Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
08 Oct 2013
by Mike Ridley
Just three weeks ago, Philip Rivers was being lauded in this column for his turnover-free performance as he meticulously picked apart a troubled Eagles secondary in route to an upset of Philadelphia. Time has revealed that the Eagles defense isn’t exactly the best measuring stick, but in the two weeks following, evidence continued to suggest that Philip Rivers might have righted his ship.
Coming into Sunday night (or Monday morning for our East Coast readers), Rivers had a DYAR of 575, trailing only Peyton Manning. On the season, he had 1,299 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions, including two consecutive games completing over 83 percent of his passes. By almost any statistical measure, it was Rivers’ best start to a season since becoming the starter in 2006.
Just as he was starting to lure fans and fantasy owners back into his corner, Rivers busted out a performance that came to define his last two seasons. Despite throwing for over 400 yards for the third time this season (and just the sixth time of his career), Rivers tallied three interceptions to offset his two touchdown passes. The backbreaker came when Rivers was picked off in the end zone by D.J. Hayden as the Chargers were trying to close the gap to three late in the fourth quarter.
To put all the blame on Rivers, however, would be inaccurate. The Chargers troubled run game and special teams gaffes helped the Raiders to jump out to an early lead. Rivers' two late interceptions may have sealed the game, but the other Chargers miscues were a large reason they found themselves in such a hole to begin with.
|VOA is Victorious|
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
VOA confirms what was easily deciphered during the game; Oakland played efficiently, albeit unspectacularly, while San Diego was plagued with mistakes in all three phases of the game. Had San Diego pulled this out, they would’ve became just the 12th team (out of 280) to win a game that featured five turnovers and zero takeaways.
With 10:04 left in the second quarter and the Chargers trailing by 14, Mike McCoy kept his offense on the field for a 4th-and-goal attempt from the 1-yard line. San Diego went four-wide, trying to stretch out the Oakland defense. Despite the Raiders being spread out, the Chargers’ offensive line failed to create push and Oakland stuffed Danny Woodhead for no gain, forcing a turnover on downs.
Although the Raiders would go on to punt nine plays later (which Eddie Royal would muff), the stop helped keep the Chargers off the scoreboard in the first half and allow the Raiders to amass 17-point lead to start the second half.
Terrelle Pryor famously mentioned this offseason that he had just recently learned to throw a football correctly. He spent time working with former major-league pitcher Tom House, offensive coordinator Greg Olson, and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo on learning the fundamentals and finer points of being a passer. The improvements he worked on this offseason were evident on Pryor’s first pass of the game, a 44-yard bomb to Rod Streater for a touchdown. Pryor continued to impress throughout the game, going 18-for-23 while showing off improved footwork, mechanics, and readings of the defense.
His improved mechanics paid huge dividends in deep passes. Against San Diego, Pryor went 4-for-5 on passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, amassing 82 DYAR in the process. This comes as a stark contrast from Week 1, which saw Pryor go 2-for-8 with two interceptions and a DYAR of -40. Pryor still tends to slightly underthrow his deep balls, but since Week 1, he is showing a much more fluid release and his improved footwork has greatly helped his accuracy.
Another thing that sticks out on tape is that even when Pryor is scrambling in the backfield, he’s doing a fantastic job of keeping his eyes downfield. Instead of looking to pick up the first down with his feet, Pryor keeps his focus on what’s happening downfield, even while doing Houdini impressions in the pocket. It’s this focus that allowed arguably the biggest play of the second half to happen. On third-and-14 from the Oakland 41, Pryor juked one defender, sprinted towards the sideline and shot a laser to Brice Butler for a 20-yard gain just before being hit. This conversion extended a drive that would result in a field goal that give the Raiders a 10-point cushion.
With the recent release of Matt Flynn, the Raiders have shown that they are all-in on Pryor for the 2013 season. If he can continue to improve his fundamentals and pair them with his natural-born talent, the 2014 season may be his, as well.
At 2-3, the Chargers are already three games behind both Denver and Kansas City, but sit just one game back of the sixth wild card spot. If the Chargers have any hope of making the playoffs this season, not only will Philip Rivers have to limit his turnovers, but the defensive secondary will also have to improve.
Following Sunday’s game, San Diego defense against the pass was among the worst in the NFL. Their 1,444 yards allowed is fourth worst in the league. They also feature the NFL’s second-worst catch percentage allowed (71 percent) and DVOA against wide receivers (22.3%). They have not even faced Peyton Manning.
Newcomer Derek Cox has repeatedly been beaten this year and was again on Streater’s touchdown. Streater was able to gain a couple steps on him, and had Streater not slowed down to catch the ball, he would have gone into the end zone untouched. This was a recurring theme for Cox, who didn’t appear to stop any passes thrown at him. If San Diego wants to improve their 28th ranked DVOA against number-two receivers, Cox must play much better.
Eight-year veteran Richard Marshall didn’t fare much better, either. As Aaron Schatz noted in Audibles, Marshall tried to sell a flop on the Denarius Moore touchdown reception, but ended up slipping instead. Marshall’s worst play of the day, however, came on a 33-yard fly route by Moore. Moore had a few steps on Marshall up the sideline, and was allowed to catch up (and ultimately commit pass interference) only because Pryor slightly underthrew the speedster. With Shareece Wright being limited with hamstring issues, Marshall's play is all the more important to the Chargers' defensive success.
The Raiders came into the game with the third-worst team defense DVOA. The yards they were allowing weren't alarmingly high, but the Raiders hadn't forced many turnovers. Their three takeaways were tied for the third-lowest total in the AFC after four weeks.
Sunday night, the silver and black had five takeaways in a game for the first time in two years, including grabbing their first interceptions of the season and converting three first-half turnovers into 17 points. They also blanked an opponent through two quarters for the first time since Week 15 of last season, when they shut out the 2-14 Chiefs. While Oakland deals with the growing pangs of Terrelle Pryor's development, it will be important for the defense to give the offense more short fields to work with if they hope to stay out of the Jacksonville zone.
In San Diego, Mike McCoy's new system continues to drive the AFC's second-best offense. The Chargers are currently averaging over 104 more yards per game than their 2012 mark and can seemingly move the ball on anyone, as long as they limit turnovers. The Chargers main culprit for their losing record has been their inability to stop anybody on the other side of the ball.
Through four weeks, the Chargers' defensive line was ranked dead last in our Adjusted Line Yards metric, which measures how effectively the front four stops the run. The Chargers also ranked 31st in Second Level Yards, which measures yards earned 5-to-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, and were in the bottom third of the league in DVOA against passes to both tight ends and running backs. Putting these puzzle pieces together, it's easy to see how San Diego has the worst DVOA on defense by an 8.2% margin. Maybe Manti Te'o's presence will help steady things, but the Chargers are still a few players away from fielding a competent defense.
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