I have never been one of these Croyle advocates who called for him to start when Cassel was struggling. And that's not to say that I've been sold on Cassel the whole season either (although now I'm fairly convinced that he's blossoming into the sought-after QB everyone thought he was in the tizzy to trade for him the off-season after he stepped-in for Brady).
All that being said, I think, in this game, at this moment, in this season, Croyle is not only going to perform well on Sunday, but may turn some heads in the process.
The Chargers are great...on paper.
First, lets take a few things into account about our opponent. The much-hyped Chargers are struggling. I love arguing with Chargers fans because they almost have a sense of entitlement to the AFC West title every year. "They always start late". "Phillip Rivers is one of the top 3 QB's in the league." "We have the #1 offense and defense in the NFL, its only special teams that are holding us back."
The third statement, to me, is the most absurd. Statistically, yes, the Chargers have allowed on average the fewest yards on defense. And yes, they have a lot of offensive yards. But average yards a game isn't the sole indicator of offensive/defensive effectiveness. Part of the reason their numbers are inflated is because of their poor special teams play. Typically, they are looking at a very long field whenever they get the ball. Also, when opposing offenses get the ball, often times they don't need a lot of yards to get a touchdown. This is the reason why, although they lead the league in yards allowed, they are 16th in points allowed.
The Charger defense barks loud on paper but bites like a 90-year-old with their dentures out on Sunday -- as was evident last Sunday against the Raiders. If you haven't seen that game yet and can, watch it -- you see the Chargers get destroyed for 60 minutes. There was never a moment in this game when the Chargers were in it. A few key stats:
-- Time of Possession -- 38:39 for the Raiders.
-- 3rd Down Conversions -- 8/15, (2/2 on 4th) for the Raiders, 3/10 (0/2) for the Chargers
-- First-downs rushed-for by the Chargers -- ZERO.
-- Rushing Yards for the Chargers -- 21.
The scoreboard didn't say it but the Raiders stomped the Chargers.
Another problem the Chargers were having was actually with Rivers' accuracy. Yes, invincible, all-awesome, all-knowing Phillip Rivers threw MANY terrible passes in last week's game. Some due to pressure, others that were just botched passes. Even when he was throwing completions, the ball was off the mark, not hitting the receiver in stride.
This was due in part to the Raiders playing a very solid gameplan against the Chargers (that I think we should emmulate). They dropped at least two and up to four guys into deep zone coverage every pass. Sometimes this was over the top of man coverage and other times just big zone coverages. Rivers seemed exceptionally frustrated by this, especially with those deep crossing-routes and post routes that he throws so well. The Raiders took those throws away from him and tackled the check-down guy well the whole game and the result was an anemic performance by the Charger's offense.
And finally, the Chargers special teams were terrible again. On top of that, the primary kick returner will in all likelihood not be playing against the Chiefs as he sustained a concussion on this devastating hit by Rolando McClain (this clip should be rated at least R).
Getting back to Croyle, the point of all of this is that although this is a big game, we're facing an opponent who does not even come close to the Cowboys-esque hype they have been showered with all season.
So how does Croyle fit into this? Well lets just break this down pro-con style.
-- He's brittle -- This has been the primary reason he hasn't started nearly as much as his competition since he was drafted. There are some positions in the NFL where, if a player suffers occasional injuries, the team and the gameplan can remain unphased. QB is NOT one of them. Thus, in spite of some consistent performances in pre-season and during other opportunities and even some moments of brilliance, he just can't be a starting QB because you can't rely on him to be able to play every week.
-- Inexperience in big games -- We have never seen Croyle in a situation like Sunday will present. His capacity to step-up in the clutch is a total wild-card. We'll see.
-- Game speed -- I think this is the biggest one. No amount of practice can prepare a player, especially a QB, to be fully adapted to the speed of the NFL. Croyle will need a drive or two before he's really comfortable.
-- System -- Croyle is not some vet we picked-up off the street or a burn-out first round pick working on his second chance. He's been a Chief for the same duration and in the same system as Cassel for just as long. He's not some scrub -- he's a guy we've been developing for years now.
-- Culture -- One of the main reasons the Chiefs have had such a great season, even with many roster deficiencies, is that everyone has bought into the culture of Chiefs Will. In those types of locker-room environments, back-up QB's do their homework just as much as starters. This isn't some half-baked rebuilding team that has stumbled into some wins, its a motivated group of young players who believe in each other.
-- Arm -- anyone who has watched Croyle play before knows that he's got plenty of arm. He can make all the throws on the route tree. At times, he has struggled with precision. But the types of passes that will get the Chiefs going (below) won't be the kind that require pin-point accuracy.
-- the Other 10 -- the Chiefs have had a successful offense this year because of contributions from all the offensive players on the field. And since Croyle has been a product of that system for as long as Cassel, he should be able to take advantage of some of the same weapons/tactics that Cassel has all season.
Why Croyle can win and impress:
1. Contain defense -- The Chargers were AWFUL at contain defense last week.
Take this play for example. Cambell does a simple play-fake to the right and Applewhite just has no clue. The laugh-factor on this one is a 10 out of 10, a real "com' on man!" moment.
While this may seem anecdotal, it was actually a pretty consistent problem for the Chargers the whole game. Applewhite was actually less guilty of failing to set the edge as Shaun Phillips was. Part of the reason why the Raiders were able to run the ball for 251 yards on the Chargers defense.
When the OLB's in a 3-4 defense have to over-compensate for containment, their pass-rushing ability is substantially mitigated. Thus, early in the game, the Chiefs have got to catch Applewhite and Phillips losing contain.
Look for the Chiefs to use Charles to do this. Another way to take advantage of this is McCluster coming on reverses or at least frequently coming across the backfield to take the fake from Croyle. I wouldn't be surprised to see McCluster get multiple hand-offs on reverses and maybe even a big gain or two.
Once the Chargers began to over-compensate for lack of containment in the second half against the Raiders, much more running opportunities started to present themselves up the middle as well. And since both Luis Castillo and Antonio Garay are pretty beat-up, those inside rushes can have pretty high success rates. The Raiders had just 2 plays for negative yards (not counting QB kneels). One was for -2. The other was a sack for -1.
2. Seattle parallels
Going into the Seattle game, it seemed as though the Chief's offense had been decrypted and destroyed -- put 8 guys in the box to stop the run, make Matt Cassel beat you. Well, he did...with remarkable efficiency.
Similarly, in this game, if you're the Chargers, you've gotta be thinking 'make the back-up beat us'. So I would expect to see a lot of guys in the box, especially early in the game.
The problem with putting that many guys in the box is that you often times leave your corners on islands without safety help over the top. This typically means that the corner has got to play off of the receiver by a few yards to avoid getting burned deep. Here's how that worked-out for Seattle on Bowe's 3rd touchdown.
Expecting run, Seattle crowds the box and the result is Bowe's slant is good for a touchdown. If you play off of Bowe, a quick 3-step drop on a slant pattern will work very often. And this is a throw that isn't too difficult to make, a throw that can get Croyle into a rhythm. We threw it a LOT in the Seattle game.
The Chargers have a much better CB than any player for Seattle, however, so they may choose to put Quentin Jammer tight on Bowe in press coverage. But Bowe is great with his hands and very strong so this is an exceptionally risky move for the Bolts. One missed jam and its a huge gain. Furthermore, the 3rd down conversion against the Seahawks that ended the game was also a good indication of Bowe's route-running ability and how he can beat press coverage. Bowe ran about 2 steps into a slant and then wheeled around behind the defenders back into a fade pattern that was good for 17 yards on a 3rd and 1 with 5:57 left in the game. This double move was pretty and the sort of thing that can create big plays early.
If Croyle can employ some of the techniques that Cassel did to beat the 8-in-the-box strategy that the Chargers will likely employ, he can get into a rhythm and force the Bolts to loosen defensive formations in a way that allows for more power running. Against the Raiders, the Bolts were terrible against the run.
3. Chargers offensive woes.
The Chargers ran the ball for 21 yards against the Raiders. You read that correctly -- 21 yards. This is because of 3 factors in my opinion: 1. Tolbert has a broken right hand which means he's a fumble risk every time he touches the ball. 2. Sproles got hurt -- see hit above...ouch. 3. the Chargers are very quick to give-up on the run if they get down by many points and put the game in Rivers' hands.
All three of those factors could be similar in the Chiefs game this weekend. Tolbert will still have a broken hand, Sproles probably won't play at all, and we have demonstrated this season that we can score early in games.
Furthermore, the more the Chargers spread the field the throw the ball, the better our defense gets. I made a post about the Chief's 2-4 nickel defense earlier this season and so far, they've had a lot of success in that package. An early lead means the Chargers may give us lots of opportunities from that formation.
Lastly, Rivers just did not look sharp last week. His passes were inaccurate, he was missing receivers...I don't know what was going on but he just wasn't sharp. This is one of those passes he loves to throw -- high and over the middle -- but he throws it into coverage and the ball is just way too high for his receiver who's being blanketed by arguably the best CB in the league. This is just one example but he was looking bad the whole game. I think this was in part due to Oakland's persistent use of lots of deep coverage designed to take away those deep crosses and posts the Chargers run.
Keys to the Game:
1. The first quarter.
The Chiefs need to score in the first quarter. Putting San Diego behind means that they will quickly abandon the run and give our defense the ability to put our best foot forward in nickel package. If the Bolts jump out to an early lead, it could be big problems for Croyle who will feel the impending pressure of having to play catch-up.
On-schedule offense in the first quarter will also get Croyle accustomed to game speed early on.
2. Get Croyle involved without putting the game on his shoulders.
An outside may look at this game and think "well, the Chiefs should probably just rely on their #1 rushing attack and try to throw as little as possible." I think that this would be a mistake. Croyle has experience in this system, he practices the same offense that Cassel does, and will be surrounded by the same weapons on Sunday.
The Chiefs need to let him throw the ball some on our first few possessions. But those passes should be quick, 3-step drop, relatively non-difficult, low-risk passes just to get him accustomed to game speed. The Chiefs cannot win this game without Croyle making a play at some point. So we need to get him in rhythm early to avoid having him blow it late in the game.
3. Beat the 8-in-the-box strategy.
The Bolts will definitely come out of the gate attempting to shut-down the running game with numbers. We need to find a way to be successful against this strategy early in the game to get them to open-up and let us get our backfield working. This key to the game is almost entirely on Croyle's shoulders but a good scheme means the throws he'll have to make won't be all that difficult.
4. The edge's.
This play, I think, was one of the greatest examples of why we're able to protect the QB this year. Brandon Albert had been using his quick-feet to get out on the pass rusher early in the game, sticking to his outside shoulder to ensure that containment/edge rushing was limited. This sets-up this play against the 49ers, because the contain man attempts to make an inside move to get to the QB. Albert shoves him to the inside to take him out of the play as Cassel delays slightly and sprints to hand-off to Charles. Once the contain man is out of the play, Albert is setting a second-level block for Charles. The message to the defensive coordinator: our tackles are going to contain the edge rush and if you give-up containment, we'll make you pay with our home-run hitter.
Similarly, running against the edges of this Chargers defense that has been having problems containing can solve two problems for us:
a. Box-crowding. Instead of Phillips and Applewhite crashing to the inside, they have to stay at home to make sure they can set the edge. Once this isolates the 3 down linemen to a greater extent, we can take advantage of their nagging injuries and out-power them up front.
b. Pass rushing. OLB's have to account for the run, spefically draws, a lot more, giving Croyle more time to get comfortable in the pocket.
This is not a new strategy, its something we've been doing all year and the reason why we've been able to protect the QB so well.
5. Time of Possession.
Despite struggling last week, River's is still dangerous. Keeping him on the sideline is obviously advantageous. And an easy thing to do, apparently, because the Chargers cannot and/or are unwilling to run the football. The Chiefs, on the other hand, are the league's best rushing team. We can control the ball for the majority of the game if Croyle can hold his own against defensive alignments that force him to throw the football (8 in the box, etc.)
The Chargers are not nearly as good as their hype would suggest. Because of that and other factors, they are a very beatable team.
On Sunday, Croyle will play the most important game of his football career and, I think, because of assets that he has around him, he will rise to the challenge. This is a tremendous opportunity for him and given the culture that exists in the Chief's locker room right now, expect to see a team rise-up to support him in his most important moment.