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25 Sep 2007

Any Given Sunday: Packers over Chargers

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.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 25 Sep 2007

57 comments, Last at 27 Sep 2007, 5:18pm by Jefe

Comments

1
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:15am

Thanks for the article.

Something that might be worthy of mentioning is that the D-coordinator of the Chargers, Cottrell, never blitzed more than 5 guys all game. I thought that was kind of curious but figured I missed something. But Bob McGinn of the Journal-Sentinel confirmed that the Chargers never sent more than five pass rushers. And that was done only 25% of the time.

What puzzled me was that GB just kept hitting slants all day. I don't recall a single Charger breakup of that play. Time after time Favre would take a quick drop and lay the ball to a WR for several times what turned into long gains. Driver earned about 70 odd yards of his 126 receiving yards on runs after the catch thanks to poor SD tackling.

And I have no idea what the safety for SD was thinking on the play Jennings broke for the TD. He rolled up to the right side leaving the middle wide open. Jennings isn't even that fast and he strolled into the end zone.

Hey, I want to think GB is pretty good. But playing a team with a galactically poor secondary lends me pause.

2
by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:19am

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.
Point of evidence: Rex Grossman couldn't.

3
by mrparker (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:26am

next week's any given sunday
Chargers score 75 on Kansas City

4
by zip (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:32am

#3

I don't think you understand what "Any Given Sunday" is.

5
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:48am

Badger, having observed Ted Cottrell coached defenses up close for a couple of years, I can say that wondering what the hell players are doing as they wander about the field is a default observation. It's early yet, they play in a weak division for the AFC, so the ship could still be righted, but this has the potential to go down as one of the more ridiculous coaching changes seen in a while. Way to go, A.J. Smith!

6
by Arkaein (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:51am

I think mrparker is right though, San Diego is poised for an Eagles like breakout. Mathchups are simply huge in analyzing such a small number of games, and San Diego's opening schedule was pretty ridiculous, assuming GB keeps playing well.

So I think the Chargers still have a pretty good chance to have a good, but maybe not great team. I also think the packers are for real. They need a running game eventually, but won't even want to use one next week against Minnesota. And I do think that Vernand Morency could be a big help when he comes back. In the little I saw of him last year he reminded me a lot of Ahman Green (including the fumbles, unfortunately). Not that big, but pretty good blend of speed and power, runs hard. Plus, three rookie equivalents are bound to show some improvement as they gain experience. James Jones looks to be very solid as a rookie, so the Packers look to have their first real trio of decent WRs since at least Javon Walker was around. Donald Driver seems to be a bit underrated because he's been doubled a lot since Walker left, but when teams can't afford to double him he can really make them pay, as he did on Sunday with some great YAC runs.

7
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:56am

Will:

One of the Packer bloggers wrote on Sunday that Cottrell took forever to call the defensive plays. And that the SD players would be repeatedly gesturing for him to hurry it up. I have no idea whether this is accurate or not.

I do know that the Packer radio guys mentioned several times that SD was late to set up defensively.

If I were a Charger fan I would be mildly concerned about Merriman. Chad Clifton has been a fine lineman but by this time in his career his body is beat up and speed rushers normally give him fits. The Eagles DE ate him up and spit him out multiple times. Was it possible that he played inspired ball on Sunday? Sure. But as I wrote elsewhere it sure looked to me like after not getting to the qb early Merriman gave up trying so hard. He would try a single move and if it didn't work just sort of stand there playing pattycake. Phillips was the much harder worker on rushing the passer. He got both of his sacks with only 3 guys down.

8
by Joshua (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 10:58am

I know that Any Given Sunday is supposed to be an upset win, but according to whom? If you look at DVOA, this was no upset, as DVOA really likes the Packers and really doesn't like the Charger.

9
by James G (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:16am

I think most Any Given Sundays are basically upsets against conventional wisdom. I used the DVOA preseason and projections, and how I thought the teams were playing this year based largely on this site to help me correctly pick the Packers over Chargers in this game, but I don't think conventional wisdom held that the Packers would win.

10
by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:24am

Is it just me, or, in an article that comments that Merriman is no longer the disruptive force he was a year ago, is the 600 pound gorilla being ignored?

11
by James, London (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:28am

#10

What are you saying? Surely you don't think there's a connection between Merriman having to stay off the juice and his lack of production this year?

It must be a coincidence.

12
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:29am

Badger, when Cottrell was screwing up the Vikings defense, guys were constantly caught out of alignment, and the local media tended to protray it as the players not being able to handle Cottrell's complex schemes. What garbage. Cottrell leaves, a competent defensive coordinator, Mike Tomlin, arrives, and all of a sudden the same players start getting lined up right. This year, Tomlin isn't there, but Leslie Frazier is pretty good as well, and the defense again is very sound. Cottrell is not a competent coordinator by NFL standards.

Regarding this Sunday's game, given the Packers corner play, and the fact that the Vikings don't have a qb who can throw the ball well more than 25 yards downfield (Grossman would start on this team), nor a receiver who can beat press coverage, or catch the ball consistently with a defender distracting him, I expect to never see a Packer safety more than eight yards off the line of scrimmage. The Vikings defense is going to have to have a superhuman effort, with Kevin Williams and Spencer Johnson collapsing the pocket (Pat Williams will be a non-factor, since the Pack won't even bother to run), and the special teams getting a couple of good returns, in order for the game to be competitive. It could get very ugly in the 2nd half, after the Vikings offense has had about seven consecutive three and outs.

13
by jim m (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:32am

I just read that Harris, Vasher and Briggs may be out a few games. The NFC North is starting to look like a walk for the Packers.

14
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:33am

Trent Cole. That was the guy who spun Clifton around like a top.

I can only hope the Packers O-line plays near this well against the Vikes.

15
by Becephalus (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:34am

After the first two weeks of the year I wasn't at all surprised by this result. I tended to strongly agree with FO's preseason forecast of the SD def. They have nothing in the secondary at all.

And I think firing Marty is likely to go down as the single worst firing of all time?

I think firing him (and replacing him and his staff with 2 poor coaches) probably costs them 2 or 3 wins this year, thats a hell of a mistake. Would be like the Pats releasing Brady...

16
by Jeremy Billones (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:34am

Re: 9

Vegas had Chargers by 5, even though the game was in Green Bay, so it was definitely a CW upset.

17
by Flounder (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:35am

It's been my observation that while Jennings certainly doesn't have game breaking speed, he does transition from catching the ball to top speed very quickly, which makes him quite dangerous on the slant route. After he got hurt last year, that acceleration plainly wasn't there, which made him far less effective. I hope he can stay healthy, but I have my doubts.

18
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:43am

Hell, I'm so devoid of hope in the Vikings/Packers game that I kinda wish that Childress would call about 25 deep routes, just to establish to the knucklehead fans that the Vikings don't have the personnel to run a NFL offense, so the same knuckleheads can lambaste Childress properly, for poor roster construction, instead of for sideshows like playcalling.

19
by MJK (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:52am

This article clearly shows a Patriots bias. After all, it mentions the Patriots!

Seriously, I think one gem of an insight is the mention that the Packers' line was lambasted for giving up sacks to the Eagles, but now the Eagles have emerged as having a ferocious pass rush. I think this illustrates how many incorrect "conventional wisdoms" get formed early in the season. People see something happen in a game before there is context of how good the opponent is at something. I.e. people see the Packers line give up sacks and conclude that it is porous. Later in the season, it becomes clear that they were giving up sacks to one of the best pass rushes in the game. However, most Packers fans and local beat writers probably do not follow the Eagles more closely, so don't key into this. So they continue to believe that the Packers line is porous. On the other hand, if they had played the Eagles in Week 11, after the Eagles pass rush had established itself, a bad game by the line would probably be dismissed...

20
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:02pm

What has gone unnoticed about the Packers defense is that while it is not shutting anyone down the big play has been eliminated. The past few years the Packers woild get gashed for long run/passes. Bigby is a big reason for that. That little guy flys around smacking rushers and then scaring the cr#p out of receivers. His tackle on a Giant receiver knocked the guy out of the game and I think broke something. And it was a legal hit with no apparent cheap shot.

He can beat in coverage against good receivers. But Bigby is WAAAAAAYYYY better than Marquand Manuel who put the "T" in toast.....

21
by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:07pm

19: That was really funny.

Question: Assuming everyone attacks the Chargers with the four wide set and spreads out their poor DBs, how are their supposed to fix that? If you are Cottrel, you've got who you've got; no big trades on the horizon here. How do you conceal your secondary? You've got a good defensive line (a great one when/if Jamal gets healthy). You've got solid linebackers, one of whom is a superstar (I'm not quite ready to write him off yet). Teams have in the past concealed weak secondaries with strong play up front. I don't know how, exactly, but I know both the Colts and Patriots have done it (differently, but they've done it).

I'm just not sure what you expect the Chargers defense to do. They are what we thought they were. They need to get ahead of people and score a lot of points to put other teams in catch-up mode where their pass rush can be more effective and not give the QBs enough time to exploit the poor secondary. But that's not the defense's fault, it's the offense's.

I don't have any comments on the Packers, except that at some point their inability to run out the clock with a decent running game is going to bite them because I don't think Favre can stay this consistent all season.

22
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:11pm

MJK:

Incorrect. McGinn, Siverstein, and Bedard (main Packer beat writers) all touted the Eagles line before the game. But even so Daryn Colledge and both tackles played poorly by any standard. It isn't like GB hasn't faced Philly in some time. They played last season in Philly and several times previous. Hence the expectation that while the Eagles would "get theirs" GB should do a fair job of protecting Favre.

Junius Coston is getting more playing time due to the guards continuing to struggle against the Giants and some against SD. It's an issue right now. The interior line has regressed from last season at least early on.

23
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:11pm

"Seriously, I think one gem of an insight is the mention that the Packers’ line was lambasted for giving up sacks to the Eagles, but now the Eagles have emerged as having a ferocious pass rush"

Since when does sacking John Kitna 9 times on like 65 attempts count as a ferocious pass rush? They spent 45 minutes of a game in an all out pass rush, against a bad line, on team who's coach is known for getting his QBs killed.

Now, I think Philly's pass rush is pretty good, but I'd hardly use that Lions game as an argument. I can't think of a team that wouldn't sack Kitna quite a few times if you spotted them a 40 point lead with 35 minutes left in the game.

In a couple of weeks we'll know.

24
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:14pm

"They need to get ahead of people and score a lot of points to put other teams in catch-up mode where their pass rush can be more effective and not give the QBs enough time to exploit the poor secondary. But that’s not the defense’s fault, it’s the offense’s."

What's that going to do? Its extremely difficult to hold a lead with a poor secondary.

The chargers get ahead 10, and then teams start going to 4 wides, and the chargers get burned.

25
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:19pm

Badger, if this game was in week 11, with the Packers enjoying a three or four game divisional lead, I'd give the Vikings a chance to catch them flat, and to steal a win. This week, however, I think it extremely unlikely for that to happen, so I just don't see how the Vikings can score enough points to even make it competitive in the 2nd half, short of Favre returning to Mike Sherman mode, which I also think extremely unlikely.

26
by Jimmy (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:23pm

Bigby may not be the doyen of the pass coverge world, but the scheme doesn't ask him to be. It is a good scheme for a physical safety as most of the man coverage responsibility lies with the corners and linebackers, the safety needs to sit back and wait for some unfortunate wideout to come over the middle. Also with safeties over the top most of the game the big play should have been taken away.

If the Pack can stay healthy they have a clear lane to the division. I hope that the Bears can pull themselves together but at this stage it looks like we will have to sweep the Pack to have a chance to repeat in the division. The first game is in two weeks and the Bears may still be missing half their defense by then. It isn't all that suprising that the Bears are sliding from last year, at the moment they are without six of their starters, five of whom made the Probowl over the last two years. However deep a team is that has to hurt especially when your quarterback is an utter moron. As a Bears fan all hope now may rest on the surgically repaired shoulder of Brian Griese or alternatively Kyle (shudder) Orton (double shudder). That and Devin Hester scoring 15TDs this season.

27
by MJK (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:26pm

OK, thanks for the correction. I am not a Packers or an Eagles fan, and was just going on what was said in the article above. I was trying to extrapolate a trend. For instance, I'd be willing to bet that fans of the first few teams that played Minnesota last year were moaning that their running offense was bad...and probably didn't revise that opinion until the fact that Minnesota had the best run defense in the league became public knowledge.

As to how to mask a weak secondary...
It's not easy. The Patriots and the Colts have managed it in the past because they have a strong pass rush from their D-lines, linebackers that are good in coverage (well, the Patriots didn't last year, but in general they have), and at least one very good safety. The other way to do it is to have a shut down corner, which allows you to roll all the rest of the coverage to the other side of the field.

You can take away the deep stuff with a competent if not stellar DB's, and a strong pass rush that doesn't give the recievers time to expose your secondary. The problem is the short stuff--the best pass rush in the world does nothing to stop a quick hitch or a slant. What you have to do there is either rely on the coverage skills of your LB's, or, if you have good safeties, have the CB's hit the recievers off the line to disrupt the short pass timing.

Do the Chargers have either good safeties or good coverage LB's? All I hear is about their pass rush... The good news for them is that it takes a very poised and accurate QB with good possession recievers to exploit a bad secondary behind a good pass rush, and there just aren't that many QB's like that in the league. Brady and Favre did it, but, as someone pointed out, Grossman did not, and Damon Huard or John Kitna are probably not going to either. The bad news is that the chief rivals for the Chargers in the AFC--the Pats, Colts, and maybe the Steelers--all have the personnell to attack their weakness.

28
by Brian (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:28pm

Maybe the roids made a big difference for Merriman. It's more than possible that being half a step slower and 20 lbs weaker would hurt a pass rusher.

29
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:50pm

One of the things Randy Moss does, when he is healthy and wants to play, is mercilessly expose anything less than completely superior corner play, even when there is a good pass rush. I can't count the number of times that I saw Moss openly call for a streak when he saw the right alignment, have Culpepper switch to a max protect scheme, and then watch the two of them play "go deep" sandlot football, making the corner, and sometimes the safety and corner, look like Pop Warner level players.

Shanahan once said that the Vikings with Moss were the only NFL team he 's ever seen which would frequently just throw the ball in the general direction of a certain receiver, and score a ton of points with that method. If I was a fan of a non-Patriot AFC team with Super Bowl goals, what would worry me is that Moss is now playing in a system, and seems to have bought into it, which is much, much, more complex than anything the Vikings ever did, and has a quarterback with a skill set which dwarfs any other quarterback's whom Culpepper has played with. Toss is a Welker and Stallworth, and a tight end with some talent, and I don't think the Patriots have done more than scratch the surface, in terms of exploiting match-ups. As the season goes on, we are likely to see more wrinkles, with more stuff left unused until the playoffs. If I were a Colts fan (and I am, in a nonconference way) I'd be worried. The Steelers are off to a good start, but I just don't watch them enough to have good handle on their personnel.

30
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 12:53pm

"whom Moss has played with", of course. I gotta stop sniffing glue in the morning.

31
by MCS (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 1:27pm

Couldn't make an entire article without giving credit to the Patriots, eh Ned? Has Aaron given you guys a quota? (j/k)

Please check your game charting and I think you will see the Green bay has been going empty backfield, spread offense all season. They may have done it more against the Chargers, but it has definitely become a big part of their playbook in absence of a consistent running game.

32
by Drew (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 1:32pm

Great article Ned. One point: if you take out any running back's longest run at this point in the season, their yards per carry drops significantly. Right now, if you look at just the top 5 yardage gainers in the league (who's average would be effected less by taking out the longest run), their yards per carry drop by between .3 for Willie Parker and 1.2 Jamal Lewis. Most players drop by between .5 and 1 yard per carry.
If you take out LT's longest run of 11 yards, he only averages 2.05 yards per carry.
So the fact that the Packer's yards per carry drops from 2.9 to 2.3 yards per carry with out thier longest gain is well within the norm. The drop is normal, but the overall average still sucks.
However, the fact that Wynn's average drops from 5.2 to 2.4 is significant. That one run showed some burst, but there is no reason to think he is the savior of their running game.

33
by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 1:52pm

"What’s that going to do? Its extremely difficult to hold a lead with a poor secondary."

I'm not saying I have all the answers, this confounds me as I admitted, but it seems to me that if you do not fear the run you can go to nickle and dime packages more readily and hopefully make up for your lack of skill in the backfield simply by throwing more bodies back there.

34
by langsty (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 1:56pm

The steroids angle wrt Merriman is a little bit of a red herring. It makes for a good narrative but isn't very realistic.

I think one of the most underrated things Marty brings to the table as a coach is that he really imbues his teams with his personality, for better or worse. It sounds cliched, but they really appear to be a team without any personality right now, they have no purpose or tenacity.

35
by Matt (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 1:58pm

29 --

Will, the Steelers *might* have a defense that can disrupt the Patriots juggernaut offense. Might. I think it would take a perfect game by any defense to even act as a speed bump to that offense as it's performed thus far.

36
by Flounder (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 2:10pm

Re: 34 why isn't it realistic? I'm not saying that's why he hand zero impact against GB, but I don't find it unrealistic that it's a factor either.

37
by SconnySon (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 2:22pm

Badger, you're being too kind. Marquand Manuel put both t's in toast.

38
by Dave (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 2:23pm

The Chargers are running with the same secondary they had last year, when they were good enough... (except Weddle, but he's looked OK so I doubt he's the problem)

You know who the Chargers really miss (on the field) thus far? Donnie Edwards. I get that his whining about an extension was a pain in the ass, but there isn't an LB in football I can think of that won't help paper over a bad secondary with his pass defense skills as much as Edwards. Dude's still got wheels, and he's also very good at wrapping up the ball carrier and stopping forward progress, versus trying for the highlight play McCree-style shellacking or half-assing the tackle, which are two things that the Chargers have had serious problems with.

Edwards' skill set is vanilla, but he helps clean up a lot of containment and pass defense messes, and I'm not confident that Wilhelm is going to be able to match up even when he's fully healthy.

39
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 3:00pm

I've been breaking down the second half of the SE@NE game, and from what I saw (and what Madden pointed out as well) SD's nose tackle, Jamal Williams, hasn't been playing well at all. I think a lot of their defensive struggles comes down to his play. Merriman's not getting sacks because Williams isn't occupying blockers like he was last year.

40
by RickKilling (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 3:16pm

If the Vikes somehow, by the grace of all that is Grayskull, manage to win this weekend, will next week's AGS be on them?
Given Brittany Favre's tendencies in the Metrodome, what are the odds the INT record falls before the TD record?
If Adrian Peterson scores a long touchdown to ice the cake, can he fake moon the plethora of GreenGold jerseys in attendance? Or will Joe Buck screech like a Cabbage Patch doll wherever he's at?

41
by ammek (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 3:21pm

It's when one of these Any Given Sundays is about your team, the one you watch week in week out, that you appreciate the quality of Ned's analysis. He does not, remember, have the chance to swot up on the teams beforehand (although, in this case, I believe he wrote the NFC North offseason remarks), since he never knows what game he'll be talking about, and yet gets out his copy in less than 48 hours.

There's nothing I can disagree with here. Clifton's importance can't be understated, and the simplicity of the Packers defensive schemes is worth re-emphasizing, since it demonstrates the value of drafting and training (the right) personnel, at which the Packers have excelled these last few drafts.

Re: Ted Cottrell. We're all aware Will Allen's not a fan. Any Bills fans care to comment from the time when he was widely fêted?

42
by RickKilling (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 3:23pm

Actually, do Cabbage Patch dolls make noise?

43
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 4:13pm

Rick;

For the record Favre has a daughter named Brittany.

GB has won 3 of their last 4 in Minnesota. But I doubt any silly facts will get in the way.

44
by Will (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 5:26pm

Ted Cottrell was the Jets DC in '03. Highlight of the season? The Raiders (the Raiders! they were crap!) drove down the field running the ball on every single play. No passes. The Jets run D was of course bad from '05 to '06 as well, so the personnel were a bit of an issue, but man that was one of my lowlights as a Jets fan. I laughed when Minny picked up Cottrell and I laughed harder when SD did.

45
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 5:27pm

re:39

Williams hurt his arm early in the 2nd half, and honestly, was getting manhandled. That was definitely part of the problem in the 2nd half.

The problem is, he looked fine in the first half, and the chargers were still getting beat down.

46
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 5:29pm

Yeah, all the Favre in a dome stuff is a good lesson in sample size signifigance.

47
by Unshakable Optimist (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 6:20pm

I remember during the Freeney debate, someone said that Merriman occasionally got dominated by opposing left tackles. Phillips responded by switching things up and lining him up over right tackle, and suddenly he was a factor again. Maybe the problem here is a lack of imagination.

48
by BadgerT1000 (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 6:40pm

Will:

First, it's the whole "QB record when it's a team game" thing.

Second, the VAST majority of that dome record is against two division opponents who of course going to have a better understanding of how to play the Packers than other teams.

Finally, the Vikes were a solid team for a long time. And as for the Lions, GB has struggled in Detroit FOREVER. The greatest Packer team ever, 1962, lost in Detroit with Starr getting sacked 11 times. It's bizarre, it makes no sense, but it just IS.

There is also the noise. GB brings out whatever fervor still exists in Vikings fans. It has taken Favre over a decade to master the silent count. His statement, not my opinion......

49
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 7:42pm

#23: Nine times in 54 dropbacks is still extremely high. Yeah, Detroit's offensive line is pretty bad, and they're pass-happy, but that's still indicative of a dominant pass rush. Their adjusted sack rate is around 10%, which isn't the highest in the league (it's 6th) but it's still top-tier level. It is a little early to say, though.

50
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 8:12pm

I don't discount that stuff Badger, but people don't put things in context. Favre had a .487 winning percentage in road games for his career at the start of the season. I doubt too many qbs have careers of any length, and end up with winning road records. My guess would be that Montana, Young, and maybe Bradshaw lead the way. Favre's win percentage in domes is .364, which may seem like a lot less, but it is only over 33 games, and if you increase the dome win total by only 4, it climbs to .485. Sounds like pure random luck could account for that. Sure, the records in Detroit and Minneapolis are worse, but gosh, that is only over 24 games, so while the factors you cite are worth examining, it also may just be that if Favre played another 75 games in those towns, his record in them would approximate what his overall road record is, no matter if he improved or not.

51
by Arkaein (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 9:00pm

Re Favre in domes:

I think far too much has been made over Favre's record in domes, especially in Minnesota. What has been overlooked is that GB was dominant at home and bad on the road not under Favre, but under HOLMGREN. Something about Holmgren's coaching style makes his teams great at home but underperforming on the road, and when he left GB he took these tendencies out to Seattle.

Under Sherman the Pack started winning in Minnesota and doing decent in Detroit, despite the fact that Favre's started to decline from MVP form around this time. However GB also lost the ability to post 7 or 8 homes wins at will, as they seemed to do at the peak of the Holmgren years.

It's never really been about Favre in my opinion, but since he draws all the media focus this alternative explanation has been overlooked.

52
by jim's apple pie (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 9:33pm

Wow, I'm a Chargers fan and I doubt I could have summarized the issues with the Chargers this year as accurately and succinctly as Ned Macey does in this article. Excellent job!

I was hoping that Norv just needed some good players but it's painfully obvious that he just does not have what it takes to be a head coach in the NFL. LT wouldn't say what was bothering him in the post-game interview, but I can really only see two options:

1) He's upset that Marty (a coach he got along very well with) was replaced with Norv, who seems to have no ability whatsoever to get his players fired up about playing a football game.

2) He's upset with the offensive line, because there has been absolutely no holes for him to run through.

The scary part for the Chargers is that Rivers was having an absolute fantastic game, and they still couldn't pull away from the Packers. He's not going to be on target like that every game, and in the future his receivers can't possibly bail out his poor throws as well as they did against the Packers. Eric Parker is sorely missed because he has great hands and always seemed to be able to get separation and make the catch on third downs (hence his high DVOA numbers the past couple of years). Without Parker, more of the Chargers drives are stalling on third down.

The defense is a whole other story, and I'm not sure that the problems can be fixed like on the offensive side. Cottrell is just awful, absolutely awful. He has no idea what to do with the linebackers in order to generate pressure. The defensive line is going to be hurting if Jamal Williams elbow continues to be a problem. Luis Castillo has been invisible this year. Neither of the safeties (McCree and Hart) are any good. The cornerbacks are just average, but they definitely look better in man coverage than the soft zones they were in against New England. Unfortunately, even when Cottrell finally switched up the defense and started playing to their strengths they were still getting burned on all of those slants.

In order to counter the spread offenses that they're going to see for the rest of the year, I think they're going to start using the nickel package as the base defense. With Wilhelm nursing a strained calf, they can sub out one of the inside linebacker spots for a defensive back and keep Cooper on the field as the other defensive back. I would actually prefer to see McCree benched for Weddle, but there's little chance of that happening.

It's become obvious to me that the Chargers defense really misses Donnie Edwards. Donnie was an excellent coverage linebacker (he's built more like a safety as well). In addition to his coverage ability, Donnie was an excellent tackler. Last year, too many Chargers fans complained about Donnie "making the tackle 8 yards downfield" while ignoreing the fact that he was MAKING THE TACKLE! The atrocious tackling by the Chargers defense cost them a huge amount of yardage in that game, and it was just inexcusable.

53
by jim's apple pie (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 9:36pm

D'oh, that should have said "Cooper on the field as the other inside linebacker."

Also, I absolutely used "absolutely' way too much.

54
by Alex (not verified) :: Tue, 09/25/2007 - 11:46pm

Re Merriman:
I think that he was the victim of a false positive on the steroid test last year. I think there are three main reasons for his relatively low sack total so far:

1) Sample size. It's only been three games.

2) He was due for a regression in sacks this year. He may have lead the league in sacks last year, but he had very few QB hurries or hits. It was probably mostly luck that he had so many sacks, despite not getting into the backfield very often. Quite simply, the reason he doesn't look like much of a disruptive force this season is that he wasn't that much of a disruptive force last season on most passing plays. He just made the most out of the plays when he did get in the backfield.

3) Opponents. He's faced some pretty unsackable QBs so far. Of the three QBs he's faced, the one with the highest adjusted sack rate last year? Tom Brady, at 13th. Favre and Grossman were 3rd and 5th.

And really, is it that ridiculous that he would struggle against a good left tackle? Last year, Matt Light made him disappear in the playoffs. He had 0 sacks in two games against Kansas City. Also 0 sacks against Tennessee. Hell, Arizona, with Leonard Davis (or whoever they were putting in at LT) held him to only 1 sack, and that came in the third quarter when the Chargers already had a 24-7 lead.

So far, this year, he's gotten 2 sacks in 3 games. If he continues getting sacks at that rate, he'll have double digit sacks by the end of the season. I don't get why people suddenly think he's declined precipitously, when he's still on pace to have 10 or 11 sacks. And the offenses he's faced so far had the following ranks in ASR last year, in order: 5th, 13th, and 3rd. It doesn't strike me as entirely coincidental that he's gotten the following number of sacks in the last three games, again in order: 0, 2, 0.

And last year? Most of his sacks came against the following three offenses:

-Oakland - 3 sacks - 32nd in ASR
-Seattle - 3.5 sacks - 28th in ASR
-St. Louis - 3 sacks - 21st in ASR

Additionally, if you look at the three games last year (including the playoff game against the Patriots) in which he faced offenses that were 13th or better in ASR, guess how many sacks he had? 2. He hasn't really regressed that much, he's just faced as many "unsackable" QBs in three games this year as he did all of last season. When he's had the chance to play Oakland twice, his sack total will suddenly go way up.

55
by Yaguar (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 2:24am

2 sacks in 3 games is rather typical for a great pass-rusher. Michael Strahan, for example, has 132.5 career sacks in 203 career games. That ratio comes to almost exactly 2 sacks per three games.

The "Merriman isn't disruptive enough" thing is the least of the Chargers' problems. I think we should be asking ourselves why their run-blocking has broken down, or why Ben Watson had no DB within 20 yards of him on his touchdown catch, not why their pass-rusher has regressed from unsustainable, astonishing production to mere Hall-of-Fame-level production.

56
by Speedegg (not verified) :: Wed, 09/26/2007 - 4:28am

As a Chargers fan, this is an EXTREMELY disappointing, but not unexpected, regression.

San Diego's secondary has never been dominant. Their cornerbacks are, at best, average. Disagree? Florence is in his final contract year and there has been no effort to resign him. This gets more interesting because Rosenhaus is his agent and for a guy that negotiated big contracts for his players (TO) it's strange he hasn't made any big demands.

Cromartie is a 2nd year player and is beginning to compete with Florence for RCB position. Jammer is developing (or rather, has developed) and he's no Bly or Bailey. Oliver is a rookie and he's going to have a steep learning curve (no pun intended, but was academically ineligible his senior year so he went pro).

SS Kiel was cut (for legal trouble), SS Jue was cut for lack of talent/smarts, SS Hart is a stop gap that couldn't break the line up for four years, and Weddle is a rookie. FS McCree is decent, but he's smarter than strong. Heck, he was the one that got the secondary to watch film together just to improve their pass D.

For a semi-objective rating of the Charger secondary, check (of all places) the Madden 08 player ratings. It may be rougher than DPAR, but it puts in perspective their talent level. As a whole, they grade out at a C/C+. No wonder Moss and Driver cut them like a hot knife through butter.

The way DC Phillips got around that was by creatively blitzing his front seven. If Merriman was being double teamed, Philips would hit the QB from the other side. If Philips was blocked, Edwards and Godfrey would slam the A gaps...if Williams, Castillo, or Olshansky didn't crush the QB first.
When QB's expected the heat, Edwards and/or Godfrey dropped into coverage. Edwards was good in coverage (remember those interceptions last year) and Godfrey was adequate. This confused even the best of QB. Even Peyton Manning had a hard time with this front seven (2004 won in OT 34-31, 2005 lost 26-17).

This year, the ILB's are rookies and two guys that spelled Godfrey and Edwards. Plus, those guys are better run stuffers than pass defenders.
On the D-Line, Williams hurt his elbow and Castillo has that reoccurring ankle sprain, so there's less heat up front. This isn't the same front 7 we've had for the last few years.

On top of all that Cottrell said he wants to do more CB and safety blitzes, while putting his LB's back in coverage. That's good, ONLY if your DB's can hold their own on the island. They can't, they never did, and they're getting burned.

Cottrell's comment suggests he's going through an adjustment period. If post #7 is true, that Cottrell took a long time to call his plays, then this would confirm it. While he didn't run a bed and breakfast, he was out for a year and the game changes. He needs to adapt.

Part of his adaptation process should be from his head coach, Norv Turner (or barring that, Ron Rivera). So while Turner might be good mentoring quarterbacks, how good is he at mentoring coaches? How good is at synchronizing the defensive game plan to compliment the offensive game plan? Could that be part of the reason he isn't a good head coach or blows 4th quarter leads?

I guess we'll know if we see only 5 blitzers and Merriman in coverage.

57
by Jefe (not verified) :: Thu, 09/27/2007 - 5:18pm

38 got it right--they miss Donnie Edwards badly. He covered a lot of the mistakes that Merriman makes and kept the defense focused. You can see the confusion and how they're pointing fingers as they walk off the field. Edwards would never have allowed that visible sign of weakness. They lost their on-field general, they lost their sideline general, they lost their Mr. Reliable on defense. That hurts a lot.

Offensively it is much simpler. You cannot win many games when you base the entire passing offense on your TE. Even though Gates is a freak of nature, one CB and one S take him out of the game. The Chargers don't have any WRs who can exploit a team cheating a safety to shadow Gates. The OL is not doing a good job holding the G-T gaps either. Watch McNeill, he's setting up too far outside because opposing DCs adjusted and start the DEs a step out further on the edge rush. Throws the whole synchronocity of the line off. And Norv Turner is not smart enough to adjust that, he just asks his players to play better. Worst. Coach. Ever.