Any Given Sunday: Browns Over Chargers
by Rivers McCown
"It's running weather," quipped CBS color man Rich Gannon.
It really was an ugly day in Cleveland, even by our traditionally perceived low standards of Cleveland's weather. It was drizzling at best throughout the game, a balmy 43 degrees, and high winds were out impacting every kick. It was the kind of moribund backdrop that the Browns are used to: plenty of seats, both good and bad, were available. The only unexpected part of it was that the San Diego Chargers fit so perfectly into the picture.
If you were tasked with creating a bleak portrait of the future of the A.J. Smith Chargers, this game was the epitome of everything you could have hoped to find. Talented feature back Ryan Mathews, of the well-documented fumble problems, fumbled again. Antonio Gates had problems separating. Free-agent acquisition Robert Meachem had a crucial drop that took seven points off the board. Left tackle Jared Gaither made it back in the lineup and Philip Rivers was still forced to spend a lot of time on the move in the pocket. Despite allowing only seven points, the Chargers defense got gashed in the run game.
With 1:41 to play, the Chargers reached the outskirts of Nick Novak's field-goal range, the Cleveland 44. Rivers would have four opportunities to net the crucial ten yards that he needed to give Novak an attempt. All four passes were incomplete.
The first-and-10 pass was aimed towards Dante Rosario in the middle of a zone, but it was thrown ahead of Rosario and he wasn't even able to lay a fingertip on it even though he layed out for the ball. (This was a consistent Rivers problem in this game: it seemed like he was almost aiming the ball at times rather than just cutting loose and throwing it.) On second down, Rivers' first option was well-covered, and Frostee Rucker beat Gaither to the outside, but fell down. Instead of standing in the pocket, Rivers pedaled backwards toward the sideline before throwing it away in the direction of Mathews. On third down, Rivers stood tall and delivered a deep ball to Rosario on an inside seam route despite Juqua Parker barreling down on him. This ball needed to be perfect though, and instead it fell about 10 yards short since Rivers couldn't step into the throw.
Finally, on fourth down, Buster Skrine made an athletic play in underneath coverage, leaping and tipping the ball despite Rivers having an open man beyond the sticks. Cleveland would have its win, and San Diego was left, yet again, with more questions than answers. The main one, naturally, being: What happened to their franchise quarterback?
By the VOA
We're back to work with Mr. Dewey and his decimal system. Wait, wrong Dewey. And wrong system. Here's how VOA scored the Chargers-Browns contest.
|Dewey Defeats Browns|
|Team||OFF VOA||DEF VOA||ST VOA||TOTAL VOA|
Neither offense really did well, obviously. The Chargers did do slightly better on offense, though I think that gap overscores it a bit. For my next trick, let's show you how this game looks in DVOA:
|DVOewey Defeats Browns|
|Team||OFF DVOA||DEF DVOA||ST DVOA||TOTAL DVOA|
See all those San Diego VOA rates dropping? Ladies and gentlemen, I present The Brown Effect. Which is not to be confused with The Brown Note, despite the fact that neither of them are very pretty to watch.
Call of the Game
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We had dual calls of the game, and, appropriately for National NFL Coach Grow Some Balls Day, they both centered around early fourth-down aggression.
On fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 30, on the first drive of the game, San Diego decided to roll the dice and go for it. Despite the fact that it cost them a field-goal chance, I thought this was a pretty decent idea. It was early, the weather was not conducive to easy field goals, and the Chargers had just spent a vast majority of the drive running all over the Browns.
The problem was that instead of sticking with Mathews, who had 30 yards on the first drive alone, they brought in Jackie Battle to tote the rock. T.J. Ward brushed right past Gates, who had problems getting out of his stance on the line, and tackled Battle for a loss. Norv? Norv.
On the ensuing Cleveland drive, Pat Shurmur went for it on fourth-and-1 from the San Diego 28. His weapon of choice was the Brandon Weeden sneak, and it was well-executed. Two plays later, Trent Richardson worked his body out of a weak Atari Bigby tackle on his way to the game's lone touchdown, a 26-yard scamper.
Spotlight on: Philip Rivers
Let's try not to draw any sweeping conclusions based on one game, okay? Let's just consider Rivers' performance here, and not all the whispers of injuries that have been dogging him for the past few years. I'll say it: this may have been the worst game I've ever seen him have.
There are a myriad of problems for the Chargers passing game right now, but the number one problem with Rivers to me is that he just doesn't look comfortable in the pocket. If you force him to throw on the run, the ball comes out awkwardly and is startlingly inaccurate. In fact, despite the poor overall numbers that he had in this game, I think Weeden looked like the best quarterback on the field. Weeden, at least, could throw on the run.
Statistically, the biggest problem in this game was Rivers performance on deep passes. This is the foundation of San Diego's offense. They run their routes deeper than any other team, open up short passes to the running backs, and Rivers takes the underneath stuff until something opens up deep.
The problems the Chargers had yesterday were multi-faceted, but while they certainly miss Vincent Jackson in the deep passing game, his absence alone can't explain some of the bad throws that Rivers is making. On six deep passes (15 yards or more past the line of scrimmage), Rivers had a -129.2% DVOA yesterday. That accounts for almost all of the negative production he produced, and every one of those passes could have easily been completed. The funny thing is, on the season, he's actually been fairly effective on deep balls: he has a 41.3% DVOA on 45 deep attempts for the season. The league average on all deep throws for the season is a 58.9% DVOA, but Rivers' stats don't represent a huge drop from average. He was fine for the first five weeks of the season ... and then we hit the Broncos game:
|F--- It, Philip Rivers Is Going Deep|
|Weeks||DVOA||Deep Pass DVOA||DYAR||Deep Pass DYAR|
So it seems, if anything, the statistical problem for most of the year has been that the Chargers' short passing game is now relying on Ronnie Brown instead of Darren Sproles (and ignoring Mathews), and that with Vincent Brown hurt, they don't have what you'd call a possession receiver.
But in this game, the problems started with the deep ball. Here's a quick look at the five of them that went 20 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage:
Third-and-16 at the San Diego 21, 13:03 left in the second quarter
Rivers takes about a five-step drop, the pocket gets a little muddy but he wasn't hurried, and he took a shot to Danario Alexander. The ball was underthrown by about ten yards.
First-and-10 at the San Diego 37, 7:59 left in the second quarter
Rivers has play-action, a very clean pocket, and takes a shot at Malcom Floyd despite him being bracketed by both safeties. It's not a completely unreasonable decision, because there is space, but the throw has to be a very good one. It is not.
The ball hangs. Young and Ward combine to nearly intercept it. Ward actually does catch the ball, but he's out of bounds when he does so.
Third-and-9 at the San Diego 49, 8:57 left in the third quarter
Here's the one throw that's on the money. The pocket is clean. Meachem has plenty of separation on a post route and just drops the ball. Game-changing flub.
Second-and-16 at the Cleveland 24, 3:27 left in the third quarter
Rivers gets hurried a bit by Jabaal Sheard making mincemeat of Louis Vasquez on a stunt. Vasquez is not even close to picking it up, so Rivers has to sidestep a bit before his throw. He targets Gates in the middle of the end zone, which would have been a smooth move if not for the fact that there were four different Browns players around him.
Still, it does seem like this is a throw that could be made. It just needs a lot more zip than Rivers put on it. This is what it looks like when the ball arrives.
Third-and-10 at the Cleveland 44, 1:30 left in the fourth quarter
This is the aforementioned third-down play I mentioned in the opening. Rosario is open on the seam, but the ball is underthrown because Rivers can't step into it.
Rosario trips inadvertently on his defender's feet, but even if he'd been standing, this ball would have undershot him by a mile.
As you can see, Rivers wasn't exactly faced with impossible throws here: he just wasn't able to get enough mustard on the ball most of the time to make them happen.
What was even more concerning than any of these passes? The fact that the Chargers had no confidence in Rivers from the get-go. The only drive where San Diego didn't trail in this game was their first one, and on said drive, they ran the ball nine times. They threw it once. Mathews has been maligned this season for his fumbling, and yet the run-pass balance was almost completely even. I know that it wasn't a big lead, and I know that the weather was "running weather," but that's not the kind of game plan you develop when you have confidence in your quarterback.
Obviously, I'm shying away from saying that Rivers is done. I don't know what he's going through. I just know that if you took his nameplate off and attached "VOLEK" to the back of his jersey, the performance wouldn't have surprised me in the slightest.