Hello, Bronco fans! It feels good to know your Broncos are 9-2 and have beaten a bonafide playoff contender, doesn’t it? But as we all know, the work isn’t done yet and the Broncos face an opponent that has struggled this season but it isn’t going to go away quietly.
The San Diego Chargers are 3-8 but not for the reasons you may think. It has nothing to do with the offense, even though the offensive line has been hit hard by injuries and most of the linemen have struggled. The only offensive lineman to have started all 11 games this season is Joe Barksdale, while all other linemen have missed multiple games with injuries. As things currently stand, D.J. Fluker did not practice Wednesday as he recovers from a concussion and King Dunlap was limited, after missing several games with an ankle injury.
But despite the O-line woes, Phillip Rivers has played well this season, with 23 touchdown passes to eight interceptions. The one worry for the Chargers is he has been sacked 26 times, which puts him on pace to be sacked 38 times. Under head coach Mike McCoy, Rivers was sacked 30 times in 2013 and 36 times in 2014, after taking a whopping 49 sacks in 2012 (the final year of Norv Turner’s head coaching stint). Certainly that’s not good for his long-term health prospects.
Regardless, Rivers is getting the most out of many players around him. The Chargers did lose their best receiver, Keenan Allen, for the season with a lacerated kidney, but Stevie Johnson has stepped up in his absence and Malcolm Floyd is still a solid player. Of course, Antonio Gates remains a threat at tight end, even if he’s not quite the player he was in his prime, and while fantasy football players may speak of Lardarius Green as a disappointment, Green is actually a solid No. 2 tight end. Given that the Broncos have had issues with defending two tight end sets, that’s something the Broncos will need to find a way to prepare for, especially with T.J. Ward not likely to play Sunday.
At running back, Melvin Gordon has been a disappointment. He’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and hasn’t scored a single touchdown. He’s not likely to be a threat against the Broncos. But the back who will be a threat is Danny Woodhead, who excels in the screen game. He’s caught 52 passes on 67 targets and has averaged 10.9 yards per reception. As a between-the-tackles back, Woodhead isn’t really a standout, but his pass catching is what makes him dangerous. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan will definitely get a workout in covering the screens.
So we know the Chargers offense has playmakers, even with all the injuries they’ve had. What’s the problem with this team, then?
Answer: The defense. Per Pro Football Reference, the San Diego defense has contributed a negative number to expected points in every game this season. Per Football Outsiders DVOA, the Chargers are ranked 30th in defense, 28th against the pass and 32nd against the run. Teams are averaging 4.9 yards per carry in rushing and 7/4 net yards per pass attempt against the Chargers D. Their leading tackler is safety Eric Weddle, their best overall player on the defense. He leads the team with 44 tackles, but when your safety leads the team in tackles, you don’t have a good situation.
The Chargers do have a few defensive players who are solid, but other than Weddle, none of them are standouts, at least not yet. I think Manti Te’o will have a fine career, but he’s not a linebacker who can take control and needs someone who can complement him well. Melvin Ingram is considered to be the Chargers’ all-purpose player on defense, but he’s not somebody who can take over a game. The Chargers do have a promising rookie linebacker, Jeremiah Attaochu, but it will take him time to develop as a pass rusher. Jason Verrett is a good cornerback, although it remains to be seen if he can develop into a true shutdown corner.
Other than that, you have a mix of players who looked good last season, but have been disappointments this season, and players who were never that good to begin with. Corey Liuget, Brandon Flowers, Donald Butler, Kendall Reyes, Jimmy Wilson and Patrick Robinson all fall into one of those two categories.
This is a game in which you might not see the defense come out right away and take the Chargers offense out of the equation. Therefore, the offense needs to start clicking from the opening drive. It’s where the Broncos need to demonstrate they can establish the run early, that Brock Osweiler can get into a rhythm and that the receivers will execute. Demaryius Thomas will need to get past his poor outing against New England, Owen Daniels needs to continue his positive trending and Emmanuel Sanders needs to do the same. I think the Broncos do have the receivers and tight ends who can exploit the Chargers D, but they need to execute.
How the game turns out depends greatly on what the offense does. If the offense can score on its first couple of drives, that should allow Wade Phillips to open things up on defense. But if the offense struggles early, it’s going to be harder on the defense, not just because of injuries to Ward and Sylvester Williams, but because the Chargers offense is good enough to keep the game close.
I do believe the Broncos will win this game, but what we want to see is the offense to put together its best game of the season. We want an offensive outing like we had against Green Bay, not an average outing. A strong offensive showing not only takes pressure off the defense and will allow it to become more effective in disrupting what Rivers likes to do, but it will show that the Broncos can feel more comfortable with Osweiler behind center, and perhaps solidify a decision to go with him as the starter for the remainder of the season.