The San Diego Chargers are another prime example of a quality quarterback keeping the franchise afloat. This team is not terribly talented, no longer built to compete for championships. The have a hall-of-fame tight end in Antonio Gates, but he is getting closer to that yellow jacket with each passing game and is beyond his prime. Phillip Rivers himself is clearly in the second half of his career as well. With so many youngsters around the sparse yet aged veterans, the team appears pulled in two different directions.
Yet, thanks to Rivers, they can score points. That fiery southerner can still throw the most accurate lob pass in the league. Because of his experience, he can extend plays into huge gains if given time and opposing secondaries must maintain tight discipline throughout every play.
Rivers likes to dump it off to his backs no matter who it is. Danny Woodhead provides all kinds of match up problems for the Bengals. Ryan Mathews was getting into the grove before hurting himself against Kansas City and even Ronnie Brown sees action with the Bolts. All of these guys are expected to play a significant part of the San Diego passing game and are used with regularity.
The Chargers also like to line up with three wide on one side and a lone receiver on the other and run inside slant routes to the middle of the field. Keenan Allen killed the Chiefs last week with inside slants and crossing routes, and Rivers looked his way seemingly the whole first half. He has quick feet and nice field vision after the catch. He may be an emerging go-to guy for this offense.
Ladarius Green is another matchup nightmare. Despite his impressive size, he can run away from corners and safeties with relative ease. He has a sprinter's stride and of his 14 catches this year, 7 have gone for over 20 yards. Mike Zimmer will have to keep a very close eye on Green when he's in the game due to his explosive play ability.
The way to stop all of these guys seems like a Cover-2 approach. Keep the corners in the flats to protect against the running back dump-offs. Keep linebackers in the middle to stop the inside slants. That leaves the deep sidelines open which puts the onus on the safeties to get over there on time. It's a bit of a gamble in one sense, but the Bengals pass rush remains the team's strongest suit and the front four alone can often disrupt the timing needed to effectively execute the deep sideline throw. Zimmer knows when to blitz, the defense is solid against the run, two major contributors return this week in Devon Still and Rey Maualuga, and even though Vontaze Burfict is questionable, the Chargers aren't scoring 40 points on this defense.
On offense, the Bengals are poised for a big day. The thing I can say the Chargers do best on defense is recognize the screen pass. Other than that, I wasn't too impressed. Their corners are susceptible in man coverage and because of their lack of physical tools, they rack up a lot of defensive hold and pass interference penalties. Against the Dolphins, this team was flagged for offside four times. They are okay against the run, but they overpursue and allow shifty backs like Jamaal Charles and possibly Giovani Bernard, to really hurt them on cutback runs.
The Bengals would be smart to run eight yard comeback routes all day from the looks of things. The corners are easily beaten out of the breaks by double moves and effective shakes. Assuming A.J. Green gets primary safety help, the likes of Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones could get comfortable against the limited coverage they see. It seems sheer speed is the key ingredient to roasting this defense and it may come as a surprise to some that Cincinnati quietly has a plenty of quickness on their roster. This has the makings of a game where Dalton gets back in the groove.
Another crack in the Charger facade is that of their kick and punt coverage teams. Last week, Kansas City started their drive past the 35-yard line on what seemed like every kickoff. Dexter McCluster on punts, and Quinton Demps on kickoffs, found open running lanes on every occasion. My guess is that the Bengals enjoy at least two scores that are directly related to their return game. The special teams for Cincinnati has been a bright spot so far in 2013 and this is a matchup that could significantly add to that dimension.
There is no getting around the fact that this game is to take place in California and that the Bengals have had a shoddy history of West Coast contests. They will perform in a different time zone and face a decent team on the road. I know these factors make it harder to win, and I have been far too dismissive in the past of such ethereal elements of the game, but the Bengals are a better team than the Chargers. At some point this organization needs to belong. The doubt must subside and the statements must be made. Winning this game would call for a worthy chest thump and would create a wave of optimism heading into an even bigger showdown the following week against Indy, but it's a game Cincinnati should win. If they are really gonna do something this year, it starts tomorrow.
Bengals 31, Chargers 26