The San Diego Chargers are back at home after a momentous road triumph at Kansas City and find themselves in the thick of the muddled AFC wild card picture. Six teams in the AFC are 5-6 and vying for the last playoff spot in the AFC, and the Chargers will need to keep winning to keep their hopes alive. With four of their last five games at home, starting with this weekend’s tilt with the Bengals, the Chargers have as good a shot as any of the 5-6 contenders.
Visiting the West Coast for the only time this season, the Bengals are coming off a Week 12 bye and lopsided victory against the Browns at home in Week 11. Cincinnati still needs to win a few more games to tie up the AFC North divisional title, and has an outside shot at a first-round bye if they get some help. The offense has displayed poor form recently, and Jay Gruden will hope the extra preparation time pays off as they face one of the worst-graded defenses in the NFL.
Which Dalton Will Show?
The Bengals have watched Andy Dalton struggle in three straight games since he made the PFF Team of Week 8 with his highest-graded game ever. In Weeks 9 and 10, Dalton’s 118 drop-backs were by far the most for any two-game stretch of his young career, and the results included his worst-graded game so far. Dalton brings his Jekyll-and-Hyde act to San Diego against the worst pass coverage team in the NFL. Over the last three games, Dalton’s Accuracy Percentage has been in the 60s, lowering his overall Accuracy Percentage this year to 72.1%, which ranks 19th in the league. He’s seen a bit more pressure than he is accustomed to as the Bengals faced the fierce Baltimore and Miami pass rushing attacks, which is significant when you consider his recent slump. But considering the Chargers’ coverage woes, combined with a mediocre pass rush by the numbers, the Bengals hope the good Dalton can emerge this week.
For the Chargers’ secondary, Eric Weddle is alone in the “green.” Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall, who both played over 80% of Week 12’s game, will likely be the cornerbacks to contend with big play threats A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. Wright has the worst coverage grade for any cornerback, while former starter and rotational corner Derek Cox is second-worst in that category. Marshall is a bit better in the grades, but is allowing a 76.3% catch rate on 38 targets and is still well into the negative for coverage. As a team, the Chargers have been especially generous on the Bengals’ most frequent throw, the hitch route, allowing 83.3% of those passes to be completed.
They’re not getting much help up front, either. Ravaged by injuries to Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram, Larry English, and Jarrett Johnson on the defensive front, the Chargers only have Corey Liuget left with a significantly positive pass rushing grade. Reggie Walker, who moved from inside linebacker, Tourek Williams, and Thomas Keiser have all struggled to apply much consistent pressure from the outside as replacements. Thrust into a starting position where consistent pressure may save the secondary, they will face the second-best pass blocking offensive line in the league by our Pass Blocking Efficiency rankings.
Philip Rivers vs. Cincinnati Secondary
Philip Rivers, not Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, has the highest passing grade in the NFL this year and has the Chargers on top of the passing offense leaderboard. He leads the league in completion percentage at 71%, second in Accuracy Percentage at 79.3%, and ranks in the Top 5 in yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns, and yards in the air. Rivers is getting rid of the ball faster than he did in 2012, and is among the 10 fastest QBs to attempt a pass. He’s spreading it around well to Danny Woodhead, Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, and emerging weapon Ladarius Green who is averaging 22.1 yards per catch. The Chargers have been extremely effective in the intermediate part of the field, where Rivers is 70-of-102 for 1,224 of his yards, nine of his touchdowns, and a combined +27.8 grade.
Facing a Bengals defense that has recently jumped to the upper reaches of pass coverage rankings, Rivers and his weapons will face another test after facing Kansas City’s vaunted defense last week. The Chargers love attacking the middle of the field with crossing routes, in routes, and slants, and involve Woodhead out of the backfield. The Bengals have only allowed a 51.4% completion percentage on crossing routes, where Rivers is completing 78% of his passes on 59 attempts – his most popular throw. One challenge for the Bengals will likely be covering the Chargers’ 12 personnel, used more in recent weeks. Vontaze Burfict leads all 4-3 outside linebackers with .63 Yards Allowed per Coverage Snap and has yet to allow a touchdown in coverage, and will likely take the lion’s share of Woodhead duty. That leaves a combination of Gates and Green for another linebacker or safety, and Green has really seized his opportunity with increased playing time in the last two weeks. This is the strength-on-strength matchup of the game, and Woodhead against Burfict could be the wildcard.
Can San Diego Stop the Run?
The Chargers’ run defense allows 4.9 yards per carry and is vulnerable to runs to the B and C gaps, where opposing teams have run 105 times for 577 yards, about 5.5 yards per carry. Rookie inside backer Manti Te’o has missed five tackles in the running game, producing a poor Tackling Efficiency that sees him miss a tackle every 6.4 tries when he’s defending the run. Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget are toward the bottom of the leaderboard in Run Stop Percentage for 3-4 defensive ends at 3.6% and 3.0%, respectively. Sean Lissemore is the best run defender on the team by grade and Run Stop Percentage, where he’s logged nine stops on 54 run defense snaps – but Lissemore is only on the field for 20% of his team’s defensive snaps. Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist, perhaps as a result of the run defense in front of them, have both been within eight yards of the line of scrimmage on over 40% of opponents’ run snaps, making the Chargers one of a handful of teams that can say that about both starting safeties. Neither have been particularly effective as run stoppers despite their play in the box.
The Bengals haven’t consistently had good run blocking, especially from its tight ends. Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth are the only Bengals linemen with positive run blocking grades, and Zeitler looks doubtful to play due to a foot injury from Week 11. There’s still the possibility for some success, though, as the Bengals’ running back tandem has been effective in the speed/power roles you’d expect from them.
Rookie of the Year candidate Giovani Bernard has been electric in the passing game and has flashed brilliance as a runner as well. His 48.1 Elusive Rating ranks 10th among backs with at least 100 touches, tied with LeSean McCoy. More effective on outside runs, Bernard averages 6.5 yards per carry to the edge on 25 attempts. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the “power” back, and he’s averaging 4.3 yards on runs up the middle. The Bengals may give The Law Firm too many outside touches – 35% of his carries are off tackle or to the edge, and he’s averaging just 2.4 yards on those attempts. Still, the numbers back up an effective rushing platoon if the Bengals play to Bernard’s and Green-Ellis’s strengths against the Chargers. Then it will just come down to execution.
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