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Know Your Enemy Week 12: The San Diego Chargers

Hey everyone--we are Dan Bryden (@PlainMilksFine) and Chris Worthington (@C_Dubs87), two good friends and past college roommates as well as avid Ravens fans. Together we are writing Know Your Enemy. Our goal is to do in-depth research about each week's upcoming Ravens game. We use the All-22 film in conjunction with other sites like ProFootballFocus to go beyond readily available statistics (like ESPN's opponent rankings) and give a better sense of the Ravens' next opponent. At the same time, we will provide some (hopefully) interesting reading on the schemes and formations the Ravens will face each week.

If you are like us, the first face you associate with the San Diego Chargers is Phillip Rivers. He is a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback with a deep passing game (and, this year, a number of SportsCenter-worthy gaffes). However, though Rivers has had success in his career, make no mistake about it: the strength of this Chargers team is the defense. The John Pagano-led squad is currently allowing the 3rd fewest rushing yards per game and the 8th fewest total yards per game. With that in mind, we watched film of the Chargers' last two games (vs. Tampa Bay and vs. Denver) and came up with the following conclusions:

This Defense Will Surprise Many

San Diego was fairly impressive on the defensive side of the ball in the past two games. San Diego runs a base 3-4 defense that does not get pushed around very often. They have very good 2-gapping defensive linemen who consistently control offensive lineman and allow linebackers to flow to the running back relatively free of blocking. D-Lineman like Corey Liuget and Aubrayo Franklin excel in swallowing up blocks, which accounts for the high tackle totals of linebackers Donald Butler and Takeo Spikes. Additionally, it shouldn't take long for Ravens fans to notice the excellent edge support that Jarret Johnson now gives the Chargers. His tackle and sack numbers aren't high, but he fits the 3-4 OLB spot just as well under John Pagano as he did under Chuck in Baltimore. He will be a challenge for the Ravens O-line and for Ray Rice. Obviously Baltimore knows what to expect from Johnson, so hopefully they are planning accordingly.

Based on the San Diego personnel, it seems odd that Denver was able to rush for 133 yards against the Chargers. But for those who didn't get to see the game, San Diego was in Nickel or Dime on most snaps to counter the Broncos' 4+ WR sets. Based on the amount of passing (42 pass attempts) and the number of shotgun draw runs that Denver ran, it shouldn't be surprising that four of the Charger's top five tacklers were defensive backs that game. Unfortunately, the shotgun draw is a play we rarely see Cam Cameron call. The Ravens also rarely run 4 or 5 WR sets, which means San Diego will get to spend more time in their base defense. Baltimore may have a tough time running the football if Cameron doesn't come up with some creative play calling to get SD out of their base 3-4.

The Charger's secondary is very interesting to watch if you have access to the All-22 game film. They like to use a lot of motion before the snap in order to disguise coverage and blitzes. The secondary's philosophy seems to be: play many different coverage looks so the opposing quarterback almost inevitably throws an interception because he misreads the coverage, mishandles pressure, or both. This is in stark contrast to the philosophy of the Raven's last opponent, the Steelers. Dick LeBeau likes to stick to two defensive alignments and focus on doing those extremely well.

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Shown above is Cover 4 (Quarters). But based on alignment, this at first appears to be Nickel Cover 2-Man (the corners on the outsides and the corner in the slot playing man coverage, the two deep safeties playing a cover-2 zone). Up to this point, Manning has seen a lot of Cover 4 (Quarters) coverage and based on the depth of the corners (Cason nearside and Jammer farside), he believes that the Chargers will play Quarters (as shown above). Eric Weddle will be marked in orange throughout, as he is the player who eventually takes the Manning pass into the endzone.

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Slightly before the snap, the nickel corner Marcus Gilchrist (nearside slot corner) "shows his hand" by leaning in to blitz. You can see him turn away from the receiver to rush Manning in this shot. Manning points to Gilchrist's man (Denver WR Matt Willis) and calls a "hot-route" where Matt Willis will catch a screen pass in the flat since the man covering him will come on the blitz.

Manning was correct in diagnosing the slot corner blitz from Gilchrist but did not realize the defensive playcall was the classic "Fire Zone Blitz" (5 rushers marked by red arrows, 3 deep in yellow, and 3 under in blue). Weddle (orange circle) is driving toward the flat in order to cover any short pass to that side of the field.

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Gilchrist cannot get to Manning in time but jumps and bats the pass straight into the air where Weddle eventually picks it. Weddle jaunts in for an easy Pick-Six since he only has Peyton Manning to beat.

This play is indicative of the Chargers defensive philosophy in a number of ways:

1) The Chargers play a lot of Quarters coverage, presumably to inhibit Manning from throwing the deep ball. The Ravens may see this too because Torrey Smith is a deep threat AND the San Diego corners prefer to play zone coverage.

2) San Diego will vary their defensive/rush looks throughout the game. Eric Weddle is very aggressive and likes to play downhill in the pass and run game. It was not surprising to us, after watching Charger tape, that Weddle leads his team in tackles.

3) San Diego likes to rush the quarterback because they are good at it. Whether they lean on the defensive line or bring blitzes from the second and third levels, they can be very disruptive. Gilchrist, a cornerback, rushed 13 times against Denver. Joe Flacco needs to have a good game both pre- and post-snap. Diagnosing coverages and not being hurried into poor decisions will be a big deciding factor in this game. Flacco's O-line needs to help him on Sunday, too. If Flacco is not given time, he may turn the ball over more than once.

In order to have success against this defense, the Ravens need to be able to run between the tackles and get the short pass game going with Boldin and Pitta. Since the Chargers prefer to drop 2+ players into deep coverage, the Ravens should be content with long, sustained drives rather than homeruns. This is always a good recipe for success on the road, though you wouldn't know it from Baltimore's past playcalling.

What About That Phillip Rivers-Led Offense?

To give our readers an idea of how much the Chargers pass, San Diego's run/pass ratio is almost exactly that of Baltimore's. In fact, Rivers has had a season very similar to Flacco's. Both quarterbacks have the same Quarterback Rating (87.6) and both have had good and bad games this year. Where we start to see differences between these QBs is in the offensive philosophies. The Chargers like to attack the middle of the field at the deep and intermediate levels. This strategy has produced more completions and TDs than Flacco has, but Rivers also has sole possession of the league lead in interception (14).

In the past Rivers has led this team to division titles and playoff runs, so what has changed?

First, the San Diego offensive line is very bad. In the past two weeks they gave up a lot of pressure (although against 2 very good D-lines to be fair). The tackles are particularly bad in pass protection. Out of the 72 offensive tackles that ProFootballFocus grades, San Diego's Jeromey Clary, Jared Gaither, and Michael Harris rank 50th, 52nd, and 70th in pass protection, respectively. Three names are included here because Jared Gaither has started four games at LT and Michael Harris has started seven at LT. Additionally, their LG Green was injured during the Denver game and Rex Hadnot will likely be his replacement. An injured and underperforming O-line is not a recipe for success when the offense prefers to throw the ball down field.

Rivers likes to throw but rarely takes huge vertical shots down the sidelines. He prefers inward breaking routes (digs and posts) that target his receivers in front of the deepest defenders. This strategy takes advantage of the size of his receivers (Meachem is 6'2'' and 215lbs, Floyd is 6'5'' and 225lbs, and Denario Alexander is 6'5'' and 217lbs) since they can out muscle underneath defenders. But this strategy also means that his receivers rarely gain YACs (2.5 for Meachem and 2.2 for Floyd). For perspective, ProFootballFocus ranks 107 qualifying receivers for this stat, and Meachem and Floyd rank 93rd and 102nd, respectively. Rivers also uses the size of the SD receivers to his advantage via isolation fade-stop routes on the outside. He has had success here including a pretty-looking touchdown to WR Alexander against Denver.

The size of the San Diego WRs will be a challenge for Baltimore's secondary. The biggest corner on the Ravens roster is newcomer Chris Johnson, who is listed at 6'1'' and 200 pounds. No other corner breaks the 195lb mark and none of the Baltimore corners are as tall as the shortest SD receiver, Robert Meachem. Though not unusual for a CB to be smaller than an opposing receiver, the size of the entire San Diego receiving corps is an unusual matchup. They do not gain a lot of separation from coverage but use their big bodies to make catches. We have a feeling that the Baltimore corners will face a lot of this on Sunday, which means tackling well in the secondary is key. Missed and broken tackles will result in touchdowns.

The Baltimore linebackers will also be tested in coverage in the middle of the field. Keeping a linebacker on Gates is a recipe for disaster. He is far too athletic and runs good enough routes that Ravens LBs will suffer. Expect single high safety looks with Pollard roaming into the box and/or playing a Robber technique. Having Ed Reed provide safety support should also be comforting for Ravens fans. If the Ravens can disrupt Rivers in the pocket, expect an interception from either Reed or Pollard.

San Diego's Use of the Running Game is Confusing

The Chargers will run some 21 personnel and 11 personnel using mostly a power rushing attack. They like to use weak iso leads and inside traps. However, they can't seem to figure out which RB to use. Jackie Battle played a substantial amount at the beginning of the Denver game but Matthews had the majority of carries in the second half. Battle is more of a bruiser who looks for contact. This is an advantage in short yardage situations, and San Diego clearly favors Battle in pass protection as well. In fact, Matthews had only pass blocked 16 times all year prior to the Denver game. In the running game Matthews utilizes his quickness and likes to hit the hole and run with power. He does not seek out contact but tends to fall forward when tackled. He is often used as a checkdown option in the passing game (6 targets that resulted in 5 receptions for 22 yards against TB). And LeRon McClain is a terrible blocking fullback, which, again, will not come as any surprise to Ravens fans.

When playing from behind, San Diego didn't run as much. But they did like to use drive-sustaining lead-draw plays with Matthews out of the shotgun formation. The Ravens defense will be tested in the middle of the field. Linebackers need to fill running holes quickly because Matthews has great burst in the open field.

We hope that the running game will not be much of a concern for Baltimore this week. The Ravens tend to have greater success stopping the power running game, rather than zone rushing attacks. Baltimore's LBs have been playing better in recent weeks, especially Kruger, so if that trend continues the SD running game may not find much room. It would be very helpful if Baltimore could shut the running game down early and focus on San Diego's passing attack, which is easily the bigger threat of the two.

In Conclusion

As always, our thanks to ProFootballFocus for the work they do. Most of our stats come from their team, and we highly recommend their articles, too.

Also, follow our GameDay tweets when the Ravens are playing.

The opinions posted here are those of the administrator of this blog and his loyal readers. They are in no way official comments from the team, and should not be misconstued as such, even though he thinks he could do just as well or even a better job!

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