3TFO: Chargers @ Jaguars, Week 7
The Jaguars and Chargers were expected to be two of the poorer teams in 2013 when the prognosticators were making their picks in the preseason. The Jags have held form — they are in contention for the No. 1 overall pick and, at this point, it wouldn’t shock anyone if they pushed for a winless season. The Chargers, on the other hand, have far exceeded expectations. Although the defense has sprung leaks with injuries and poor play, Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt have rejuvenated Philip Rivers, modeling the Chargers’ offense into a Broncos-lite. Despite being three games back of the Chiefs and Broncos, the Chargers are still in the AFC Wild Card hunt. The Chargers have their share of poor performances though, and a slip-up against the Jags would prove to be fatal.
The Jags have to hope the classic ‘West Coast team coming east for a 1 p.m. game’ trick does in the Chargers. If San Diego has a sluggish start and lets the Jags hang around, Jacksonville could nab their first win. However, looking at some of the matchups, don’t expect that to happen.
The Chargers Running Game
Mike McCoy’s quick-hitting passing game has been getting rave reviews in San Diego this season. Despite losing Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd, Phil Rivers is having a resurgent season with the likes of 33-year-old Antonio Gates, scatback Danny Woodhead, and young guys Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown. Allen is proving to be a steal as a third-rounder, but it may be the running game that makes a mark on Sunday’s game. Rivers should do his damage early, as the Jags are one of the more hapless teams on defense. Their -61.4 cumulative grade on defense ranks at the bottom of the league. Against the Colts, San Diego perfectly played the ball-control game, keeping the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands. The Chargers had an impressive four drives of 5:55 or longer. Of course, the Chargers don’t have to fear Chad Henne as much as Luck. However, the Chargers figure to be nursing a lead for much of the game.
With 55 missed tackles through six games, the Jags can’t stay out of their own way on defense. The Chargers’ rushing attack is shaping up to be a successful committee. Yes, Ronnie Brown needs to be put out to pasture as a rusher, but he does offer solid pass protection when he’s on the field. Brown hasn’t allowed a single pressure on 25 pass rushing snaps this season. More importantly, Danny Woodhead fits what McCoy’s offense wants to do. Woodhead isn’t going to wow anyone running in between the tackles, but has forced 16 missed tackles in the running and passing game. His quick-twitch movement makes his passing game skills an extension of the running game. Rivers knows he can convert a 3rd-and-short with Woodhead out of the backfield.
Additionally, Ryan Mathews seems to be embracing his role as the power back. He’ll always face questions with his health, as team physicians on the sideline seemingly check him out after every drive. Mathews has been running hard this season, but the results haven’t been fantastic because he’s been getting inconsistent offensive line play. The former 12th-overall pick is doing his best work on the edges. Running around the right and left end, Mathews has produced 148 yards on 32 carries for 4.6 yards per carry. On his 57 other runs, behind his linemen, he’s posted 190 yards, or 3.3 YPC. Against Jacksonville, however, the offensive line should produce running lanes. The Jags’ front seven has been one of the worst against the run this season. A shocking six players on their defensive front have graded out with a -3.5 or worse defending the run, including linebackers Paul Posluszny (-5.7) and Geno Hayes (-6.8). Mathews and Woodhead will both have chances to reach the second level against the Jags. Expect them to capitalize on those chances.
The Justin Blackmon Show
There were questions about Justin Blackmon when the Jags traded up for him with the No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft. Blackmon showed off his talent after a slow start to his rookie season, but brought up further questions about his character when he was popped for a DUI in the offseason. However, after serving his four-game suspension, he has exploded onto the scene. Sure, it’s been just two games, but Blackmon leads the league in Yards per Route Run at 4.13. DeSean Jackson is second in that category, more than yard behind at 2.82 YPRR. With his receiving mate Cecil Shorts leaving the game early, Blackmon was peppered with targets last week. The Broncos could do nothing to stop the only receiving threat for the Jags. It was Champ Bailey’s first game of the year, but the veteran corner could do nothing to stop the physicality and special after-the-catch ability of Blackmon.
With Shorts looking doubtful for Sunday’s game, Blackmon will be Chad Henne’s first read early and often. He figures to see Derek Cox in coverage for most of the game. Cox had one impressive game this season, allowing one catch on six targets to the Titans. However, in the five other games, he gave up 23 catches on 31 targets, or a 74% completion percentage. With Shorts unlikely to suit up, it will be interesting to see if John Pagano attempts to double-team or bracket Blackmon with his best defensive back Eric Weddle. If the Chargers take Jacksonville’s only weapon away, an already struggling offense will likely fail to move the ball consistently. With Blackmon’s ability to win on short crossing routes though, getting the ball into their hands of their only playmaker has to be the play.
A Big Day for Gates?
While the Chargers may not need to throw the ball for much of the game, Antonio Gates should be open early and often for Rivers. Rookie second-round pick John Cyprien has been thrown into the fire early this season, playing all 421 snaps so far in 2013. He’s struggled mightily in run stopping and in pass coverage, and is clearly having trouble adjusting to the speed of the NFL. Cyprien is allowing a 138.0 passer rating against him when targeted in pass coverage. Gates, at 33, doesn’t have the wheels he once had, but his feet are healthy and he’s in shape. What he’s lost in quickness, he’s made up for in his route running. The middle of the field has belonged to him this season — he’s secured 29 of 36 targets between the numbers for 395 yards and two touchdowns. San Diego’s offensive line was much-maligned during the preseason, and they’ve only become more banged up. And yet, they still sit eighth in our Pass Blocking Efficiency rankings.
After allowing opponents to get to Rivers 37 times in 2012, the makeshift offensive line has allowed just six sacks in 2013. They’re somehow on pace to cut their sacks from 2012 in half this season. Outside of Sen’Derrick Marks, who has 19 pressures in 202 pass rush attempts, Jacksonville is struggling to find a pass rush. Rivers should have all day to find Gates, especially if the Jags decide to single-cover him with Cyprien. It’s entirely possible Gates may end up sitting out the final quarter, but he can do enough damage in the first 45 minutes to put his stamp on the game.