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Behind Enemy Lines: Has Philip Rivers seen his 2018 performance get overshadowed?

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Has Philip Rivers been overshadowed this season, and will he shine bright against the Bengals?

Wild Card Playoffs - San Diego Chargers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Bengals have a tough task against the Chargers this week as they fight to stay mathematically eligible for the playoffs, so we took this chance to catch up with Jamie Sewell of Bolts from the Blue to get his perspective on the game.

Patrick Judis: Philip Rivers is in the process of having one of his best seasons, but we still don’t seem to hear that much about him compared to other guys like Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes. What do you think about Rivers seemingly flying under the radar this year?

Jamie Sewell: I think that Rivers has been the third-best quarterback in the NFL this year, behind the aforementioned Brees and Mahomes (You could slip Goff in at #3 too, but I’m biased, so we won’t do that!). He’s playing some exceptional football. Rivers has always had a command of the offense and the accuracy to rival any QB in the league, but where Rivers would often fall short was in trying to play ‘heroball’.

The Chargers have had a few rough seasons recently for a myriad of reasons (bad coaching, injuries, lack of talent, or just terrible luck), but a common theme throughout has been that when times are tough, Rivers thinks that he has to carry the team on his shoulders and takes risks with the football that he really doesn’t need to in an attempt to put as many points on the board as possible. That worked sometimes (Rivers throws a beautiful deep ball), but it also meant that any time the Chargers were in a hole against a better team, a Rivers throw into triple coverage was coming like clockwork.

Whether it’s because the Chargers have the best team they’ve had in a long time, or Rivers has finally realized that he doesn’t need to be the hero, he’s playing some of the best football of his career. It’s a shame he’s getting slightly overlooked by the media, but when Mahomes and Brees have been playing so well, it’s understandable.

The Chargers have three primetime games this month, though (the win over the Steelers, followed by the Chiefs on TNF and the Ravens on Saturday Night), so the world might get to see a little more of Philip Rivers. I don’t think he should win the MVP (realistically, how can you give it to anyone other than Brees, Mahomes, or maybe Aaron Donald?), but it does slightly sadden me to see him not even be mentioned in the conversation. For my money, there aren’t many better right now.

PJ: Melvin Gordon is dealing with an injury right now. What are the chances of him possibly playing, and what is the confidence level in the running backs behind him?

JS: Only an idiotic franchise would throw Melvin Gordon out there on Sunday, so you should expect to see him suit up and get 30 carries.

In all seriousness, I’d be majorly surprised if he plays on Sunday. He’s yet to practice this week, and with the playoffs hopefully on the horizon, the Chargers should really be thinking about holding him out until he’s 100%. Part of the reason that they can afford to do that is because the backup running backs behind them are so talented.

Austin Ekeler (No. 30) has been incredible as both a runner and a receiver this season, but in two games as a starter he’s yet to really show what he can do if given a bigger workload. I choose to pin that on offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, for the most part. Whisenhunt is a pretty good offensive coordinator, but he seems unwilling to tailor the offense to Ekeler’s skill set with Gordon out of the lineup.

Ekeler is so dangerous in space and can really hurt teams when given opportunities to get to the outside, but almost the entirety of the handoffs he’s taken as a starter have been up the gut. It’s made all the more frustrating by the fact that when Ekeler is used as the complimentary back, Whisenhunt shows that he knows perfectly well how to use him. I’m pinning my hopes on the fact that the first time Gordon was out was a true game-time decision so he wouldn’t have had time to completely change the playbook, and he only had a week to tailor it for Ekeler against the Steelers. Hopefully with the extra week of knowing Gordon is unlikely to play, Whisenhunt has looked at ways to help Ekeler as the lead back.

If he doesn’t, expect Ekeler to not be as productive as he should be, which is both a blessing and a curse for the Bengals, because that will mean a bigger workload for Justin Jackson (#32). Jackson was the team’s seventh round pick this year out of Northwestern, but an injury in preseason meant that he’s only just getting a chance to show what he can do. His first meaningful action came last week against the Steelers, and he took full advantage.

The Steelers had no answers to Jackson, and the Chargers rode him for eight carries for 63 yards, and a vital touchdown to help the Chargers pick up the win. Jackson does a lot of things really well—he’s really shifty, and he has a tremendously impressive range of stiff arms in the open field. Some people called Justin Jackson the sleeper of the entire draft class, and while I often think that such labels are complete hyperbole, I’m definitely excited to see more of him after last week’s showing.

Third string running back Detrez Newsome (No. 38; UDFA from Western Carolina) can do a job when given the chance, too. He’s a real power back who doesn’t go down on first contact, drags defenders with him and also has the best touchdown celebration I’ve seen in a while. You’ll be hoping you don’t see it on Sunday, so here’s a link to him doing it in the preseason.

PJ: This season, there has been plenty of love given to the offenses, but let’s talk about the Chargers defense, as it is one of the better units in the NFL. What are some of the biggest things they do to give opposing offenses trouble?

JS: Interesting question! The Chargers play a very simple, cover 3 scheme for the most part. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley ran it in Seattle, and it’s the same type of defense that you saw with the “Legion of Boom”, as well as with Atlanta when Dan Quinn took over there.

I wouldn’t say that there’s anything special in the defensive scheme, although Bradley does do a nice job of moving players around and causing headaches for opposing offenses in that way. I think the main reason the Chargers defense is playing so well is because there’s just too many playmakers not to be performing at a high level!

Now that Joey Bosa (#99) is back healthy, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better pass-rushing duo than Bosa and Melvin Ingram (No. 54). Bradley loves moving those two around, so expect them to swap sides, and for Ingram to line up inside sometimes (as well as dropping back twenty yards into coverage occasionally for no real reason).

On the back-end, Casey Hayward (#26) has quietly been one of the best cornerbacks in the league since joining the Chargers from Green Bay, and second-year slot cornerback Desmond King (#20) is the definition of a ballhawk. He was a fifth-round pick from Iowa a year ago after winning the Jim Thorpe award for the best defensive back in college, and everyone was mystified as to why he lasted until that late in the draft. He’s shown that he’s more than capable of making the step up to the NFL, and (again, quietly) has become one of the best slot CBs in the NFL. He’s sticky in coverage, aggressive in the tackle, and is also an excellent punt returner despite lacking top end speed—as evidenced by the one he took to the house against the Steelers last week.

As for Derwin James (#33)... that’s just a special player. Honestly, I could write way too much about just how good James is, and I’d bore you all to sleep. I’m not usually in favor of crowning rookies so early on into their career, but it’s pretty clear that James is going to be an All-Pro level safety for a long time. He moves around all over the field (he’s played box safety, free safety, lined up on the defensive line, played some slot cornerback and even some snaps at outside cornerback) and impacts the game wherever he goes. Any team who let him fall to no. 17 in the draft (thanks, Oakland!) must be scratching their heads right about now.

However, I don’t want to give the impression the Chargers are the perfect defense, because they most certainly aren’t. Next to James is free safety Jahleel Addae (No. 37), who is...meh. Addae had a career year last year playing in the box, and as pretty much the only Chargers writer on BFTB who was pro-Addae, I felt vindicated.

However, with the arrival of James, Addae has been pushed back into playing free safety, and he’s a total liability. He just has no idea what he’s doing out there. He’s routinely late in coverage, and takes some of the most horrendous angles to the ball you have ever seen. The touchdown he gave up to George Kittle was something else.

The Chargers are also missing the majority of their ‘good’ linebackers due to injuries (Denzel Perryman and Kyzir White are both out for the season), and they’re without Corey Liuget at defensive tackle. They’re not awful at stopping the run, but I definitely wouldn’t call them stout, and there’s some real weaknesses in the passing game if you can get after the line backers in coverage, isolate Addae, or throw at Michael Davis (No. 43).

Davis is the cornerback who’s playing opposite Casey Hayward, after Trevor Williams has failed to live up to his sensational season from a year ago (he was an UDFA in year one, played outstandingly year two but unfortunately hasn’t been the same player this year). The coaches have now benched Williams (who’s also suffering with a knee injury) for Davis, an UDFA a year ago from BYU. Davis has the size (6’2”) and speed (4.3) you look for in a corner, but he’s clearly raw, and teams have been going after him in coverage with a decent amount of success.

It’s an intimidating defense on paper, but there are definitely holes to exploit.

PJ: Who is a player on either side of the ball that you don’t think gets enough love that people that aren’t Chargers fans should know about?

JS: Usually my answer to this is Austin Ekeler, but seeing as he’s starting on Sunday, I’ll have to go for someone else. On offense, I’ll say center Mike Pouncey (#53). Pouncey came over from the Dolphins this offseason, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the Chargers would probably be two or three wins worse off without his addition. It’s not a great offensive line around him, but Pouncey is making everything tick. He’s absurdly athletic and is best when out in space, attacking linebackers and creating holes downfield for whoever is playing at running back to hit. He’s also been impressive as a pass protector, helping to keep Rivers upright.

On defense, I’ll go with Adrian Phillips (#31). Phillips is a safety who’s been on the team for a few years after joining as an undrafted free agent, and was usually a scapegoat whenever he was on the field due to, well, not being very good.

However, the team loved him and stuck with him every season, and he’s rewarding them with an outstanding season. Injuries to linebackers have pushed him into playing a lot of snaps there, and despite only being 210 pounds (on a good day) he’s excelling. He’s gone from being ‘Just a Guy’ to making crucial plays at crucial times, and he’s a vital part of this defense—which is something I thought I’d ever be saying!

PJ: What is your prediction for the game? And can the Bengals cover the two touchdown spread?

JS: I think they can. The Chargers have a tendency to make every game closer than it should be, and I don’t know if there’s a team in the league in which they face that I’d predict the Chargers to win by two touchdowns. If the Chargers do win this one, though, they’re virtually a lock for the playoffs, and I think they can get it done on Sunday. I’ll say 31-21 Chargers.

Thanks again to Jaimie Sewell for taking the time out to answer our questions. You can check out more of his work and Chargers coverage at Bolts from the Blue.