Five Things to Know About the Los Angeles Chargers
The Vikings are heading back to the West Coast this weekend to take on the Los Angeles Chargers, which will complete the AFC West portion of their 2019 schedule.
There will likely be a great deal of purple represented in the stands at Dignity Health Sports Park, which has a capacity of 27,000 that's less than half that of the next-smallest NFL stadium. Given that it won't be a difficult road environment, and that the Chargers are just 5-8 this season, it would be easy to think the Vikings should have little trouble securing the victory they badly need for playoff purposes this Sunday.
That's not necessarily the case. Thanks to their NFL-high eight losses by seven points or fewer, the Chargers have a +38 point differential, which is sixth-best in the AFC and 13th in the NFL. They have talented players all over the roster, and their history suggests that this game will almost certainly be close in the fourth quarter.
Video: Kirk Cousins on Chargers Defense, Philip Rivers
Here are five things to know about the Chargers ahead of this week's game.
1. They have one of the best pass-rush duos in the NFL
The Vikings' ability to protect Kirk Cousins from edge pressure will be one of the biggest storylines to watch on Sunday. In Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, the Chargers boast two excellent pass-rushing defensive ends who can create havoc off the edge. Bosa, the third overall pick in 2016, is eighth in the league with 10.5 sacks this season. Ingram missed a few games this year with injury but is also dangerous, as shown by his 4.5 sacks in a three-game stretch in November.
This should be a great challenge for Vikings tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill, who have been solid this season. Things won't get any easier for them with the Packers' Preston and Za'Darius Smith coming to town in Week 16 and a visit from Khalil Mack to end the season.
2. Their secondary is excellent – and finally healthy
The Chargers defense is allowing the fourth-fewest total yards in the NFL this season, mainly because of a pass defense that gives up just 196.6 yards per game. Bosa and Ingram's rushing ability is a factor of that, as is a secondary that is one of the league's best. Cornerback Casey Hayward is a two-time Pro Bowler who leads the Chargers with eight passes defended. He'll be a tough matchup for Stefon Diggs.
The Chargers also recently got stud second-year safety Derwin James back from injury; he'll be playing in his third game of the season on Sunday. James was one of the league's best safeties as a rookie, recording 105 tackles and 13 passes defended. "He’s a good player," Mike Zimmer said of James. "Plays towards the line of scrimmage most of the time. I’ve always been a big fan of his. He’s one of those game-wrecker kind of guys because he’s big and fast and physical."
Luckily for the Vikings, Adam Thielen is expected to finally return this week.
3. Philip Rivers is dangerous (but mistake-prone) in Year 16
As has been the case every Sunday for the last 14 years, the Chargers will be led by Philip Rivers this weekend. Rivers has been incredibly durable and productive during his career, making eight Pro Bowls and leading the Chargers to the playoffs six times. This year has been a struggle, though. It seems like almost every Chargers game ends with Rivers turning the ball over late in the fourth quarter while trailing by one score. For the season, he has 20 touchdown passes (12th-most in the NFL) and 15 interceptions (3rd). Rivers has the talent to make every throw, but has been inconsistent and made too many mistakes.
"He’s very, very smart," Zimmer said. "He’s always been very smart. He’s always been a great competitor. You think that at some point the arm strength will go down a little bit, but he had a couple bombs [against the Jaguars last week]. He’s going to throw the ball into tight spaces. He’s going to give the receivers a chance."
Kirk Cousins expressed that he has a lot of respect for Rivers, and that he in some ways has tried to model his game after the Chargers QB.
"He's a pocket passer," Cousins said. "He’s not somebody who’s going to beat you with his legs, per se. He’s going to have to do it with his mind, his accuracy, his decision-making both pre-snap and post-snap, and with the arm talent. I think those are things that I’ve tried to have in my game."
4. Rivers has a bunch of dynamic weapons to work with
If Rivers is on his game, the Chargers offense is extremely dangerous. They're fifth in the league in passing yards per game, which is a credit to Rivers but also shows how many pass-catching options they have at several positions. It starts with receiver Keenan Allen, who is an outstanding route runner that they rely on to move the chains. Running back Austin Ekeler leads all players at his position in receiving yards (830) and receiving touchdowns (8). Fellow RB Melvin Gordon is more of a run-first guy but is also utilized in the passing game, and tight end Hunter Henry is a great athlete who has had some big games. Then there's WR Mike Williams, who is the best true deep threat in the league. His 21 yards per catch and eight catches of 40-plus yards both lead the NFL.
5. They cannot be taken lightly – just ask the Packers
If it wasn't clear from the previous four sections, the Chargers have a lot of talent. Their defense can rush the passer and cover receivers, and their offense is loaded with skill-position weapons. What's killed them has been Rivers' mistakes in close games, and their inability to run the ball effectively on offense and stop the run on defense.
But if they put things together for a full game, they have the potential to be one of the better teams in the league. Just ask the Packers, who went to LA in early November and lost 26-11 in a game that was even more of a blowout than the final score suggests. They held the Packers to 184 total yards in that game, sacked Aaron Rodgers twice, and ripped of 6.5 yards per play on offense.
That game was an outlier for the Chargers, and the Vikings are clearly the better team in this matchup. But they're not playing the Lions again this week. The Vikings will have to play at a very high level on both sides of the ball to win this game.