It’s finally Thursday.
It is the biggest game of the division, helping to decide who wears the AFC West crown between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers.
Oh, and in case you didn’t hear — Eric Berry’s back.
The last time these two teams met up with each other, the Chiefs jumped out to a lead early, let it get close in the second quarter, then blew it wide open in the third with a 19-point lead. The Chiefs defense saw early signs of problems that have plagued them all year — the linebackers couldn’t cover the Chargers running backs, the safeties struggled with deep coverage and the run defense struggled.
That game seems like forever ago at this point. The personnel each team uses and the ways each team has settled into their scheme has evolved throughout the season. One of the top offenses and defenses in the league, the Chargers aren’t to be taken lightly this week, despite their nine-game losing streak against the Chiefs.
As I’ve covered the Chargers and their tendencies in a post earlier this year, this week we’ll take a look at what’s changed in the Los Angeles personnel, some more elements to watch out for Thursday night and what the Chiefs can do to improve on their performance.
The Chargers offense
Philip Rivers is well known to every Chiefs fan. His shot-putting delivery of the football has been especially potent this year, throwing for 29 touchdowns and 6 interceptions — one coming in week one against the Chiefs. He’s been poor in Arrowhead since 2013, throwing just two touchdowns in that timespan to go with six interceptions.
Running back is a major question mark for the Chargers offense Thursday night. Austin Ekeler will miss the matchup and Melvin Gordon will be a game-time decision in his first game back from a knee injury. The first time these teams met this year, those two put up 189 yards through the air. Needless to say, they’re a big loss if both are inactive. Attempting to replace them are rookies Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome. Jackson is a slighter built back with good acceleration and quick jump-cuts. He catches the ball well and is elusive, but can be brought down easily. Newsome is a bigger back and could find success in between the tackles for tougher yardage.
The wide receiving corps is the same as the last matchup, led by all-world receiver Keenan Allen and his precise route running skills. Tyrell Williams lines up opposite Allen. He, Mike Williams and Travis Benjamin are capable of taking the top off of a defense with their speed. AFC West stalwarts Virgil Green and Antonio Gates continue to man the ship at tight end.
The Chargers continue to boast an athletic interior offensive line with Mike Pouncey, Dan Feeney, and Michael Schofield III. Russell Okung is still the starter at left tackle opposite of Sam Tevi — who replaced Joe Barksdale, injured in the Week 1 matchup. Both Okung and Tevi have found themselves under scrutiny this year for multiple uncalled false starts on big plays for the Chargers offense.
How to defend
Pivot routes on third down
The Chargers run so many crossers that they'll eat up corners with pivot routes against man coverage on third downs. Against C2 man, Allen takes advantage of off coverage at the sticks, selling the crosser before slamming on the brakes and whipping back outside for a first down. pic.twitter.com/98Es8hW15y— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 12, 2018
In Week 1, the Chargers offense ate up the Chiefs secondary with crossing routes. Los Angeles runs a fair amount of mesh concepts and high-low reads to beat man coverage, forcing cornerbacks to track the receiver all the way across the field and stressing any hook defenders in the middle of the field. With cornerbacks looking for the crossing route, the Chargers will run pivot routes in situations where they need the first down.
Above, the defense is in a Cover 2 man shell with the cornerback opposite Allen in off-man coverage. With this free release, he sells the slant/crosser, and the cornerback breaks to keep up with him. Allen slams on the brakes and whips back outside on the pivot route. The cornerback can’t plant to cut back to the boundary, but Rivers is able to put the ball on Allen, and it’s an easy first-down conversion.
While some may have nightmares of Kendall Fuller and Orlando Scandrick struggling in press coverage against Allen in Week 1, they’ll need to lean on it on it this week. Allen is especially dangerous, populating his route tree with double moves. Disrupting his release and delaying the timing on these routes — as well as giving the cornerback an aid to “feel” the route — can allow the Chiefs pass rush to force throws early and take some of these routes out of the playbook.
Alignment between the RT and RG
Late alignment shifts involving between the RT and RG can pay dividends in both the run and passing game this week. Here, Carlos Dunlap shifts his alignment to a 4i just prior to the snap, and with a feint on the blitz from the slot corner, neither the RT or RG picks him up. pic.twitter.com/kLiZLFRt1u— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 12, 2018
Even though Tevi has been in the lineup since Week 1, there are still communication issues between him and other members of the line. Over several games in my watch, there were multiple occasions of Tevi getting beat inside by defenders that shift into a 4i alignment pre-snap, similar to the one shown above.
With the edge defender initially lining up outside the tackle, the line communicates protections. Just before the snap, he shifts inside the tackle’s inside shoulder. With a feint on the blitz from the slot corner, protections aren’t shifted and neither blocker picks up the edge defender, leaving him free to run at Rivers.
Bob Sutton showed last week in Justin Houston’s strip-sack that he’s able to exploit tendencies in protection breakdowns. Using interior linemen shifting outward in three tight defensive linemen formations or shifting Houston and Dee Ford inside with their alignments in four down situations, Sutton could exploit it to find some free rushers and run defenders this week.
Around the horn in outside zone
LAC will spring the RB by pulling around the horn in their outside zone runs when they see 4/4i alignment from the DL in four down fronts. These plays are from the same drive, with the playside guard stepping around the horn to take the LB/S and spring the RB off tackle. pic.twitter.com/SDNuCpZTX7— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 12, 2018
Speaking of 4i alignment, the Chargers will pull the play-side guard on their outside zone runs when they see a defensive tackle in that alignment in four down fronts. Looping this frontside guard over the top of the tackle is called pulling “around the horn”.
Shown above are two plays from the same scoring drive utilizing Jackson in the backfield. With the play-side defensive tackle lined up in a 4i and the strong-side linebacker aligned outside of the tackle, the Chargers motion a tight end to the play side of the formation. The tight end kicks out on the edge defender and the left tackle blocks down on the defensive tackle. This frees up the left guard to pull around the horn and get to the second level to wall off the linebacker on the second level. This allows Jackson to hit the C/D gap hard without having to beat a defender until the third level of the defense.
As the guard in outside zone is trying to climb to the strong-side linebacker, the alignment of the defensive tackle and the linebacker makes this difficult. By pulling around the horn here, he’s still able to reach the linebacker and keep the gap clear for Jackson.
This defensive alignment is implemented from time to time by the Chiefs and will require quick key recognition from the tackle and linebacker to help stop outside zone runs. The tackle will have to attack the vacated B-gap upfield rapidly to either force an early read by the back or a wider berth to get past the tackle. In addition to that, the linebacker will need to key off of the pulling guard to recognize and attack the C/D gap. Meeting and stacking the pulling guard in the gap can force Jackson to try to cut back or bounce outside to where the Chiefs edge defenders will (hopefully) be setting the edge.
The bottom line
On paper, this is a tough matchup.
The Chiefs defense is poor. They let Rivers carve them up in Week 1 for over 400 yards while allowing another 120-plus on the ground. Keenan Allen is a helluva receiver, and they still have four other starting caliber game-breakers at the position. Their interior offensive line can move and Rivers doesn’t take many sacks or throw many interceptions.
But we’ve been here before. Bob Sutton owns Philip Rivers in Kansas City.
The Chargers look like they might be without two of the players that helped rack up big yards against the Chiefs last time, keeping them within striking distance — even if it was still two scores.
Jackson should still find some success in the run game. He’s a good player that has the burst and elusiveness to pick up extra yards for this offense. However, he’s still a step down from a healthy Gordon and Ekeler. In the passing game, Sutton’s propensity for rolling a safety into the flats to help with backs has grown since Week 1, when it happened very infrequently. Coupled with the emergence of Dorian O’Daniel, there’s definite help to defend one of the biggest weaknesses from that first matchup.
The Chiefs pass rush seems to find another level when playing against Rivers at home — especially in primetime. Sutton’s zone blitzes, stunts, and non-traditional 4-man rushes have typically created lots of pressure in KC against a Chargers offense that tends to get to the line slower and take a more methodical approach. Rivers inability to shift and set protections at the line in a raucous Arrowhead Stadium has been tested several times now against Sutton. He’s consistently struggled to get it right.
Even though this defense is poor, there are many factors going for it this week. Sutton’s scheme against Rivers, the Chiefs pass rush hitting all cylinders and a running back group that isn’t fully healthy could shift the matchup in favor of the Chiefs defense this week. They just need to make sure they come out flying high tomorrow night and play with energy.
I know a guy that might be able to help with that.
This is how we rock.— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 12, 2018
TOMORROW #LACvsKC pic.twitter.com/eAsC8jToBc