ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Chargers Defensive Coordinator John Pagano was asked at his Thursday press conference in San Diego about the best way to disrupt the Broncos offense, his response was quick -- and unexpected.
"Drop probably 11 guys?" he replied.
Pagano was joking. But no one in the room laughed until he noted the crickets that greeted his quip. That shows just how daunting the Broncos' offense appears to those who don't observe it on a day-to-day basis.
On paper, the primary matchup of concern to the Chargers defense is Denver's passing game, and with good reason: the Chargers are ranked 31st on a per-play basis against the pass, permitting 7.42 yards per pass play, while the Broncos lead the league, averaging 8.267 yards per pass play against defenses that have collectively given up 6.70 yards per pass play.
Pagano's primary tactic will be to try to confuse the Broncos, so watch for pressure from unexpected places and constant shuffling of defenders.
"Our theme of this week is disguise and disrupt," Pagano said.
THE PASS RUSH
As a team, the Chargers are slightly below the league average in generating quarterback hurries (as tabulated by ProFootballFocus.com), averaging one every 3.194 pass plays, just below the league pace of one per 3.118 pass plays. Their sack ratio of one every 14.85 pass plays is also just below league average (one every 14.57 pass plays).
What is interesting is that they're not generating hits that result in hurried throws, rather than sacks; they are credited by ProFootballFocus.com with 21 hurries -- just one more than their sack total. Thus, while their sack rate is in the middle of the pack, their hit rate is way down -- one every 14.1 pass plays, fifth-worst in the league.
The pass rush has been inconsistent in recent weeks. After getting at least two sacks in each of their first four games for a total of nine, the Chargers have alternated between feasts (four sacks against Oakland in Week 5; six sacks at Jacksonville in Week 7) and famines (one sack against Indianapolis in Week 6; none against Washington in Week 9). Some of this is due to the nature of the quarterbacks the Chargers faced; Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were considerably more elusive targets than Jacksonville's Chad Henne. But the Chargers also brought down Terrelle Pryor four times in the loss at Oakland.
Last week was the Chargers' most frustrating showing: no sacks, and only nine plays where Griffin was under duress. What pressure they have mounted in recent weeks has originated largely from the inside, particularly from 6-foot-2, 300-pound Corey Liuget a defensive end who often works one-on-one against the guard. The Liuget-Zane Beadles duels Sunday bear close watching.
But where Pagano's plans for "disguise" come into play revolve around the blitzes he'll use. Two and a half of the Chargers' last 11 sacks have come from defensive backs (by comparison, the Broncos are still waiting for their first sack from a secondary player). It's not something San Diego has been reliant upon, but if pressure is what the Chargers want, they may have to get creative, which likely means throwing some new looks at Denver.
The Broncos have allowed more pressure in recent weeks; the sack rate of Manning has spiked to one every 16.5 pass plays in Weeks 7 and 8, nearly three times as often as the Weeks 1-6 rate of one every 47.8 snaps. But much of that can be attributed to the ankle sprain suffered by Orlando Franklin, who played through the pain against Washington and appeared weakened. But the bye week should have given him the chance to heal. If he's closer to full strength, the Broncos' offensive line could be in the best shape it's seen since early October, which steepens the hill the Chargers must climb to pressure Manning.
CORNERS IN FLUX
Last week's overtime loss at Washington marked the first time this season that third-year veteran Shareece Wright led Chargers cornerbacks in playing time, working on all but four of the Chargers' 75 defensive snaps.
But as Wright ascended, Derek Cox was de-emphasized, playing a lower percentage of snaps than in any other game this season. This appears to be a temporary move; Pagano said that Cox was back with the first team in practice this week.
"We rotate so many guys and move so many guys in and out. He's responded well. He's back in there with the ones on Wednesday and responded well," Pagano said.
But one ailment common to the cornerback corps has been an inability to make big plays. San Diego has just one interception every 69.3 passes, well below the league average of one pickoff per 36.7 passes, and only three teams intercept the football less frequently than the Chargers. (Denver, by comparison, has one interception every 25.2 passes, the fourth-best ratio in the league).
Pressure from up front will help. But as mentioned earlier, the Chargers' pass rush is close to the league average. It's in yardage per pass play, interception ratio and completion percentage permitted (68.2, a figure only exceeded by Oakland's 68.7) where the Chargers have been dragged down, and without improvement from the secondary, they'll be under fire in their sternest challenge to date.