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?
25 Sep 2007
by Ned Macey
When the Chargers fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season, San Diego created a Super Bowl-or-bust atmosphere for his replacement, Norv Turner. Turner has a reputation as an offensive genius, but through three games, the offense is stuck in neutral, with reigning MVP LaDainian Tomlinson struggling to find holes on the ground. Last Sunday, the Chargers failed to control the clock and gave the Packers one final chance to win the game. Brett Favre delivered a historic touchdown, and the future Hall of Famer's farewell tour is on track for some January appearances.
Tomlinson is the most high-profile part of a league-wide epidemic of underachieving star running backs. What must be most troubling is that Green Bay employed no magic plan to contain him. The Packers kept three linebackers on the field when the Chargers had their base offense, not using an extra defensive back for Antonio Gates. Gates made them pay with a monster game, but he was mostly contained in the second half by double coverage.
The Packers generally showed only their front seven near the line of scrimmage, but they proceeded to run blitz constantly. Middle linebacker Nick Barnett attacked the line of scrimmage and constantly disrupted the San Diego running plays. Safety Atari Bigby, a first-year starter, moved in and out of the box to provide the eighth man in certain run situations.
The focus, as always, is on the running back and the coach, but the biggest weakness of the struggling San Diego offense is the offensive line. The line was dominant at times last season but struggled on Sunday. Left tackle Marcus McNeill probably should have been Rookie of the Year in 2006, but he was beaten twice for sacks by Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. The speedy pass rusher also harried Philip Rivers on several occasions.
The right side of the line had difficulty on running plays, particularly outside runs where they were not fast enough to clear the corner for Tomlinson. Jeromy Clary started at right tackle and was simply unable to seal off the corner. On five runs marked right end by the official scorer, the Chargers totaled -4 yards. On the team's other 21 running back carries, they totaled a respectable 78 yards. Of course, the holes have not been any bigger when Shane Olivea has been healthy.
Still, the Chargers finally showed some life on offense for the first time all season. Rivers made crisp throws throughout the first half against a stout Packers pass defense. His first touchdown was a perfect pass to Vincent Jackson, who beat tight man coverage by the excellent Al Harris to catch it. Jackson made a number of quality plays, providing a second option in the passing game to Gates for the first time this season.
The Chargers have missed Eric Parker in 2007, as Parker excelled between the twenties and got the Chargers in position for Tomlinson's record-breaking touchdowns. The underrated Parker ranked seventh in DVOA among receivers last season and third the year before. Parker is due back midseason, and do not be surprised if the Chargers offense picks it up a notch once he returns.
The offense may have had their best performance of the year, but the defense continued to struggle against the same strategy that sunk the Chargers in New England. The Packers eschewed the run and placed the game on Favre's right arm. The iconic quarterback delivered with his best performance of the year, completing 28 passes for 369 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Chargers did adjust from the Patriots game by playing more man coverage, but the Packers ran quick slant after quick slant after quick slant and watched Favre fit balls consistently into tight spaces. Receiver Donald Driver was back to doing what he does best: catching balls in tight coverage. Over the past season, Driver, as the Packers' only reliable receiver, has been asked to run every route in the book and provide options in the intermediate and deep zones. The results have been mixed, but Driver dominated on Sunday in his role as possession receiver.
Equally important for the long term was the solid play of James Jones and second-year receiver Greg Jennings. Jones, a rookie from San Jose State, has burst on the scene as a physical receiver doing his best Marques Colston impersonation. The game-clinching play came from Jennings who took -- what else? -- a slant and broke it to the house. Jennings did not play in the first two games because of hamstring issues, but he made his return to the field memorable by catching Favre's record-tying touchdown pass. Jennings and Jones provide quality options opposite Driver and make opponents pay for doubling the veteran.
The problem for the Chargers is that their secondary and linebackers are only adequate in coverage. The key to their pass defense is a usually ferocious pass rush spearheaded by Shawne Merriman. On Sunday, Favre dropped back 47 times and was only sacked twice. The Packers were almost never leaving in an extra blocker, content to spread out the Chargers and throw quick passes. Favre occasionally could not find an early option because of the tight man coverage, but even then he was able to sit in the pocket and scan the defense for one of his receivers to break free.
Merriman was stuffed repeatedly by Chad Clifton, the longtime Packers left tackle. Merriman has two sacks in three games, both after the Chargers fell behind 17-0 against New England. Merriman was the most disruptive defensive force in football when active a season ago. In general, teams are going to game-plan to make sure Merriman does not beat them this year. The Packers didn't have to do anything fancy; they simply had their best offensive lineman stone his pass rushing attempts repeatedly.
The Packers offensive line was ridiculed after allowing four sacks in the opening week of the season. Since then, of course, the Eagles have proved to have a dominant pass rush, with 10 more sacks over their next two games. The Packers pass protection should be solid, and if they can hold up against the Chargers, they should hold up against most teams.
The big question mark for the Packers remains their inconsistent running game. Second-round pick Brandon Jackson has hardly claimed the starting tailback job. Rookie DeShawn Wynn and near-rookie Ryan Grant* contributed carries. For the season, the Packers' three-headed attack has totaled 174 yards on 54 carries. Wynn gained 38 yards on one carry. Taking out that one run, the rushing attack has totaled only 136 yards on the other 53 carries for a Tomlinson-like 2.6 yards per carry.
These backs were not needed on Sunday when the best strategy was to spread the field. At a certain point, however, the Packers will need to establish some threat on the ground to keep opposing defenses honest. Also, at the ripe age of 37, Favre will likely wear down if he is asked to throw more than 40 passes a game, which is his current average. The Packers ran effectively at times a season ago and are working in Junius Coston at right guard. Any time a team is longing for the return of Vernand Morency, however, the running game is going to be a problem.
Still, the Packers are definitely in the driver's seat in the NFC North. The Bears are off to a sluggish 1-2 start, and the Vikings and Lions do not appear poised to emerge as legitimate threats. Rumors of late night subliminal messages from Mike McCarthy to Lovie Smith telling the latter to stick with Rex Grossman are unconfirmed at this point.
The Packers are putting pressure on an underperforming Bears team, but the good news for the Chargers is that no formidable contender has emerged in the AFC West. The Raiders and Chiefs are among the worst teams in the NFL. Denver is 2-1, but the wins are well short of impressive. They won on last-play field goals against Oakland and Buffalo, who both appear woeful, and were dominated by Jacksonville on Sunday. The first one to make it to 10 wins should come out on top in the AFC West, and the Chargers obviously still have a chance to do that.
San Diego quite simply has played three games against likely top 10 defenses who have all worked to take away their bread and butter. Norv Turner deservedly has a questionable reputation as a head coach, but Sunday's game did show progress. The offense opened up, and the Chargers flashed big play ability for the first time all season. The offense should be fine, if not at last year's levels.
Defensively, coordinator Ted Cottrell needs to develop an answer for four- and five-receiver sets, or the Chargers will not see any I-formations the rest of the season. Like they did a year ago against Minnesota, the Patriots have created a blueprint for the rest of the league to copy. It remains to be seen if a Damon Huard or Josh McCown can exploit the Chargers in the same way Tom Brady and Brett Favre can.
Favre, in perhaps his final campaign, remains the key to the Packers' season. His petulance during the off-season was off-putting. To his credit, general manager Ted Thompson refused to placate his star player and instead built what he considered to be a playoff-caliber team. Three wins into the season, Favre has finally embraced his team. He finds himself in the awkward spot of shouldering the entire offense but needing to rely on his defense to win games. If he can stay healthy and avoid stupid mistakes, Favre should be hosting a playoff game at Lambeau for the first time since 2004.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
*Grant is technically not a rookie, but this is his first year as an active player; he spent 2005 on the Giants practice squad and was on the non-football injury list in 2006 due to a car accident.
57 comments, Last at 27 Sep 2007, 5:18pm by Jefe