Football is finally back and just to torture Chargers and Texans fans a little more, the NFL is making them wait until the very last game on Monday night to see their favorite teams in action. Houston is looking to build on two straight playoff appearances, while San Diego is looking to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season.
It was an eventful offseason for the Chargers under new GM Tom Telesco. San Diego parted ways with big names like Louis Vasquez, Quentin Jammer, Shaun Phillips, Antoine Cason, and Takeo Spikes. They countered by bringing in starters King Dunlap, Dwight Freeney, and Derek Cox through free agency, along with draft picks D.J. Fluker and Manti Te’o (Manti likely won’t play in this game though with a foot injury). Adding to that roster turmoil is a new head coach in Mike McCoy and a new offensive coordinator in Ken Whisenhunt. The Chargers are hoping that tandem can breath life back into a Chargers offense that had one of its worst years since Philip Rivers took over as the starter.
The Texans’ roster experienced sufficiently less turnover than the Chargers, and that should come as no surprise for a team coming off of a 12-4 record. The most notable losses were Glover Quin and Connor Barwin, while GM Rick Smith made only one flashy move by signing Ed Reed. For the most part, the Texans are hoping that the return of Brian Cushing, the drafting of DeAndre Hopkins, and the development of young players is enough to push them over the top.
So who’s ready for some football? It will be interesting to see how Rivers and McCoy mesh while having to deal with the two-headed monster of Cushing and J.J. Watt. Houston is favored, but I believe these three key matchups will determine the outcome.
Shareece Wright and Derek Cox will have their hands full in their first starts for the Chargers on Monday night. They’ll be matched up against the physically imposing duo of DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson. Johnson is fresh off one of the best seasons of his career, at age 31. In 2012, Johnson led all wide receivers in Yards Per Route Run, at 3.01, and collected the second-most yards (1598) in the league despite having the fifth-most targets (159).
The Chargers have a big question mark on their hands with Wright. The third-year corner has played only 124 snaps in two seasons since being selected in the third round out of USC. He’s impressed in that limited time, allowing a mere 70 yards total in those snaps with two passes defensed, but it’s such a small sample size that it’s difficult to project to this season. The good news is that in the preseason he was solid and allowed a Yards per Coverage snap of 0.94.
The former Jaguar playing opposite of Wright may be just as big of a question mark. At times Cox has showed innate man coverage ability, like the 2011 season where he gave up just nine catches on 28 targets in 197 coverage snaps. Then there’s times like the Detroit game last season where Calvin Johnson burned him to the tune of 121 yards on eight of nine targets. Chargers fans have to hope Cox can get back to that 2011 form Monday night and not give up 11 catches for 135 yards like he did the last time he faced the Texans.
By now we all know how good J.J. Watt is. The No. 1 player on PFF’s Top 101 turned in a season for the ages last year. What we don’t know is how good Jeromey Clary and D.J. Fluker will be at right guard and right tackle respectively. Those two have been given the undesirable task of trying to block the man that is synonymous with batted passes, and it will be quite the introduction for both.
Fluker will be making his first start in the NFL after being drafted 11th overall out of Alabama, while Clary will be starting at guard for the first time in his career after seven seasons at right tackle. Neither player was a smash hit this preseason, with Fluker grading at +1.6 and Clary at -0.9 in 90 snaps each. Both struggled in pass protection though, with Fluker having a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 94.6 and Clary of 92.9. It’s going to take the A-game from each to help keep Watt in check, along with some scheme help. They may not be able to completely stop Watt, but any semblance of containment will go a long way toward the Chargers’ chances at victory.
The most talented duel on the field for this one will take place on the left side of the line when the Texans have the ball. The 13th-ranked player in the 2012 PFF Top 101 Duane Brown will be taking on three-time All-Pro Dwight Freeney. Even though the sacks were down for Freeney last season, he was still effective rushing the passer. His 33 hurries were the third-most among 3-4 outside linebackers, while his 8.8 PRP ranked ninth. At 33 years of age, though, there is certainly some concern about declining production.
If Freeney doesn’t get the job done on Monday night it won’t necessarily be because of fading ability. It could just be that he’s going against one of the best in the game. Brown was drafted in the first round back in 2008, the first season of PFF grading, and his career arc has been remarkable. The Texans left tackle has been the starter since Day 1 and has seen his PFF grade improve every season. From -14.0 in 2008 to +45.4 in 2012, Brown has been the model of continual improvement. It’s a trend Texans fans are hoping doesn’t stop any time soon.
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