The Denver Broncos have won three straight division titles and with number 18, at 37 years old and coming off his best statistical season as a pro, still firing on all cylinders, you might be saying to yourself that there really isn’t a point to this article I am writing. Maybe so, but that could be attributed to the lack of attention that the Chargers have received over the last few years.
This isn’t your San Diego from five years ago with the dominant forces of LaDainian Tomlinson or an in-his-prime Antonio Gates. This is a more subdued team with under-the-radar players that most casual fans are not aware of, but are not short on talent.
Remember, this was a team that was 5-7 on Week 14, and managed to finish with four straight wins propelling them to the post season, where they beat the Bengals and held tight against Denver, eventually losing by only a touchdown.
Besides the bolo-wearing Philip Rivers, this team has a tremendous amount of young talent on both sides of the ball. Here’s a few facts that we know about the 2013 Chargers.
Rivers was, arguably, the second best quarterback in 2013
According to Football Outsiders, aside from Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers was the best quarterback in the league. Football Outsiders has their DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric that measures the quarterback’s performance compared to replacement level and accounting for situation, opponent and then translated into yardage (Rivers’ adjusted yardage was 1,799, a cool 676 yards less than Mannings). This is a much more granular outlook on the passing yards by a quarterback and takes into considerations more aspects of a game. He was third in yards per pass attempt at 8.23 and the Chargers were 5th in first downs via the pass, which led to constant movement of the chains and keeping possession on offense. Rivers was deadly in the redzone, achieving the third best quarterback rating in the money area at a shade over 109. Most importantly, he reduced his interceptions from 20 and 15 in 2011 and 2012 respectively, to 11 in 2013.
What led to the change? In 2012 , Rivers was big play hunting looking to throw the ball down the field at will. Considering how bad his offensive line was (Rivers was sacked 49 times, only trailing Aaron Rodgers’ 51), the 7-step drop strategy was rendered useless. Mike McCoy and last year’s offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, was a revelation for Rivers, who installed more of a quick-strike offense based on precision and getting rid of the ball quickly.
The great folks at Pro Football Focus charted all the, 1-step 3-step, 5-step and 7-step drops in 2013 and they saw that Rivers completed a whopping 81.8% of his passes on 3-step drops (68 drops), tops in the league. He was nearly equally as good on 5-step drops completing nearly 78% of his passes, which was also tops in the league (452 drops). And those seven step drops we were talking about? Thirty-Four quarterbacks had more 7-step drops than River’s 62. McCoy eradicated those plays as much as he could from the offense and it was for the better. This allowed his sack total to drop down by 19 to a very respectable 30 in 2013 because plays didn’t take very long to materialize behind a suspect offensive line. His pin-point accuracy was well displayed with a a 69.5% completion rate. San Diego led the league in 10-play drives with 39 in 2013, lending credence to the fact that they relied more on a fast-paced but elaborate offense that will take what the defenses gave them. They were also incredibly efficient with their drives, leading the league in yards per drive at 40.38, according to Football Outsiders.
The combination of Ryan Mathews having a career year (1,255 rushing yards and 6 tds), and weapons galore for Rivers, such as the always reliable Antonio Gates, the emerging rookie, Keenan Allen who developed into stud in intermediate routes (71 catches, 1,046 yards and 8 td’s), the dependable Danny Woodhead (76 catches) who can run routes from the backfield or from the Z spot and Ladarius Green who displayed explosive run after the catch ability (9.8 average yards after the catch), gave Mike McCoy a plethora of options, similar in some ways to what he had in Denver the previous year with Peyton Manning.
This offseason, general manager Tom Telesco added the shifty Donald Brown to an already versatile backfield. Their receiving corps is solid and they get a boost from the return downfield threat Malcom Floyd. If they can get anything out of Vincent Brown or the once productive Eddie Royal, it will be an added bonus.
As much as San Diego’s offense received most of the credit, their unheralded defense had a respectable season as well. The Chargers had the third most third down stops in the league with 70, which was the impetus in driving the Chargers to having the second fewest amount of defensive snaps in the league. Of course, when your defense is not on the field, it generally means your offense will be. San Diego was second in the league in average time of possession at 32.12 minutes per game.
The Chargers were a team that went as far as its offense would take them. The efficiency and ball-control helped keep an average defense off the field.
Staying competitive against Denver
The Chargers can absolutely play with Denver. Although San Diego went 1-2 (regular and playoffs) they were very competitive during those contests. They split the season series with one win apiece, beating Denver systematically in Week 17. Ryan Mathews had a career game with 29 carries, 127 yards and a score, as the Chargers, like they did all season, dominated time of possession (38 minutes to 21) against the league’s Most Valuable Player. In the secondary, San Diego mauled the Denver receivers, as they stole the blueprint that the New England Patriots employed during their Week 12 meeting against Denver. Defensive coordinator, John Pagano constantly threw out sub-packages and nickel defenses at Manning and the coverage designs did not allow the five-time MVP to gain much traction offensively. Consequently, Denver went a paltry 2 of 9 on third downs (they were second in the league in 2013 behind these same Chargers).
And while San Diego did eventually succomb to their AFC West foes in the postseason, they laid the foundation on how to potentially beat the Broncos: Play a ball-control offense by mixing in the run and pass game and beat up their receivers. All this was impressive considering their defense was devoid of household names on the back-end. The front seven featured a solid rookie season from Manti T’eo and disruption up the middle with Corey Liuget and the always dependable Donald Butler. Tasmanian devil Eric Weddle is a jack-of-all trades player who can play in the box, as a deep safety and is adept at blitzing. Weddle, a 4-time All-Pro is one of the best tacklers in the game. He is always a player that the opposing team must account for.
In the offseason, they added some help for their pass rush (they ranked 22nd in sacks last year with 35 and only got to Manning three times in 2013) by drafting Jeremiah Attaochu in the first round . Brandon Flowers was a cap casualty right before training and the Chargers quickly scooped up the Pro Bowl corner, who despite an average 2013 season, still has a +35.5 coverage grade, which ranks him 5th highest of any corner in a five-year span. Jason Verrett, was also drafted with their second first-round pick. The former TCU Horned Frog dazzled at the combine with a 4.38 40-yard dash and a 39 inch vertical. If he was two inches taller than his 5’9” height, he might been the first corner selected in the 2014 draft. Combined with Flowers and the developing Shareece Wright, there is much more talent in the back-end than the Chargers have had over the last decade with the Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner coached teams.
All that is nice, but can the Chargers really win the division?
I firmly believe they have a shot. One must assume that there’s virtually no chance Peyton Manning surpasses the record-breaking season of 2013. There’s just too much game film out there and advanced analytics and tendencies will render his assault on the league in 2014 much more difficult than the previous campaign.
Seattle also laid the blueprint on how to beat them during Super Bowl 48. Of course, not every team is blessed with three dominant players in their secondary, but the Broncos wide receivers are not very physical and their offensive line, despite the return of Ryan Clady, which will move Orlando Franklin to his suited guard position and Chris Clark to right tackle, has holes. They lost the dependable Zane Beadles at the guard position and the aforementioned Franklin struggled against quicker players. And say you will about Eric Decker benefitting from Peyton Manning’s unbelievable talent, he still trumps the maddening inconsistency of Emmanuel Sanders (from weeks 8 to 17, he averaged 30 yards receiving per game).
In the last 10 seasons, only the Saints were able to have the best offense in back-to-back seasons (2008-2009). Not even the high-powered Patriots teams or the Colts teams could lay claim to such offensive proficiency for two consecutive years, adding credence to the difficulty in sustaining offensive acumen for long stretches. The NFL is a copycat league and there is no better person than Mike McCoy, having been with the Broncos for three seasons, coaching not only Manning but many of their young offensive talent, implementing the same schemes and verbiage that they used (teams do change language of the offense, but there’s always certain cues you can pick up to get an edge), to find ways to beat the Broncos.
Speaking of the Broncos offseason additions, they did add some depth to the secondary with T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. The pass rush should get better with DeMarcus Ware and a slender Von Miller, who reportedly dropped 25 pounds during the offseason. Still, the Chargers have a system that uses the quick trigger skillset of Philip Rivers very well, which in turn mitigates the pass rushing abilities of teams they face. Their mauling offensive line, which features D.J. Fluker and King Dunlap as the bookends is very hard to get past. Both are better suited as guards or right tackles, but have made the transition quite well. Fluker has good feet and Dunlap is an absolute terror as a run blocker.
You’re not getting a Win-Loss per game record prediction from me. Those are extremely subjective and it is too early in Training Camp to make such a prognosis.
Basing strength of schedule is another crapshoot, but I will mention it anyway. Based off 2013 winning percentages, San Diego’s combined 2014 opponents have a .563 winning percentage, which is 4th toughest in the league. Last season, San Diego was supposed to have the easiest schedule in the NFL, but it turned out to be the 16th toughest. It shows just how fickle that stat can be, as they still managed a 9-7 record and went on to the Divisional round of the playoffs.
With Floyd back, another year in the offense and the emergence of Allen and Green, Rivers could better his 2013 numbers. His head coach Mike McCoy seems to think so: "Without a doubt -- we actually expect him to play better. And I think he'll tell you the same thing," second-year head coach Mike McCoy says of Rivers' upcoming season. "There's some things he can improve on."
Rivers is once again etched as a top-flight quarterback and he is primed to improve upon his already terrific 2013 numbers. Will that lead to a division crown in the AFC West that’s been dominated by the Broncos? It is still too early to tell. You may not have known much about the Chargers last year, but you will surely hear about them in 2014.