Tomlinson to only 42 yards on the ground by using a simple, but effective eight-man front. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz alternated between man-free coverage and traditional three-deep zone to keep an additional defender in the box. Though many teams shy away from that defense due to the explosive presence of Gates, the Titans' Michael Griffin possesses the skills to make the defense work. The rookie, showing signs of being a Pro Bowl-caliber player, was all over Gates during the early stages of the game, enabling the rest of the defense to focus on Tomlinson. Again, look for Indy to watch tape on this strategy very closely this week.