By: David Kang
After a poor start at 0-4 (RIP Young Hoe Kang), the Chargers have rebounded extremely well, winning 7 of their next 9 and putting themselves in the driver’s seat for the AFC West crown, thanks to the Chiefs implosion.
A big part of the Chargers’ revival has been the improvement of Philip Rivers’ play. With poor performances and sharply declining arm strength akin to Chad Pennington, many fans were urging Rivers to retire, so the franchise can go through a proper rebuild after 2 poor seasons. However, in 2017, Rivers looks as good as ever with his arm strength persisting through 13 games thus far and his brain functioning at an elite level. Rivers has posted a 7.68 ANY/A so far this season, which would be his best since the 2010 season. This can largely be attributed to the sharp decline in interceptions. Rivers has always maintained around a 2-3 INT% with a career worst 3.6% last season as a starter. However, this season, he is posting a career low 1.5%. One could argue that this is a result of him playing less hero ball this season than he had last.
Through 13 games last season, the Chargers had 11 games decided by one possession or less, and a lot of those games ended with Rivers desperately carrying a depleted and injury-riddled Chargers offense down the field with only minutes left in the game. He would often have to hurl up prayers amidst pressure, and they would predictably be intercepted a good majority of time. So far this season, the Chargers have only had 7 games decided by one possession or less through 13 games. Although the offensive line still is pedestrian at best, it has improved with the addition of Russell Okung from their putrid state last season. The Chargers also returned their star wideout Keenan Allen, who only played 1 game in 2016. Coupled that with Hunter Henry’s emergence as a great receiving option at TE, the Chargers have managed to feature the 10th best offense in the league per DVOA% with Philip Rivers playing very good football.
This is a textbook Philip Rivers play. Washington sends 6 in a blitz against 5 blockers. Chargers have half-slide protection with the LG and LT blocking the #98 and #91, who are at the LOS, and the right side of the line shifts right to get all their assignments. The blitzing LB here, Zach Brown, does a good job of disguising the blitz until the very last moment. Based on the protection, the RB has LB responsibility here, but the late disguise gives Brown a clean lane up the middle. Gordon does a pretty solid job of slowing him down here, but the pressure is right up Rivers’ face, and the ball needs to come out quick. Rivers does not flinch for even a second and knows exactly where to go with the football based on the look. He subtly shifts his feet away from the pressure and calmly throws a bullet to Keenan Allen for a solid 6-yard gain.
This play is with 19 seconds left in the 1st half on 1st and 10 with two timeouts left. Washington sends only 3 while the Chargers have 7 in pass protection. Okung gets beat pretty cleanly off of a speed rush, and Henry is essentially the RT here blocking an edge rusher 1 on 1. Chargers have 2 verticals on the outside with a dig route from the slot. Washington runs a pretty basic spot drop Cover 4. Rivers shows off his supernatural ability to feel and escape pressure here as he does a great job of feeling the pressure coming from the edge while stepping up just enough in the pocket to deliver a pass. Tyrell Williams, who initially runs the route without anticipating receiving the ball, does a good job of recognizing Rivers scrambling and coming back to the ball. Rivers throws a dart with just a slither of space for a good 20 yard gain.
Another big change in the Chargers offense has obviously been new HC in Anthony Lynn, who was the offensive coordinator for the Bills last season. Ken Whisenhunt still remains the OC as he was in 2016, and although I honestly haven’t followed the Chargers closely enough over the past two years to distinguish any differences between the two offenses, the Chargers did a couple nifty things this game schematically that allowed for big plays.
One thing that stood out to me was just how much they stretch the field horizontally to use every inch of grass on the field. They love attacking the defense with trips formation on the boundary side of the field whenever the offense lines up in the hash.
This is a simple but very effective play design that used great spacing to allow for big windows for Rivers to throw into. The Chargers have a slant flat on the left side of the field, a curl flat-esque horizontal stretch on the right, with a sit route in the middle to create a high low situation for the safety and underneath defenders. Washington lines up in Cover 1 with the MLB and single high safety roaming the middle. The sit route baits the MLB here, and Hunter Henry does a good job of getting inside release and creating separation using his big frame. The offensive line predictably allows pressure to leak through, and Rivers does a good job of navigating in the pocket and throwing with great precision and anticipation with a defender in his face. The safety is too deep to make a play on the ball, and the result is a 14-yard gain.
Here is another cool play design:
The Chargers line up with double TE on the right with a bunch on the left. They have 13 personnel on the field with 3 TEs, and Hunter Henry is lined up on the outside initially. This is on the first play of the game, so the Chargers likely drew this play up based on Washington’s tendencies on the coverages they play versus stack and 13 personnel. In this case, Washington plays a Cover 3. The TE motion to the left gives away that this is zone coverage, but more importantly, the TE lining up as the #1 receiver screws up the coverage rules for Washington.
The #1 and #2 receivers on the left are both TEs, but they are both covered by DBs. The #3 receiver is a WR matched up against a LB. In Cover 3, the LB has match #3 deep responsibility, which is often a stark weakness for this particular coverage, especially here with Tyrell Williams matched up against a LB. The coverage on initial look was ok because the slot defender had underneath on #2 while Swearinger had #2 deep against the WR. The late shift forces the LB to have #3 responsibility, and Williams burns Zach Brown for an easy 34-yard gain. The Chargers made sure to have the #1 on the right side run a simple flat route to make sure that no defenders on that side of the field would leak high to defend against the over route.
This is another ingenious play by the Chargers paired with rather questionable awareness by the Washington defense. This is an orbit motion flea flicker, and the orbit motion is absolutely key into the effectiveness of the play. Josh Norman is the cornerback defending Keenan Allen on the outside here, and unfortunately for Norman, he still has to maintain gap responsibility here. If Rivers did actually indeed hand it off to Benjamin running the reverse, then Norman would be the force player on the run play and would have to make the tackle. This slight hesitation by Norman coupled with a good fake block release gave Allen plenty of separation between him and Norman. What is really curious here is how aggressive Swearinger played the reverse. He is lined up 14 yards from the LOS with his primary responsibility preventing the deep portion of the field. He has no business playing the reverse as downhill as he did. Instead, he bites hard, which allows Allen to shake free, and Rivers hits him on a perfect, on-the-money frozen rope travelling 57 yards in the air.
Needless to say, the Chargers have been on a hot tear, winning 4 in a row, and have a relatively soft schedule coming up against the Chiefs, Jets, and the Raiders. With the mediocrity of both the Chiefs and Raiders, the Chargers hold their destiny in their own hands and can win the division by finishing out the stretch. The 10th ranked Chargers offense is also paired with a 10th ranked Chargers defense per DVOA%, and the defense has also been on a hot tear, allowing more than 20 points only twice in their last 8 games. The trio of Bosa, Ingram, and Heyward is one of the best in the league, and combined with a revitalized Rivers, the Chargers stand to be the team nobody wants to face come the postseason.