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Breaking Down the Chargers Offense

Posted Nov 9, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at a Chargers offense that has spread the ball around this season.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Control. Quickness. And trusting an array of targets to the point where all must be accounted for by a defense. 

These are the hallmarks of Denver's passing offense. It's not a coincidence that former Broncos Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy has made these the bedrock principles on which he has renovated San Diego's offense. 

In one offseason, he transformed it from a feast-or-famine, chunk-driven attack to one that takes its yardage in sensible bites, and doesn't get into trouble by having Philip Rivers linger too long in the pocket by emphasizing long passes to late-opening receivers.

"(Rivers) is controlling the game," said Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "It doesn't matter what they're doing -- like they're leading the league in 10-play drives and I think he's been smarter with the football. 

"He's not just trying to get rid of the football. If he sees something that he doesn't like then he's going to try to buy time to make a good play. That's definitely something, not turning the ball over is different for him than it was last year."

Instead, Rivers takes what's conceded. He works the underneath routes. A veteran like tight end Antonio Gates, for instance, is more of a mid-range, possession target than someone who's going down the seam repeatedly. And in Danny Woodhead, he has a target who is the Chargers' most electric backfield receiving threat since the salad days of LaDainian Tomlinson.

Gates and Woodhead are both on pace for over 90 catches. San Diego hasn't had a 90-catch target in Rivers' eight years as starting quarterback -- or even an 80-catch target, something that 28 other teams have accomplished at least once since 2006. (Denver has had six pass-catchers post 80-reception seasons in that span and is on pace for three more this year.) 

The Chargers' inability to develop consistent pass-catching threats has been exacerbated in recent years; since 2008, San Diego has just two seasons in which one of its players caught at least 68 passes. They're on pace to surpass that five-year total this season, with rookie Keenan Allen's emergence putting him on pace for 68 receptions -- a figure he's likely to exceed based on his recent play, with 26 catches for 417 yards and three touchdowns in the last four games.

The Chargers' targets also don't drop many passes; just nine this year, according to Stats, Inc. With just 3.05 percent of their passes dropped, the Chargers are sixth-best in the league, and well below the league average of 4.74 percent. (For comparison, the Broncos rank 23rd, dropping 5.65 percent of their passes.)

Delivering the ball quickly means Rivers has to deal with pressure less often; according to ProFootballFocus.com, just 29.7 percent of Rivers' passes have come under pressure, 8.6 percent lower than last year. And when he's under pressure, he's more efficient; his quarterback rating his 30.5 points higher when he's under duress than in 2012.

That improvement largely comes from the emphasis on underneath options and his willingness to take them. As a result, Rivers is on pace to be sacked less often than ever before -- just once every 18.75 pass plays so far this season. His career rate is once every 11.7 pass plays, and in 2012, he was sacked once every 7.90 pass plays. The Broncos are unlikely to repeat their pass-rushing performance of last year, mainly because Rivers will have the ball out before arrival more often than not.

With all that, plus McCoy's detailed knowledge of the Broncos defense and much of its personnel, how do you throw the Chargers off-balance?

"We've got to disguise a lot," said cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. "Just playing against each other for however many years, they're going to be familiar with us, they know what type of players that we have on defense."

"(Rivers) is making smart decisions," Harris added, "and that's our job to try to confuse him and try to get a lot of pressure on him."

But at the same time, Harris doesn't think that shuffling up the looks before the snap will make much of a difference.

"At the end of the day, we play man. So, it's not too confusing," he said. "It's just, 'Can their man beat us?' I feel like we're ready."