One year ago this time no one, including most San Diego Chargers fans, had high hopes for the team. Philip Rivers was coming off two down seasons. Ryan Mathews had yet to look like a first-round talent. There were offensive line questions and no one knew how the receivers would produce. The defense on paper appeared okay, but no one really knew. On top of all of that, the team had a rookie head coach in Mike McCoy.
Everyone would soon find out the truth. McCoy handled his first season well. The offense played much better than expected, but the defense struggled to find consistency most of the season. Even with the struggles, the team found a way to make the playoffs and win a road playoff game.
Due to last season’s success, expectations are for the team to fight for a playoff spot again. The question is can the Chargers improve on last season or will they struggle this season.
One of the surprises last season was the success of Keenan Allen. Allen fell to the third-round due to injury, but everyone knew he was talented, just not to the level he showed. He caught people off-guard all season to the tune of 71 catches, 1,046 yards, and eight touchdowns. All while still working his way to 100 percent health. Allen told Utsandiego.com, “I’m a deep threat now.” If that is true, defensive backs should be worried about what this young receiver will be able to do for an encore.
As good as Allen’s rookie season was, the team will need someone else to step up and be a consistent threat with him. Right now Vincent Brown has a calf injury. Malcom Floyd is coming off a neck injury. Seyi Ajirotutu has shown some promise but he needs to continue to grow. Behind those players are rookies. Someone will need to show they can be a strong No. 2 receiver for Rivers to throw to.
Rivers had a renaissance last season. He had his highest completion percentage of his career last season, 69.5 percent. Ken Wisenhunt helped Rivers out in several ways that Frank Reich should pay attention to. According to Profootballfocus.com, Rivers threw 17 percent of his passes to running backs on non-screen plays, which was third-highest in the league. He also stayed in the shotgun 91.5 percent of the time which was second-highest in the league. Under Norv Turner, throwing the ball deep was the norm. Last season, Rivers only threw two percent of his passes 30 yards or more in the air, which was the lowest percentage in the league.
Ryan Mathews found the retooled offensive line helpful as he had his best season as pro. He averaged a solid 4.4 yards per rush and helped bring balance to the Chargers offense. Danny Woodhead was the Chargers receiving threat out of the backfield. He had 76 receptions for 605 yards. The Chargers will probably follow that formula again this season with a little Donald Brown sprinkled in.
An expert’s take
In an e-mail conversation with beat writer Tom Krasovic of UT San Diego, he explained his only concern for the Chargers offense was in the red zone. “Improve the red-zone offense. Kicker Nate Kaeding was very efficient, but by scoring more touchdowns, the Chargers may pick up an extra win or two or three this year.” An offense that can consistently score in the red zone goes from good to great.
On defense Krasovic has far more concerns. “Improve the defense in all aspects — tackling, pass rush, pass, run.” The defense played better late in the season but improvement is needed across the board, He went on to say, “Play better against the weaker teams. Losses to the Raiders and Redskins last year widened the Denver-SD gap.” A defense that plays inconsistently itself can ill-afford to take a team for granted.
The team has tried to address the defensive issues as much as possible with the limited cap space the team had available. Brandon Flowers is an upgrade at the cornerback position and first-round pick Jason Verrett should help too in the secondary. The team hopes that Dwight Freeney can stay healthy and that he still has some tread on his tires. Melvin Ingram further removed from his ACL tear should also help the rush be more consistent.
Up the middle of the defense it is up to Manti Te’O and Donald Butler to become stouter against the run. Te’O at times last season seemed to be thinking too much. It was almost like he was timid about attacking the hole. Hopefully, this season he will be able to play more on his instincts and not over-process situations.
Eric Weddle continues to be a rock at the free safety position. If there is a play to be made, you will find Weddle in the vicinity (like his fake punt against the Chiefs last season). Marcus Gilchrist‘s numbers appear to be solid, but he can play better. He started all 16 games last season at strong safety for the first time in his career. The Chargers hope he can build on that experience this season.
The bottom line
The Chargers have a solid roster. If they can stay healthy they should be able to compete with anybody. Last year they snuck up on people, this season teams will be prepared. Add to that the fact they play the AFC West, which is considered by many one of the best divisions in football. They also have difficult games against the New England Patriots at home and travel to play the Baltimore Ravens. Not to mention they play in a division that had two other playoff teams last season.
Prediction: 9-7, Wild Card playoff berth
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports Images