San Diego’s record may officially stand at 3-3, but they’re two last-second plays (and one admittedly blown call) away from 5-1. While drubbing the Patriots on national television Sunday night, they looked every bit the team that more than a few preseason prognosticators thought would win the AFC championship.
OFFENSE (#12 total yardage, #t21 rushing, #8 passing, #1 scoring):
For most of LaDainian Tomlinson’s eight-year tenure in San Diego, the offense has relied heavily on its future Hall of Fame running back. That’s not the case this year, though. While Tomlinson struggles to recover from a bad case of “turf toe,” averaging almost a full yard per carry under his career numbers, Philip Rivers is making an argument to be included in any discussion of elite NFL quarterbacks. Most of the early-season hype has centered around the usual suspects – or their absence, in one particular case – but the fiery Rivers, who proved his toughness by playing last year’s AFC championship game on a partially torn ACL, leads the league in passer rating.
He’s not putting up those stats in a conservative, dink-and-dunk gameplan, either: six of his 14 touchdown passes (tied for the league lead with Tony Romo, despite Rivers’ 35 fewer attempts) came from outside the red zone, and only the Saints have as many completions of 40-plus yards. One wonders if this team is beginning to remind receivers coach Charlie Joiner of his “Air Coryell” heyday.
As usual, Antonio Gates leads the team in touchdown receptions, but the talented tight end continues to be limited by various nagging injuries. Fortunately for San Diego, 2005 second-round pick Vincent Jackson finally appears capable of becoming Rivers’ go-to option. The 6’5”, 240-pound Jackson had a career night against New England, torching the diminutive Pats cornerbacks for 134 yards and a touchdown, and would pose a difficult matchup to a McGee-free Buffalo secondary. On the other side, it looks like Chris Chambers will miss his second game in a row, so Malcolm Floyd will likely get another start with Legedu Naanee coming in as the third receiver. Brandon Manumaleuna, the other tight end, is rarely used in the passing game.
The offensive line hasn’t been immune from the injury bug; neither left tackle Marcus McNeill (neck) nor center Nick Hardwick (foot surgery) was ready for the beginning of the season. When healthy, those two combine with Pro Bowl guard Kris Dielman to open holes for Tomlinson and provide above-average pass protection for the not-exactly-mobile Rivers. The only change from last year’s opening-day lineup took place at right tackle, where Jeromey Clary wrested the starting job away from Shane Olivea, who was later released. Right guard Mike Goff might be playing his final games in powder blue; the eleventh-year vet is in the final season of his contract.
DEFENSE (#28 total yardage, #17 rushing, #31 passing, #19 scoring):
Wade Phillips is now in Dallas, of course, but he left his beloved 3-4 in the capable hands of another former Bills defensive coordinator, Ted Cottrell. Jamal Williams anchors the middle of the line; the three-time Pro Bowl nose tackle started slowly this season, but absolutely dominated Patriots center Dan Koppen last week. Whether Melvin Fowler or Duke Preston ends up starting on Sunday, Trent Edwards had better keep an eye on the line directly in front of him. Williams is flanked by ends Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky. Both are well suited to hold the point of attack, freeing up the linebackers to run to the ball. (That’s the plan, anyway ... but with three defensive backs listed among the team’s top five tacklers, one that might not be working as well as they’d hoped.) Jacques Cesaire, Ryon Bingham, and the recently signed Ian Scott make up the rest of the rotation.
The Chargers took a huge hit just before the season started, when doctors discovered two torn ligaments in Shawne Merriman’s left knee. “Lights Out” played in Week 1 against their advice, before wisely deciding to shut himself down for the season and go through with reconstructive surgery. He’ll miss a potential playoff run this year, but any further hits to the damaged knee could have had a much higher price: his career, and perhaps even the ability to walk normally for the rest of his life.
Depth is a concern in Merriman’s OLB spot. His replacement, Jyles Tucker, will probably miss this game with a bad hamstring, and with third-teamer Marques Harris also dinged, former practice-squadder Antwan Applewhite could see some time at the position. No worries on the other edge, though; with his running mate on IR, expect the underrated Shaun Phillips to lead the team in sacks this season. On the inside, Stephen Cooper is back after serving a four-game steroids suspension, and Tim Dobbins is pushing Matt Wilhelm for the other starting job.
Last year, San Diego was 4-4 and had given up at least 30 points in each loss when Antonio Cromartie replaced Drayton Florence at cornerback. After the change, they finished the season 7-1, allowing 17 or fewer points in six of those games. Coincidence? Doubtful. With Cromartie’s game-changing ability and Quentin Jammer’s solid pass defense, the Chargers arguably now have one of the league’s best tandems at corner, which allows the front seven to be more aggressive. Both Cromartie and Jammer were first-round picks, and general manager A.J. Smith continued the trend in April, drafting Antoine Cason (Arizona) with the 27th overall selection. The rookie quickly adapted to the NFL, earning the nickel job in training camp. Clinton Hart is back for his second full season at strong safety, but the Bolts released Marlon McCree, handing the free safety job to 2007 second-round pick Eric Weddle.
San Diego’s weekly release refers to kicker Nate Kaeding as “Nate the Great.” Okay, maybe that’s a little over the top (and he apparently develops a case of the yips during playoff games), but he’s deadly accurate during the regular season, hitting 69-of-73 kicks from inside 40 yards.
Punter Mike Scifres is having the best year of his career. Remember Brian Moorman’s quest to average 40 net yards per kick? Scifres currently leads the league at 43.3. The coverage team, led by Pro Bowl gunner Kassim Osgood, is helping that average by allowing just eight yards per return.
Darren Sproles is iffy for this game with a sore ankle. That might be a break for the Bills’ struggling cover squads, because when he’s at full speed, the shifty, lightning-quick running back is one of the best return men in the league. Backup receiver Buster Davis also isn’t practicing, so if Sproles isn’t available, either Cromartie or rookie RB Jacob Hester could take over those duties.
With the decline of the Patriots, San Diego may well be the toughest test on the Bills’ schedule this season. A.J. Smith continues to stock an already talented roster with astute drafting and street free-agent signings; including Rivers, who moved West in the 2004 draft-day trade, 19 of the 22 Bolts starters have never played for any other NFL team.
There are a a few reasons not to like Buffalo’s chances in this game, especially if Aaron Schobel joins Terrence McGee on the inactive list. (Of course, with his ailing foot, Schobel’s matchup against McNeill doesn’t look all that enticing to begin with.)
That said, other than their games against inexperienced quarterbacks Matt Cassel and JaMarcus Russell, San Diego’s defense has looked ordinary this season ... and that’s being polite, if you watched Jay Cutler rip them up in Denver. They’ve allowed at least 140 rushing yards in three of six games; if the Bills can find Marshawn Lynch some running room, control the clock, and keep Rivers off the field, they have a decent shot at sending the Chargers off to London with a loss.
See you in Lot 1.
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