Colts-Chargers key matchups: LA must slow Indy's tight ends
Jason B. Hirschhorn
In just over 24 hours, the Los Angeles Chargers kick off their season against the Indianapolis Colts. The matchup looks quite different than when the NFL announced it in April, but the game will still come down to personnel and coaching performances.
For the Chargers to finish opening week 1-0, they'll have to win most or all of these key matchups.
Indy's tight ends vs. LA's pass defense
Few teams boast a better combination of tight ends than the Colts. Jack Doyle, a massive "Y" tight end with strong hands and blocking acumen, emerged as one of the better "Y" tight ends in the league in 2016. Eric Ebron, lining up mostly on the wing or in the slot, joined the team a year ago and led tight ends with 13 touchdowns. Together, they present a formidable challenge to the Chargers defense.
A month ago, the Chargers had a fantastic answer to the Colts' duo. All-Pro Derwin James held up well in coverage from the slot or as an off-ball linebacker in 2018 and likely would have spent a sizable portion of the game lined up over the tight ends, Ebron in particular. However, with James sidelined by a foot injury for the foreseeable future, Los Angeles defensive coordinator Gus Bradley will need to scheme more creatively to slow down the tight ends.
The Chargers' primary slot cover man, Desmond King, lacks ideal length to handle Doyle and Ebron's size. King might see some snaps in coverage over the tight ends, but others will need to take on the lion's share of that work. Adrian Phillips, a veteran safety with a versatile skill set, spent 64.5 percent of his snaps in the box a year ago. Though he performed better in run defense, Phillips allowed completions on less than 56 percent of his targets, according to Pro Football Focus. He also produced two interceptions against three touchdowns. Los Angeles can also deploy Thomas Davis, who despite his advanced age still has range and instincts for the job.
Even so, Colts head coach Frank Reich moves Doyle and Ebron around the formation to locate and exploit more favorable matchups. Bradley will have to anticipate those moves to avoid a critical mistake.
LA's O-line vs. Indy's defensive front
At least until Russell Okung returns to health, the Chargers can expect to have issues in pass protection. Second-year man Trent Scott showed improvement during the preseason, allowing just one sack and three total pressures over 64 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Still, he has just one career start under his belt and the defenses famously hold back during the preseason. Against the more exotic blitzes of the regular season, Scott might yield more pressure.
Fortunately for Los Angeles, the Colts will play without starting defensive end Jabaal Sheard Sunday. Sheard, who has missed practice all week with a knee injury, led the team with 57 pressures in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. Still, Justin Houston will make his regular-season debut with Indy. Houston has enjoyed plenty of success against the Chargers over his career, registering 7.5 sacks over 12 games as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Colts run a cover-2 heavy scheme under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus in 2018, his first with Indianapolis. If he doesn't deviate from that approach, that could mean fewer blitzes for which the Chargers' offensive line has to account. But Eberflus has a reputation as one of the bright young defensive minds in the game, and he could throw a few wrinkles in the game plan to throw off Los Angeles.
Keenan Allen vs. Indy's secondary
Perhaps the Chargers have no greater head-to-head advantage over the Colts than Keenan Allen versus the Indy secondary. Allen doesn't stand out physically in the same manner as Julio Jones or Michael Thomas, but he wins with top-shelf route running and production after the catch. Over the last two seasons, Allen has created at 3 yards or more of separation on 34.2 percent of his targets, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Additionally, 38.8 percent of his yardage came after the reception. Allen's savvy, smarts, and slipperiness have made him a difficult assignment for even elite corners.
And the Colts don't have a shutdown cover man to throw at Allen. Cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir served as the team's primary starters last season, and though the two combined for a defensive passer rating of just 83, both lack premier athleticism and speed to make up for coverage mistakes. Allen's slick route-running gives him the ability to exploit either one.
Indianapolis does have a new weapon in their secondary, however. Rock Ya-Sin, a second-round cornerback with a 6-foot frame and a game built on physicality, might match up better with Allen than his veteran teammates. If Ya-Sin can bully Allen at the line of scrimmage and force the wideout off schedule, Philip Rivers and his quick trigger will move on to other targets.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH