This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns are back home to take on the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have had an interesting season so far. They are 3-3 after six games, and are coming off of a bye week. They've beaten the bad teams in the league (Oakland, Tennessee, and Kansas City), but they've lost to any opponent that was a [preseason] playoff contender (Atlanta, New Orleans, and Denver).
Is San Diego a good team, or are these the typical Chargers that are so inconsistent that they'll never be taken seriously for a deep postseason run? Let's look at five key points to consider related to the Chargers in anticipation of this week's game.
#1 - Rivers is Accurate, Yet Turnover Prone: When you look at the career of Chargers quarterback Philp Rivers, I think it's tough to evaluate where he ranks as a quarterback in this league. I have no problem with his unique throwing motion, and he's a very accurate passer. He has completed 63.7% career passes, including an even better 66.5% completion rate in 2012. Here is Rivers at his finest:
For the first seven years of his career, he was able to limit his amount of turnovers low. That hasn't been the case the past two seasons, though, and it has cost the Chargers dearly. In 2011, Rivers threw a career-high 20 interceptions as San Diego failed to make the playoffs. Two weeks ago against the Broncos, the Chargers had a 24-0 lead and were well on their way to taking control of the AFC West. Rivers responded with five second-half turnovers -- three interceptions and two fumbles -- en route to a 35-24 collapse. Rivers now has nine interceptions on the season. He also is not a threat in the least at scrambling like Andrew Luck did twice for a touchdown last week against Cleveland's defense.
Rivers has faced Cleveland twice in his career, posting a 69.8% completion rate, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions in those games. Obviously, Cleveland and San Diego are very different since the last time these two teams squared off against each other. One of Rivers' faults in my opinion is that he's overly confident in his throwing ability. Even if his receiver is blanketed in coverage, he'll still give his receiver a shot. A lot of times, that strategy has paid off. Rivers is the type of guy who won't mind throwing at CB Joe Haden, something that could play to Cleveland's advantage. Here's an example of Rivers taking a shot and the defense making a play:
#2 - A Shift in Offensive Strategy: Heading into the bye week, Chargers head coach Norv Turner gave a few subtle hints that their offensive strategy would begin to shift toward a more conservative approach. Here are a few select quotes from one of Turner's news conferences that illustrates this:
"That will be our complete focus [in regards to reducing turnovers] as we go through this bye. There are a lot of different ways that we will handle that in terms of looking at the things that are keeping us from finishing a game. It’s a fine line because obviously we’ve been a big play team and an attack-type mode team. We want to keep that part of our game but we’ve got to find a way to keep that part of our game and again, eliminate the negative plays."
"There are a lot of things involved. It starts with the coaching and deciding what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it. The things we’re having problems with we may eliminate. It may mean that we’re a little more conservative. It may mean in some cases we do things a little differently. Any more detail than that is certainly going to show up when we play."
"We’re going to limit some of the things that we’re doing. And I have to do a better job of making sure that we put things in there and that we’re calling things that have less risk. They may not have as big of a reward and this may not be quite the same big-play team, but we’re not going to turn the ball over."
On the surface, that approach might not seem like a bad strategy. We saw how well the Colts executed a conservative, yet efficient offensive approach last week against the Browns with a healthy mix of work through the air and on the ground. On that same note, there is always a chance that the Chargers' pilot approach at a new offensive strategy could blow up in their face. If Rivers isn't patient enough with it, I could see him forcing a throw down the field for our feasting secondary. Rivers gets a little confused when things don't go his way, which is always a nice little bonus:
#3 - Fewer Weapons Out of the Gate: The Chargers lost WR Vincent Jackson to free agency this past offseason, which bumped WR Malcolm Floyd up to the No. 1 receiver spot. Floyd has responded well and is a solid, but not game-changing, receiver. The issue with that is that San Diego doesn't have a lot of other weapons to go along with Floyd. They added WR Robert Meachem from the Saints, but he's been somewhat of a disappointment. He had one big game against his former team, but has been relatively quiet beyond that. The Chargers have been without WR Vincent Brown, who broke his ankle in the preseason. Former Broncos WR Eddie Royal hasn't done much this year and is currently battling a hamstring injury.
Even though the receiver position is a bit cloudy, one player on offense is always a definite threat: TE Antonio Gates. Gates has battled through injuries the past couple of seasons, and he doesn't seem as quick as he was during his first few years in the league. He also got off to a slow start this season. In his first four games, he only averaged about 35 yards receiving per game and didn't have a single touchdown. Against the Broncos two weeks ago, he broke out for 81 yards and 2 touchdown receptions. Coming off of a bye week in which he is surely refreshened, it's rough knowing that our linebackers or safeties are going to be trying to cover this guy. Also, try not to piss Gates off. Former Browns safety Mike Adams found out the hard way:
One thing the Browns definitely need to watch out for is the screen game. The Chargers use RB Ronnie Brown on third down, and he has 20 catches on the season. RB Ryan Mathews has only played in four games, but he has 17 catches already.
#4 - Tough Against the Run: Heading into this game, the Chargers rank second in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. Here is how they've done on a weekly basis against teams' top rushers:
Week 1: Darren McFadden - 15 carries, 32 yards, 2.1 average
Week 2: Chris Johnson - 8 carries, 17 yards, 2.1 average
Week 3: Michael Turner - 14 carries, 80 yards, 5.7 average
Week 4: Jamaal Charles - 17 carries, 88 yards, 5.2 average
Week 5: Pierre Thomas - 9 carries, 30 yards, 3.3 average
Week 6: Willis McGahee - 17 carries, 56 yards, 3.3 average
Reports have indicated that Trent Richardson will play this week, so expecting him to have 100 yards rushing on the ground isn't a likely expectation. If he's healthy, though, the Browns can live with 100 all-purpose yards from Richardson, since San Diego is more susceptible to the passing game. We've yet to see a team give their primary running back over 20 touches in a game against the Chargers this season.
#5 - Exposing the Secondary: The Chargers' secondary has been awful. If you don't believe me, I'm just quoting John Gennaro from our Chargers affiliate:
Our secondary is awful. It’s not talent nor is it deep. Teams that can throw a lot (Broncos/Saints) will figure that out and eat you a live. Also, the team tends to go in a shell at this point when things turn bad. I hope that stops.
San Diego's secondary has been picked apart by Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. Granted, those are three elite-level quarterbacks, and no one is trying to compare Brandon Weeden and the Browns' offense to those systems. The fact still remains that their secondary has been a sore spot. They've seen uninspired play from cornerbacks Quentin Jammer, Antoine Cason, and Marcus Gilchrist. The lone shining star in the secondary is safety Eric Weddle, but opposing teams have been wise to try and gameplan away from him.