First Impressions: Chargers-Saints

| August 28, 2010

In this game I looked at the first 20 or so offensive plays from both teams (21 from the Chargers and 19 from the Saints) before reporting back. For both sides, the offenses looked well in command and held a significant advantage over the opposing defenses. In truth, neither team looked that dissimilar from the 2009 version and barring new halfback Ryan Mathews in the San Diego backfield, the casual observer probably didn’t notice a change in the season. However there were some differences, so let’s have a look at those as well as refreshing ourselves on how the Saints and Chargers operate.

CHARGERS OFFENSE

For San Diego the biggest change, as noted previously, was the rookie Mathews starting in the backfield. He showed good burst to the outside on one play over left end and on another couple showed his power, as he made significant yards after initial contact. He looked marginally uncomfortable in pass protection but as he only stayed in to block on three of the plays I watched, it’s hardly a statistically valid set on which to make judgements. Even so, it does seem that Darren Sproles will retain his third-down responsibilities.

Another significant change was the replacement of holdout LT Marcus McNeill with Brandyn Dombrowski. If anyone was expecting this to be a disaster (like I was, if I’m honest — he had a PFF rating of -18 last year), you’ll have to wait a little while longer because on this evidence the Chargers aren’t going to give him many opportunities to fail. Phillip Rivers was extremely quick to spot the blitz and go to his hot read and also never had any deep passes to throw; everything was quick, safe and pretty well executed on his part at least (Kris Wilson and Malcolm Floyd dropped passes). In the running game, however, Dombrowski actually looked good and on one particular play got to the second level very smoothly and decleated OLB Jonathan Casillas.

With Vincent Jackson out, it looks as if the Chargers are more likely to go to three-TE sets than three wide receivers. Craig Davis only saw the field twice (once when Floyd rolled on his neck and took a couple of plays out), while the second TE, Wilson, was in for 16 snaps and third- stringer Randy McMichael saw four plays. With Antonio Gates rarely lining up as a conventional TE (four plays only out of 20), it seems that he will be expected to take up the slack caused by Jackson’s absence. Legedu Naanee will start at WR, but expect to see the majority of the balls going to Floyd and Gates.

CHARGERS DEFENSE

All the change here was in the secondary, which is disappointing considering just how lackluster the front seven was last year. In the first 19 plays I didn’t spot a single new face up front and that has got to be a concern. Of the starters, only Shaun Phillips showed any ability to get to the QB (PFF pass rush rating +5.8) and in this game, once again, the only real pressure came when the Saints blew a blitz pickup on Eric Weddle.

In the back four, Steve Gregory is now a full-time safety, after sharing time there with Clinton Hart last year. Ex-Jets safety Donald Strickland has taken over Gregory’s other role as slot corner in the nickel package.

Perhaps most importantly, Antoine Cason has come in for departed Antonio Cromartie at RCB, which is also worrying on the basis he couldn’t hold the slot nickel position last year, losing out midseason to Gregory. It’s testament to his lack of ability in run support that when the Saints went one WR he left the field and was replaced by Paul Oliver. I was about to revise that assumption when he came up quickly and took out Reggie Bush‘s legs on a swing pass until, on the very next play, he made one of the weakest efforts at force you’ll see all year, almost falling over himself to avoid Jermon Bushrod as Bush picked up 12 over left end. In coverage he had a mixed showing, staying close to Lance Moore on a go route, defensing a deep ball to Devery Henderson only to see it bounce up for a TD and then getting in some strange mix-up with fellow new boy Strickland for Robert Meacham‘s TD.

OTHER CHARGERS NOTES

Jacob Hester appears to have made the starting role of FB his. Last year he had a broadly similar number of snaps to Mike Tolbert (284 and 301, respectively) but while Tolbert will still get snaps (two of the 21 plays) it seems Hester will take the majority (seven here).

SAINTS OFFENSE

It looks like business as usual for New Orleans, as in 19 plays they used one-, two-, three- and four-WR sets, three different tight ends, rotated running backs on a play-by play-basis and had their FB on the field seven times.

The fantasy guys will have their work cut out for them trying to figure out which Saints receivers will see the most balls, as they ran through a myriad of combinations. For my money, the ratio we saw here (barring injury) may well be the way it pans out:

Jersey # Name Plays % Plays
12 Marques Colston 16 84.2%
16 Lance Moore 11 57.9%
17 Robert Meachem 8 42.1%
19 Devery Henderson 12 63.2%

Last year Zach Strief saw well over 100 snaps as a sixth lineman or TE, as FB Heath Evans and then Jeremy Shockey went down with injury. I was waiting, but this was one of the few things we didn’t see from the Saints as they preferred instead to rotate Shockey, Dave Thomas and ex-Green Bay TE Tory Humphrey in a variety of sets.

Speaking to one of my fantasy counterparts at PFF this week, he gave me his view that after comments in his book about Bush initially not wanting to be in New Orleans, Sean Payton wouldn’t find too many snaps for Bush this year. I’m of an opposite view — the only real blemish on Payton’s “legacy” as an offensive genius is Bush’s relative lack of productivity, and he’ll do everything in his power to check that box too.

Anyway, if he did harbour any long-seated resentment towards the former USC star, he hid it well, giving him more of the ball than Pierre Thomas and three more snaps. It’s debateable if Bush could have done a better job of pass protection on Weddle’s sack but this aside, he looked the part and time will tell how the workload is shared.

SAINTS DEFENSE

If the watch-word on offense was “variety,” then the overriding themes on defense were “base personnel” and “blitz.” Not until the 15th snap did anyone other than the starters take the field, and in this time only once did the Saints not bring extra rushers on passing plays. To be fair, the Chargers’ conservatism not only predicated the packages used but also had a lot to do with no one getting within 6 feet of Rivers.

The only two changes from last year were with Malcolm Jenkins starting at FS for Darren Sharper (who is still struggling after microfracture surgery on his knee) and Jonathan Casillas replacing unrestricted free agent (to Cleveland) Scott Fujita.

Jenkins played the (very) deep safety role and was hardly ever in the picture, except when he was tad slow picking up Floyd on a handoff from Jabari Greer and when he came up quickly in run support to make a sure tackle on Mathews and save a first down. Other than this, you may have thought the Saints only had 10 men on the field.

Bringing Casillas in to partner Scott Shanle at OLB, on the face of it, makes sense. We liked him slightly better than JoLonn Dunbar last year, particularly in run defense (PFF run rating +3.7 vs. 2.1), but he was poor here, getting run over by Dombrowski (as mentioned earlier) and also getting flattened by Hester. He really did go to ground very easily. When partnered with Shanle, who lived up to his PFF billing (overall rating -15.1) by easily losing the corner to Mathews, it’s clear the corners better be on their mettle in the running game.

OTHER SAINTS NOTES

First-round rookie Patrick Robinson played in the nickel package at RCB, with Randall Gay moving to the slot.

The rotation on the DL looks to include DLEs Bobby McCray and Junior Galette, DT Tony Hargrove and, in pass-rush situations, Jimmy Wilkerson rushing from DT.

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