Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
13 Dec 2005
by Ned Macey
The game between San Diego and Miami on Sunday was supposed to contrast a team fighting for its playoff life with a rebuilding team just playing out the string. After a shocking win by the Dolphins, these teams may finish the year within one game of each other in the standings.
The San Diego Chargers finish their season with one of the toughest schedules in football. Going into last week's game, three of their four remaining games were against teams that were a combined 29-7. The one gimme on their schedule was a home game against the mediocre Dolphins, who had previously lost road games to the Jets, Bills, and Browns. With LaDainian Tomlinson banged up, their prolific offense was held in check, leaving the Dolphins close enough to take advantage of their suspect secondary.
The Chargers offense entered the game as the best in the league according to DVOA, which breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent and is explained here. At the center of the attack was the great Tomlinson, the most feared back in football. With teams forced to commit extra defenders to stop Tomlinson, quarterback Drew Brees had opportunities to make big plays to Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates.
A season ago, the Chargers were still among the top offenses in football, eighth in the league, but they were a less dreaded unit than this season. The major difference was the health of Tomlinson, who was limited by nagging leg injuries all season. A week ago, Tomlinson suffered bruised ribs, and he was clearly affected on Sunday. With the Dolphins expending few extra defenders to stop Tomlinson, he was still held to 75 yards on 21 carries.
Tomlinson's injury was not the only reason the Chargers struggled to get the ground game going. The Dolphins excel in rush defense with an active front seven that dominated the Chargers offensive line. The return of Zach Thomas from injury certainly helped, not only for his presence but for allowing rookie Channing Crowder to return to his natural outside linebacker position. Jason Taylor was his usual disruptive self, and even the little-used Manuel Wright was causing trouble for the Chargers offensive line all game. Even the Dolphins' safeties, who rarely were near the line of scrimmage before the snap, factored into containing Tomlinson. They closed on Tomlinson the second he got the ball and prevented him from breaking any long runs.
Aware of Tomlinson's injury and the Dolphins' ability to stop the run, the Chargers came out throwing. Miami's secondary has struggled at times this season with Sam Madison aging, rookie Travis Daniels manning the other side, and nobody really emerging as the nickel cornerback. Against Buffalo in Week 13, the Dolphins gave up two long touchdown passes to Lee Evans in the first quarter. Following those breakdowns, they began to play more conservatively with their safeties and kept receivers in front of them.
The success of this strategy was evident on Sunday, as the Chargers were unable to make big plays despite constantly throwing the ball. Brees completed 35 passes for only 279 yards. Out of 52 attempts, only two were completed for gains over 20 yards. Coming into the game, Brees averaged a 20+ yard completion once every 9.7 attempts.
The Dolphins had no problems making big plays in the passing game against a porous Chargers secondary. Gus Frerotte contributes only one asset to coordinator Scott Linehan's offense: the ability to throw the ball down the field. Frerotte connected on three pass plays over 20 yards in only 22 attempts, including a 35-yard touchdown to Chris Chambers and a 56-yard completion to Marty Booker.
Making big plays helped the Dolphins overcome a massive time of possession imbalance. The Dolphins controlled the ball for less than 20 minutes and ran only 48 plays compared with 82 for the Chargers. Despite this, they gained only 41 fewer yards for the game and had actually outgained San Diego before the Chargers' meaningless last-second touchdown drive.
Much praise has deservedly gone to the explosive Chambers, but Sunday's eruption is as much an indictment of San Diego's secondary as a tribute to Chambers' skills. San Diego's pass defense is among the worst in the league despite a prolific pass rush that is among the leaders in sacks. Even with the constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks, receivers have been able to make plays all season long.
The Chargers secondary returned intact as a group that was above average a season ago. Former Green Bay safety, Bhawoh Jue, was brought in to take over for the aging Jerry Wilson at free safety, but the other contributors remain the same. Whether signing any player associated with the 2004 Green Bay pass defense is a wise move is an argument best left for another day, but Jue's presence at safety can hardly explain the entire drop-off. Interestingly, the Chargers left Drayton Florence as the starting cornerback even with last year's early-season starter Sammy Davis healthy again.
When Florence missed three games earlier this season, the Chargers pass defense seemed improved with Davis starting. Florence missed games against Oakland, Philadelphia, and Kansas City, and the Chargers held all three offenses to 20 or fewer points. Kerry Collins and Donovan McNabb both struggled, combining for one touchdown and three interceptions. Against Kansas City, the Chargers jumped out to a 21-3 halftime lead before giving up big yardage late in a futile comeback attempt. In the first half of that game, Green's longest completion to a wide receiver was a 5-yard pass to Dante Hall on third-and-13. On Sunday, Florence was beaten badly by Chambers on his 35-yard touchdown reception. one has to wonder if, facing the prospect of lining Florence up against Reggie Wayne next week, Marty Schottenheimer will give the starting job back to Mr. Entertainment.
The Dolphins feature an offensive line comprised of players with limited talent, but they did just enough to keep the Chargers pass rush at bay. Offensive line coach Hudson Houck â€“ the coach that helped transform San Diego's line a year ago â€“ has gotten this no-name bunch to play as well as one could expect. They struggled to create running lanes for Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, but they prevented the San Diego pass rush from registering a sack for the first time this season. Allowed to stay on his feet, Frerotte had just enough time to feast on a weak secondary to post his best game of the season.
San Diego presumably was looking ahead to their match-up with undefeated Indianapolis. Having overlooked Miami and fallen to 8-5, a much-anticipated game has turned into a must-win for the Chargers. Offensively, they match up well with Indianapolis as they feature a great running back and dominant tight end, two places where the Colts' solid defense can be exploited.
But after getting their secondary shredded by Gus Frerotte and failing to get pressure against the Miami offensive line, holding the Colts under 30 points in Indianapolis seems a long shot. A loss to Indianapolis effectively ends their playoff dreams; thanks to tiebreakers, the Chargers are likely left out of the playoffs even with a 10-6 record.
Amazingly, people in Miami are considering playoff scenarios this late in the season. The Dolphins have home games with the Jets and Tennessee the next two weeks and could easily enter a Week 17 showdown against New England with an 8-7 record. Unfortunately, this game is unlikely to be for the division crown because the Patriots have a better division record than the Dolphins. Miami would need New England to lose not only to Tampa Bay, a reasonable proposition, but also to the Jets, a ludicrous suggestion.
Still, 8-8 or 9-7 (if the Patriots rest players) is an exceptional record for a team that was 4-12 a year ago and in seeming disarray. Miami fans lamented the consistent run of average to slightly above average seasons that lasted from 1991-2003. With new coach Nick Saban in place, they can finally celebrate mediocrity with the hope that great things are still to come.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
65 comments, Last at 16 Dec 2005, 9:54pm by nump