With the Rams, 49ers, Chargers and Raiders all offering compelling storylines and the promise of the playoffs, 2018 is shaping up to be the most anticipated season ever for pro football in California. The MMQB’s Andy Benoit is diving into those storylines for our special offseason project: California Week. Check back regularly for more.
COSTA MESA, Calif. — Philip Rivers gets out of his chair and starts gesticulating wildly, like he’s at the line of scrimmage with the play clock ticking down. We’re watching film on my iPad in a lounge outside the Chargers’ locker room, and this isn’t the first time he’s vacated his seat, enthusiasm taking over.
“It’s the game within the game that makes it so awesome,” he says. “To me, the most fun games are where we get in the no-huddle, we get in kind of a groove and the defense has a Mike linebacker who can go no-huddle with you.
“I remember going against Sean Lee, and it was that. It was that. I checked and he would check. And it was, ‘Golly! Hey, reload that.’ And he would try to get to something else. That was fun. There’s that back and forth and, ‘Gosh, you got me here, but now I got you.’ I thought he was getting to this, but he got to that.’ Those types of games, when there’s a guy over there who’s in the same mold preparation-wise, study-wise, that’s the most fun”
Rivers is in arguably the best position of his career. He’s shown no sign of physical decline entering Year 15, when he’ll be leading a rising Chargers team that many are picking to win the AFC West. People inside the organization say his passion and football mind are the most impressive they’ve ever seen, and people outside say that’s why he should be regarded as at least the second best QB from that vaunted 2004 class.
We bring up a play from that game against the Cowboys, Thanksgiving 2017. It was the day’s fourth snap—well before the no-huddle cat-and-mouse game ensued.
“We’re running scissors with [Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin], which is pretty simple. Dallas played a 2-high coverage with both Quarters and Cover-2 principles. Safety [Jeff Heath’s] width suggested we could get Travis over the top on this thing. It was Thanksgiving so we didn’t have much time to prepare. But we did talk about whether we might get this coverage. We’d get Travis running right down the middle.”
“So, when we lined up, we bring in [running back] Austin Ekeler, it’s kinda starting to take shape. I’m going, ‘Goodness, gracious, that safety and cornerback, they’re communicating. Boy, maybe we’re gonna have Travis over the top of this thing.’”
“Because of that, I didn’t really hate [getting flushed from the pocket and] having to move right. Certain times you go, ‘Gosh, I’m gonna have to sit in here if I wanna throw to Travis on, say, a corner route.’ But in this instance it’s like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna move with it. I think I’m gonna get it.’”
Often with Rivers, a play like this is just a byproduct of presnap preparation.
“First thing, and it’s really one of my favorite things, is the protection part. Who everybody is blocking and where the pressure is coming from. Because if we can’t get the ball off, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing out here. There wasn’t a lot to this particular one.” With only three defensive linemen on the field, “we had to decide, ‘How do we want to treat this? Do you treat this like four downlinemen or like four downlinemen? [That decision] totally changes your calling, changes where you’re zoning and where your man-blocking side and all that stuff is. So here, I go ‘Oh shoot”, if [LB No. 57, Damien Wilson] had No. 92 on his jersey, we wouldn’t be having to communicate so much, right? (He’d just look like one of four downlinemen—pretty simple.) “But instead we had to make the call, ‘Hey, 57 is down.’”
Then Rivers called running back Austin Ekeler into the formation so he could chip-block stud defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.
I ask Rivers if a chip-block must always be built into the play as an option, or if he can just call for it once he sees things at the line of scrimmage.
“Oh, sure, you can call it yourself. I can say ‘Hey, chip him and run your sneak route.’ Or I may tell the tight end, ‘Hey, give that defensive end a little bit on your way out.’”
It works because that tight end or running back is usually the checkdown option. It’s O.K. if a checkdown receiver waits an extra second before releasing into his route because those routes only travel a short distance and don’t often occur on a strict timing-and-rhythm schedule.
This understanding is part of why Rivers, along with Tom Brady, is the best checkdown passer in the NFL. That might seem small, but it’s not. Checkdowns turn incompletions into gains—and sometimes substantial games.
“[Former coaches of Rivers] Cam Cameron and Norv Turner coached the heck out of that,” says Rivers. “Both of them liked deep shots and chunk plays, but they always said, ‘Tailback! Don’t forget your tailback. Tailback!’ That was ingrained in me early. It’s a short throw, long run a lot of times.
“We played Baltimore a few years ago. Elvis Dumervil was there. We got to a point in the game where [running back] Danny Woodhead just made sure he was on Dumervil’s side wherever he was.
“It was funny. One time, Danny came over and Dumervil went to the other side. So Danny follows him back over to that side. Dumervil says to me, ‘Can I just get one?’ I said, ‘No, all day you’re gonna get chipped!’”
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For the next play, we pull up another long completion against a two-deep safety look: Keenan Allen’s 50-yard catch near the end of the Week 4 Eagles game.
“Keenan’s so good at these in-cuts,” Rivers says. “It’s just a high-low. Hunter Henry’s sitting here to [occupy linebacker Jordan Hicks], then we have the shallow route coming underneath Hicks. “My eyes go on 23 [safety Rodney McLeod]. Is he gonna slough off here and make me throw the shallow route to Tyrell Williams? Or is he just driving on the in-breaking route? If he drives, you think, ‘All right, I got room to lay this around him.’”
McLeod leaves his zone and drives so hard on Henry’s route that he practically busts the coverage. Rivers waits and hits Allen on the wide-open in-breaker. “I like to complete these in-routes out wider than this normally. Because you’re not quite sure what you got back in the secondary.”
It looked like Quarters coverage (aka Cover 4), with each defensive back taking a fourth of the field, but McLeod’s aggression suggests it may have been something else.
“So it’s funny you say that because this coverage has gotten more popular in the last four of five years,” Rivers explains. “We would call this 9-Buzz. For us, 9 means Cover 3 to the weak side.” In other words, it starts out looking like Cover 4, with both safeties deep. But when the safety on the side away from the tight end rotates down, it becomes Cover 9.
“This coverage is coming in, a lot of teams are playing it,” Rivers says. “Kansas City plays it, our guys play it. And it does have a Cover 4 element to it, especially if you run three vertical routes, because then McLeod is gonna stay deep to defend that. By moving, he’s kind of that buzz safety as we call him. He kind of becomes a robber in there.”
• WELCOME TO CALIFORNIA WEEK: Our series on why the 2018 NFL season is shaping up to be the best ever for the state of California.
For the last play, I ask Rivers to choose between a deep completion to Tyrell Williams from earlier in the Eagles game or his red zone interception to safety Darian Thompson in Week 5 against the Giants.
“Oh, yeah. I threw it right to him,” Rivers says. “Let’s do that one.”
We pull it up.
“So this is Cover 4. Going into the game we knew that they do that and it was just a matter of executing.”
“We have to be aware of the backside safety [Landon Collins]. As the X-receiver [Tyrell Williams] is running the shallow, that safety now has no threat vertically. So now this safety knows, ‘Gosh, I gotta help on Antonio Gates down the middle.’ Whereas let’s say Tyrell’s running a corner route, that would hold Collins a little more. [Which means] Thompson may have to be a little more occupied by the tight end who’s caught 112 career touchdowns.” Rivers points to Gates and smiles. “But Thompson feels his buddy Collins coming to get Gates, so Thompson can now fall off and take Keenan Allen.”
I thought maybe the linebacker carrying Gates down the middle is what freed up Thompson. “Yes, he’s carrying him, but he’s dead to me,” Rivers says. “This Mike linebacker’s dead.”
You would be comfortable throwing to Gates even with that linebacker smothering him?
“Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. High and around in the back end zone. You like your chances on that.”
We see Rivers throw for Allen and Thompson intercept it.
“This is just lack of execution on my part. Right now, I should be throwing to Williams. And this is the sort of thing we talk about; after the game, [offensive coordinator] Ken Whisenhunt and Shane Steichen, our quarterback coach, we said to each other, ‘We should know when the backside safety is going to push over to help inside,’ and we did know.’” To prevent Collins from helping over the middle, the Chargers could have kept Williams on some sort of vertical route on Collins’s side of the field.
In Rivers’s mind, Collins’s tendency to help inside is as much about Collins as it is the Giants’ scheme. “More than ‘Oh, that’s Cover 4 and that’s 9-Buzz, or that’s that,’ it’s about, ‘How does this guy play it?
“It’s attacking specific opponents and getting a feel for their body language and their movements. Because some people will tell you ‘Well, that concept wouldn’t be good versus that coverage.’ But you go, ‘Yeah, but it’s going to be good versus this GUY.’ Because we know what he’s seen, and he knows how we do it. So, gosh, let’s set him up. Let’s invite him to think, ‘Here this comes. They really think they’re gonna be able to throw this in here?’” Rivers smiles again. “We want you to think that.”
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