Although it came three games later than expected, the San Diego Chargers (2-2, 0-1 AFC West) were finally able to put together a complete game in the 41-10 dismantling of the Arizona Cardinals (2-2) in front of 62,189 fans on Sunday afternoon.
Philip Rivers continued his statistically impressive season, completing 15/20 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns, while the defense sacked the Cardinals’ quarterbacks nine times and allowed only three points. The biggest sigh of relief for Chargers fans, however, came with the performance of the special teams units.
Much will be said about the improved special teams coverage – I’ll address it below– but kick coverage merely not giving the game away is not reason to celebrate. Or at least not yet.
The best news to take away from this game is that the Chargers once again have one of the most potent offenses in the National Football League despite all of the questions heading into the year.
LaDainian Tomlinson may be gone (and doing quite well for himself), but on Sunday Mike Tolbert was the first Charger to eclipse the century mark since 2008. He and rookie Ryan Mathews combined for 155 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns.
Philip Rivers hasn’t lost a step without Vincent Jackson, completing an obscene 75% of his passes to seven different receivers. Plus, until someone figures out how to cover Antonio Gates, it seems as if Rivers will be able to move the ball down field at will.
What impressed me most about the offense, however, was the effectiveness with which they moved the ball on first down. Picking up sizable yardage on first down opens the play book for Norv Turner and allows Rivers to take deep shots down field, the perfect example of which came on the Chargers first touchdown of the day.
After Mathews picked up seven yards on a first down carry, the Chargers faced second down and three – a short enough distance that Turner could let Rivers take a shot for the end zone and still face a manageable third down if the pass were to fall incomplete. But the combination of Gates’ ability to get open and Rivers’ accuracy on deep balls resulted in a 33-yard touchdown grab for the All-Pro tight end.
An offense that racks up yards on first down is one that will score a lot of points, just as the Chargers did on Sunday. Here is my account of how the Bolts did on first down on all nine offensive possessions orchestrated by Philip Rivers:
See the correlation? The Chargers averaged over seven yards on first down on 6 of their 8 (excluding a single carry to end the half) meaningful drives in the game, all of which resulted in points. San Diego finished the game averaging 6.37 yards on first down on the day – a surefire formula for success.
With such a powerful offense, the defense isn’t required to do too much – yet this unit continues to make big time plays. Whether it was Derek Anderson or Max Hall under center for the Cardinals didn’t matter – the opposing quarterback was under pressure all day and forced into careless mistakes.
On top of nine sacks, the defense forced three turnovers, scored once and forced a fumble on the 15 yard line that required only one Ryan Mathews carry from the offense to add seven more. The Bolts’ defense alone outscored the Cardinals offense after holding them to 3 points that came on a Jay Feely 53 yard field goal.
It was, in fact, a defensive play that shifted momentum early in the game for the Chargers. Safety Steve Gregory responded to a Tim Hightower touchdown that was called back on a holding penalty by intercepting Derek Anderson and keeping the Cardinals off the board on the first drive.
It took Philip Rivers little time after that to find Antonio Gates in the end zone and jump out to a quick 7-0 lead. The Cardinals offense wouldn’t get close to finding the end zone offensively again.
And with that, here are the other things that I liked (and even a few dislikes that I managed to muster up) following the rout of the Cardinals on Sunday:
What I liked, Besides Giving Up No Special Teams Touchdowns
After Sunday’s performance, maybe it’s this Shaun that deserves to be the linebacker in the spotlight for San Diego. Phillips had a career day in every sense of the word, tallying six tackles, a mind-boggling four sacks and an interception that he returned 31 yards for a touchdown. Not much else needs to be said – he simply dominated.
It was another day at the office for Gates, and another monster performance. The tight end caught 7 balls for 144 yards (a 20.6 yard-per-catch average) and two scores. While much was said about his 500th career reception, it was Gates’ 501st – a 26 yard touchdown grab - that gave the Chargers a 21-7 lead and effectively put the game away. Despite clearly being Rivers’ most consistent receiving threat, Gates continues to thwart coverage schemes and get open. Perhaps more impressive than his stat line – every ball that Philip Rivers threw his way Gates came down with.
This was a quiet shift in the schematics of kickoff coverage that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. While kicker Nate Kaeding regularly puts the ball in one third of the field – usually outside the hash to the left or the right – on Sunday there was an added emphasis to his direction on kickoffs. All but one of Kaeding’s kicks landed outside the numbers to the right, and the other was an attempted deep left that went out of bounds. Although he sacrificed overall distance, this ball placement effectively eliminates the possibility of a field return and forces the opposition up the sideline. It was a huge component to the improvements to this team witnessed on Sunday.
Points off Turnovers
The turnover battle is always a point of emphasis, and the Chargers won it this week by forcing three turnovers and only coughing up the rock once. While it’s one thing to force a turnover, it’s another to capitalize on it. San Diego did this to perfection, with each Cardinals turnover resulting in a touchdown for the Bolts.
The sixth year linebacker may not be a household name for Chargers fans, but he played like one against Arizona. Burnett led the team in tackles with eight and also notched two sacks, one of which took the Cardinals out of field goal range in the first quarter when the game was still close.
What I Didn’t Like, Besides Another Blackout
The lopsided final score will allow this bit to go relatively unnoticed, but fumblitis continues to plague the San Diego running backs this year. Ryan Mathews has two, Mike Tolbert one and Darren Sproles added his second of the year on Sunday. To make matters worse, Kerry Rhodes returned Sproles’ fumble for a touchdown – the only time the Cardinals reached paydirt all day. They got away with it this week, but against a better team giving away a touchdown on offense can become a costly, costly mistake.
It’s the tale of two teams for the Chargers, who apparently love the comfort of home but clam up away from the San Diego sunshine. The Bolts lead opponents 79-23 in two home victories this year, yet have fallen apart on the road in the losses at Kansas City and Seattle. I love the Chargers I see at Qualcomm Stadium, but good teams win on the road, plain and simple. They’ll have a chance to change this this week with an important divisional game at Oakland.
Around the AFC West
With a Kansas City bye this weekend, San Diego gained ground in the division with a victory on Sunday. Unfortunately for Chargers fans, so did the Broncos (2-2, 0-0 AFC West) with an impressive win over Tennessee, 26-20. The Raiders, meanwhile, dropped to last place in the division with a 31-24 loss to Houston.
Grade the Chargers
Was the dismantling of a poor team enough to ease your concerns about this Chargers team, or do you expect the team’s woes on the road to continue next week? Is this just another instance of a Norv Turner team taking September off, or will they drop below .500 again sometime this season? What did you like or not like from Sunday’s performance? Chime in below.
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