ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** Among the teams left standing in the postseason, the San Diego Chargers' defense has the lowest sack rate (one every 16.7 pass plays, 23rd in the league). It also has the lowest quarterback-hurry rate (one every 3.71 pass plays, based on the numbers from ProFootballFocus.com, which is 29th in the NFL) and the second-lowest quarterback hit rate (one every 11.7 pass plays, also per ProFootballFocus.com, which is 23rd in the NFL).
But most of those numbers were compiled before Melvin Ingram returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. In the Chargers' offseason plans last spring, Ingram, their 2012 first-round pick, was projected to be their primary edge rusher. His expected emergence was a primary reason why they let Shaun Phillips depart in free agency.
Ingram isn't all the way back yet, but he has changed how the Chargers attack quarterbacks. In Weeks 1-15, when Melvin Ingram played just two games and saw 37 snaps -- none until Weeks 14 and 15 -- San Diego averaged one hurry every 3.86 pass plays, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
In the weeks since then, the Chargers' frequency of quarterback hits and hurries has risen to above the league average -- one every 8.57 pass plays and one every 3.16 pass plays, respectively. Ingram alone is responsible for a sack, an interception when he dropped into coverage and six pressures the last three weeks.
"Obviously that causes a different dimension as far as a problem," said Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
Ingram and fellow linebacker Jarret Johnson provide other options for defensive coordinator John Pagano, who masks the Chargers' lack of an elite pass rusher through disguises, blitzes and the creation of confusion.
"He does a great job of mixing it up," Gase said. "It is not an easy scheme to play against and he does a very good job of keeping you off balance."
One key example is in the pressure the Chargers mounted on a third-and-8 pass play late in the third quarter of last Sunday's win over Cincinnati that resulted in an interception.
Prior to the snap, Chargers brought Weddle to the line of scrimmage, and lined him up over the left tackle in a stand-up position, and to the inside of defensive end Thomas Keiser. Keiser was also standing up at the snap.
At the same time, the Chargers brought outside linebacker Donald Butler to the line of scrimmage, standing him just outside of defensive end Kendall Reyes, the Chargers' most consistent pass rusher, to the right of Dalton. With no tight ends lined up inside, there becomes little margin for error; running back Giovani Bernard must stay in the backfield and diagnose the most imminent threat to Dalton, as the offensive line is faced with the potential for one-on-ones all along the line.
But this never came to pass. At the snap, the Chargers dropped Weddle, leaving the weak (left) side relatively quiet. Instead, the Chargers forced difficult choices on the right side by sending Marcus Gilchrist behind Butler with a supplemental blitz from the slot corner. The center was occupied by Corey Liuget, who occupied the nose tackle spot, leaving the right flank of the line and Bernard to take on three pass rushers.
Had the Bengals been able to identify what was happening, they might have had a chance. But right guard Kevin Zeitler has too much to handle. He sees Liuget moving to his left against the center, and knows he must be in position to help, as Bernard is engaging with Butler. Right tackle Andre Smith identifies Gilchrist coming behind Butler and stands his ground. This leaves Zeitler exposed; he's trying to watch Liuget, but also must handle Reyes. He responds too slowly, and Reyes destroys the pocket.
This accelerates Dalton's clock. Having identified the blitz from Gilchrist, he looks for Mohamed Sanu, who was working as the slot receiver. But this is exactly what the Chargers expect -- and want -- him to do. Shareece Wright has abandoned his coverage responsibilities on A.J. Green, who is streaking up the right sideline, and heads for Sanu. Nickel safety Jahleel Addae has moved up into coverage and converges at Sanu, who is near the line to gain. Dalton never has time to consider another option like Green, who is wide open and could have been targeted with no risk of an interception.
The Chargers have successfully suckered Dalton. The rest of the play relies merely upon whether Wright can catch the ball.
In contrast, look at how the Chargers forced the interception of Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter of their Week 15 game, an errant throw that effectively doomed all hopes of a Denver comeback.
Before the snap, the Chargers have six men at the line of scrimmage. Four of them are standing up, including both of the defenders lined up to Manning's left, over Chris Clark and Julius Thomas. But at the snap, three of them drop back, with Gilchrist supplementing the rush with a delayed blitz from Manning's right that Montee Ball handles.
Manning has what is usually enough time to throw. But the Chargers have seven men in coverage. The safeties are deep, and all the action is underneath, with fairly tight man coverage. The only receiver with more than a yard of separation is Eric Decker, who is being stalked on a short cross by Butler. The coverage forces Manning to hang on to the football just a bit longer than he'd like, which was enough time for Corey Liuget to break between Chris Clark and Zane Beadles and affect Manning's pass, which floats to Keiser, one of the three men who had dropped into coverage from the line of scrimmage.
Could that type of attack and coverage happen again, or will the Chargers rule it out, knowing the Broncos might adapt again?
"Sometimes you can't worry about the 'Oh, they've seen this before, or we've done this before,'" Pagano said at his press conference Thursday.
But to expect a carbon-copy game plan would be unwise. The emergence of Ingram gives the Chargers more options that they are only beginning to explore.
-- San Diego's nickel defense has settled upon an unusual alignment and found more success. It moves safety Gilchrist to slot cornerback when using five defensive backs, with the rookie Addae inserted at safety in the sub package.
-- Watch for Weddle and Gilchrist on the blitz. The Chargers are fond of using both, and they are among the most effective in the league at their position in creating hurried throws.