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Breaking down the Chargers defense

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The tactical tweaks that John Pagano won't try are few and far between.

San Diego's defensive coordinator is capable of confusing even the most sophisticated offense -- including the one he'll face Thursday night. And in last year's three games against the Broncos, he contained an offense that shattered league records.

The results were evident in the numbers that reflected offensive production.

  • YARDS PER PLAY: 5.77 vs. San Diego, 6.34 vs. everyone else.
  • YARDS PER PASS PLAY: 7.07 vs. San Diego, 7.82 vs. everyone else.
  • INTERCEPTION RATE: One every 56.50 passes vs. San Diego, one every 62.73 passes vs. everyone else.
  • YARDS PER RUSH: 3.51 vs. San Diego, 4.05 vs. everyone else.
  • FIRST DOWN RATE: one every 2.91 plays vs. San Diego, one every 2.93 plays vs. everyone else.
  • THIRD-DOWN CONVERSION PERCENTAGE: 46.67 vs. San Diego; 48.13 vs. everyone else.
  • OFFENSIVE POINTS PER GAME: 24 vs. San Diego, 34.81 vs. everyone else.

All but the last one can be attributed directly to Pagano's defense, which disguises intent, blitzes from all angles and focuses on disruption. The offensive points per game was as much due to the Chargers' ability to sustain long drives and keep the Broncos' offense away from the field as their defensive effort.

"He does a great job of keeping you off balance and you've got to bring your A game," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "He got us on that Thursday night. He had us scrambling.

"And he did a great job of having a good game plan and had our guys a little mixed up and it took us a while to get going and once we did it was too late. So he does a great job. He puts his guys in great position and they play really hard for him."

That is the case again this year, with Pagano relying on a broad array of defenders to confound opposing quarterbacks. San Diego's 15 sacks have come from 13 different players, with no one having more than Corey Liuget's 2.5, who also leads the Chargers in quarterback hits. As with the last two weeks, the opponent's best pass rusher will line up over the guard on a regular basis, placing the onus for containment on Orlando Franklin and Louis Vasquez.

Edge rusher Dwight Freeney knows Peyton Manning better than perhaps any defensive player in the league, from the 10 seasons they shared in Indianapolis before Manning's departure in 2012. He joined the Chargers last year but had his season cut short by injury, and this year has been effective at generating pressure, but has not converted it into many sacks, with two.

But all the questions for this game revolve around the Chargers' secondary, which will be without at least one of the men brought in to upgrade it in the offseason: cornerback Brandon Flowers, already ruled out with a concussion suffered Sunday against the Chiefs. His season to date is outstanding, and he permitted just one touchdown in the six-plus games he's played.

San Diego might also be without first-round cornerback Jason Verrett, who missed Sunday's game against Kansas City with a shoulder injury. Verrett has become one of the league's best slot cornerbacks in just five games of play; he is one of the best at limiting yardage after the catch and not missing tackles. He is reminiscent of Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in those skills.

But the Broncos aren't taking the Chargers lightly just because they could be without two of their top three cornerbacks. San Diego didn't need Flowers or Verrett to restrain the Broncos' offense last year.

"They've still got great players," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "They had some of the players that are starting this week and they started last year and they were able to beat us still, so our main thing is trying to go out and do something better than what we did last year."

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