After three postseason-less years, the San Diego Chargers returned to the playoffs in 2013. That 9-7 squad had an uneven season as they lost once to Oakland, gave the Redskins one of their three wins and nearly lost to the rival Chiefs’ backups in Week 17 but were the only team to beat the Broncos at home all year. Yet under new coach Mike McCoy and a rejuvenated Philip Rivers, they were able to squeeze into the postseason tournament. Their playoff run would once again leave the Bengals one-and-done but ended in Denver.
While that run was nice, Chargers fans have to be especially happy to have seen another season where Rivers looked like one of the best signal-callers in the league. Here are some factors that will determine how successful San Diego is this season.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. How the Rivers Flows
There’s no denying that Philip Rivers’ return to form was the biggest reason for the Chargers’ success last year. One specific area of improvement was his deep ball (throws of 20 yards or more) and in both 2012 and 2013 he attempted 59 such passes. While he only completed two more last year, he had a total of 778 yards, seven touchdowns, and only two picks compared to 2012’s 637 yards, five touchdowns, and six interceptions. His overall grade on these deep passes also improved from -1.3 to +9.7. Rivers was also much more accurate under pressure last season, throwing for 1,444 yards, eight touchdowns, and four interceptions in 221 pressured drop-backs compared to 882 yards, four touchdowns, and eight interceptions in 224 pressured drop-backs the previous year. He’s clearly still got it.
2. Running Game
The Chargers’ running attack was also dangerous last year, led by Ryan Mathews, who played in every contest for the first time in his career (albeit only three snaps in Week 5) and compiled the seventh-most rushing yards during the regular season. Journeyman Danny Woodhead also helped, averaging 4.0 yards-per-carry and eight total touchdowns. This season they also added the underrated Donald Brown, whose 5.3 yards per carry average was second best in the NFL last season. The improved offensive line also made this possible.
3. Keenan Allen + Ladarius Green
The Chargers have two young playmakers in WR Keenan Allen (third-round 2013 pick) and TE Ladarius Green (fourth-round 2012 pick). With Malcolm Floyd only lasting 90 snaps into the season last year, Allen was needed, and he delivered. In the regular season he had the 10th-best percentage of passes caught among his peers and forced 13 missed tackles, which was tied for 10th best (with others including Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall). He also had six 100+ yard receiving days (one in the Denver loss) and 10 touchdown catches (two in the Denver loss). Meanwhile, as Antonio Gates gets older, Green is no longer simply waiting in the wings. He proved himself to be the best run blocking tight end on the team and a receiving threat with a 19.0 yards per catch average on the year along with four TD grabs and 417 yards in mostly limited duty. The future is brighter in SD with these two.
4. Eric Weddle
Our top overall-graded safety in 2012, Eric Weddle slid a little bit last season (sixth-highest overall grade among safeties), which isn’t surprising given the struggles all over that defense. This excerpt from senior analyst Sam Monson in the Week 13 ReFocused sums it up nicely: “At times it does look as if Eric Weddle is a school teacher, trying to keep control of a group of unruly kids that don’t really know what they’re doing.” He did miss more tackles than we’ve ever seen him miss, but still graded positively across the board, especially in coverage (72.8 NFL rating when targeted) and pass rushing (a sack, two hits, nine hurries, and a batted pass).
5. Melvin Ingram & Dwight Freeney, Healthy
With the Larry English experiment over, the Chargers now have two healthy OLBs who can consistently generate pressure, something they lacked last year. Melvin Ingram, a 2012 first-round pick, earned a solid +5.4 pass rush grade in his rookie year, but then suffered an ACL injury prior to the 2013 season. Surprisingly, he was still able to contribute toward the end of the year. He was blanked as a pass rusher in his first two games back, but over the last four games (including two playoff contests) he generated two sacks, two hits and nine hurries while also intercepting an Andy Dalton pass. Ingram’s counterpart, ex-Colt and possible Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney, started the season healthy but only lasted four games before getting put on injured reserve. In those four games he showed his worth, though, with 19 total pressures. If they can both stay on the field (and assuming Freeney’s skills haven’t fallen off a cliff in the last year), it will go a long way toward helping this defense.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Defensive Line
After last year, the defensive line has to be a major concern, especially in run defense. To say starters 2011 first-round pick Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes (2012 second-round pick) were underwhelming against opposing ground attacks would be an understatement. They had the (tied for) fourth- and second-worst run defense grades and both were tied for the lowest Run Stop Percentage among 3-4 defensive ends (among those who played at least 219 snaps). Liuget at least offers a pass rush, but this is still a glaring issue.
2. King Dunlap
San Diego’s offensive line was much improved last year, but there are still questions marks and concerns about the protector of Rivers’ blindside. Left tackle King Dunlap proved to be adequate (best run blocking grade on the team and only 19 pressures conceded on 358 pass blocking snaps) when he was on the field. Dunlap suffered at least two concussions and a neck injury (initially thought to be a concussion) last year. So it’s far from a guarantee he’ll be able to protect Rivers’ blindside all season long. Also worth noting is that Dunlap’s level of play dropped dramatically in their two playoff games. Left tackle has been a problem position for the Chargers for a few years (remember Jared Gaither?) and it still may be.
Like their run defense, coverage was a problem last year for the Chargers’ defense (ranked 29th in the league). This led to them using a first-round pick on cornerback Jason Verrett; unfortunately, Verrett had shoulder surgery in the offseason and, through three preseason games, has only played seven snaps. They brought in ex-Chief Brandon Flowers, who was plagued with injuries in 2013 and finished with the first negative coverage grade in his career (it’s also been said he was not a good fit for Kansas City’s new defensive coordinator). That leaves Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall, both whom finished last year with the sixth- and ninth-worst coverage grades.
4. Donald Butler: Was 2013 a Fluke?
In the 2010 NFL Draft, San Diego traded up to select LB Donald Butler in the third round. Butler would miss his entire rookie season with an Achilles injury, but would make an impact over the next two seasons (+13.6 overall for 2011 & 2012). Despite getting a new deal this offseason, however, Butler’s contributions were limited in his 2013 performance. For the first time in his career, Butler’s stats were red in all major areas (run defense, pass rush, and coverage). His struggles against the run were the most surprising but some of it can be blamed on the awful play of the defensive line in front of him. Not all, though, like 4:19 left in the 2nd quarter of the Week 17 Chiefs game where Kansas City’s backup QB jukes him in the open field to pick up a first down. He also dropped a pick-six on the first pass play of the game. He did make some plays during the playoff run – keeping points off the board by forcing a Giovani Bernard red zone fumble (though he was initially beat in coverage). Butler also made an athletic, toe-tapping end zone interception off a tipped Peyton Manning pass – but the Chargers have to hope last season was a fluke.
5. AFC West: How Do They Stack Up?
Like the NFC West, the AFC West is far from the laughingstock it used to be. While the Oakland Raiders still seem to be a long way away from being a contender, there is competition for the Chargers elsewhere. Obviously Denver, with Peyton Manning and a re-stocked defense that includes DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward, are the favorites to win the division, and possibly the AFC. Then there’s Kansas City, who went from a horrific 2-14 2012 season to an 11-5 2013 campaign, thanks to new head coach Andy Reid, quarterback Alex Smith, and a solid defense. The days of the Chargers ruling this division are long gone.
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