Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Philip Rivers

by Derrik Klassen

It is easy to dismiss or forget about the Los Angeles Chargers. The team has not made the playoffs since 2013 and plays in an MLS stadium that attracts more of an away crowd than a home crowd. Between Peyton Manning's dominant stretch in Denver and Kansas City's ever-changing path to double-digit wins, the Chargers are a deserved afterthought in the AFC West.

In turn, quarterback Philip Rivers is regularly left out of conversations of the league's best passers. Despite being cemented throughout the NFL's record books as a passer, the Chargers' constant disarray and underachievement has led many to brush Rivers aside. Rivers is not allowing himself to be ignored this season, though. Rivers is on track to contend for the MVP award.

Among quarterbacks with at least four starts this season, Rivers ranks fifth in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) and fourth in DYAR, sandwiched between Jared Goff and Matt Ryan in both categories. Rivers is on a slightly better pace now than he was through the first six games of his 2009 season, when he posted a career-high 8.30 ANY/A and led the Chargers to a 13-3 record.

Deep passing has been the key component for Rivers' hyperproduction. In a league constantly doing more to enable and reward passing down the field, Rivers and the Chargers have capitalized. According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Rivers is an elite deep passer to the left and middle portions of the field, while maintaining an average rating down the right side of the field. Furthermore, the Chargers rank fourth in the league in 20-yard passing plays, and Rivers' seven 20-yard passing touchdowns are tied for most in the league.

The Cleveland Browns fell victim to Rivers' deep passing prowess in their Week 6 matchup . Through that point in the season, the Browns had been one of the best pass defenses in the league, but Rivers and company took them to town. One particular two-play scoring drive encapsulated how scary the Chargers' vertical attack can be.

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This is the same exact play-action concept twice in a row. To the left of the formation, one receiver runs a vertical route that bends toward the sideline so as to split the two deep safeties. The receiver to the right of formation runs a post through the deep portion of the field vacated by the split safeties. Some of the onus is on the Browns for trying to run the same coverage versus the same formation twice in a row, but wide receiver Tyrell Williams gets open both times and Rivers delivers two excellent passes to give his player a chance in tight coverage. That is the level of aggression and execution required to be a top-tier deep passing team.

The Chargers can attack down the field with a number of different pass-catchers, too. Williams is Rivers' preferred vertical threat, but Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler each have deep touchdown receptions. Keep in mind that Travis Benjamin has been injured for most of the year as well, which means the Chargers could add even more vertical presence if he can return to form at any point.

Of course, it is difficult for an offense to function properly if there is only sizzle without the steak. Explosive plays are important, but an offense must still be capable of grinding out drives, stringing together first downs, and systematically marching down the field. Considering Rivers is one of the best underneath passers in the league, sustaining drives when defenses take away the shot plays is no problem for the Chargers.

Part of Rivers' success in the underneath area of the field is how well his ball placement enables yards after the catch. Rivers is arguably the best quarterback in the league at keeping receivers in stride on crossing routes. It may be a niche skill, but Rivers' ability to consistently allow his receivers to eke out an extra few yards is often the difference between the first down or not.

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Take this throw, for instance. Rivers was faced with third-and-4 just outside of the red zone. A conversion here would have given the Chargers a fresh set of downs inside the Rams' 25-yard line. Instead of crumbling under the pressure and putting the throw behind Antonio Gates, Rivers adjusts his throwing platform to erase the pressure and puts the throw out in front of Gates. Gates catches the ball about 2 yards behind the sticks, but because Rivers' placement allowed him to stay in stride and seamlessly transition up the field, Gates is able to fight for the extra few yards needed to convert. When analysts and coaches talk about winning in the margins and doing the little things, plays like this are a shining example.

On top of his accuracy, Rivers knows when and how to take the shorter passes. Quarterbacks across the league, ranging from rookies to veterans, show us every week that they do not know when to let plays die. Rivers has struggled with this in the past when the weight of the offense was entirely on him, but with more help this season, he has shown he can trust the offense to slowly move down the field instead of forcing big plays. Playing with proper use of checkdowns and hot routes is part of why elite passers such as Drew Brees and Tom Brady have pieced together Hall of Fame careers.

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By all accounts, this is a standard checkdown to the running back, something Rivers loves to do. The impressive part comes in how quickly Rivers recognizes the deeper routes in the concept will not be open. Rivers anticipates early on in the play that the coverage is going to take away the intermediate and deep routes, so rather than wasting time to confirm that hunch, he hitches up and finds Melvin Gordon underneath.

These two screenshots capture the end of Rivers' initial dropback versus the moment he turns to throw to Gordon. There is no hesitation from Rivers in recognizing the coverage and understanding where his best option is. Similar to the example of Rivers' underneath accuracy, minor plays such as these may not appear important, but being able to consistently get the most out of every play is a major advantage for Los Angeles.

The Chargers' offense this season is a marriage of talented skill players and a quarterback who can maximize their potential. Rivers, who was surrounded by mediocrity for years, now has the fortune of throwing to a trio of extraterrestrials at wide receiver and a pair of running backs who can excite after the catch. The offensive line is in a much better condition now than it has been in years past, too. For now, Rivers has a reprieve from his days of playing behind a broken line trying to throw to the likes of Dontrelle Inman and an ancient Malcom Floyd.

From here on out, the Chargers are projected to have the 10th-most difficult schedule in football. Already sitting at 4-2, they are equipped to handle a tough loss or two down the road, but the next ten games will be a test of how far Rivers and the offense can take them. Rivers will have to maintain his MVP-caliber play to propel the Chargers to the playoffs.


10 comments, Last at 22 Oct 2018, 2:47pm

2 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

I consider Rivers on of the best college QBs ever and it grates at me that in much of the public's mind Manning the Lesser is comparable or better then Rivers due to RINGZ!

I think Rivers is the classic 'good player on a bad organization.' Like Andrew Luck or much of Colts era Peyton Manning. I would hate to see what SD would be without Rivers for a few weeks.

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

5 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

Well, he did get to sit for a year behind Brees, then when he did start it was for one of the best teams in the league, with excellent coaching, a HOF running back and tight end.

I don't doubt that latterly the Chargers' dysfunction has cost him many opportunities, meaning he will never get the recognition he deserves, but the early, developmental part of his career was in about as good a situation imaginable for a young QB..

7 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

I'd really like Rivers or Brees to win the MVP this season. An MVP for Felipe can probably get him enough push for the HOF while Brees winning will be validation that he is an all time great. Excited on how the rest of the season will play out.

8 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

Imagine how different the narrative would be if the Chargers hadn't given away the divisional playoff game in 2007. That 14-2 only losses were by three points each - both to playoff teams, including the 13-3 Ravens. The Chargers were stacked on O - prime Tomlinson and Gates, Rivers with excellent numbers. The D was solid too - best against the run in the league and a fierce pass rush, albeit some questions in the secondary. Rivers had a pretty lousy game against the Pats but it didn't seem to matter because Brady was worse - 3 picks and getting crushed all day. The last interception would have sealed the game but it ended up being stripped by Troy Brown (in a depleted Pats secondary). Schotty didn't help things with his playcalling either - hyper conservative except for going for it on 4th and 11 instead of letting Nate Kaeding try a 49 yard field goal.
The Patriots had no business winning that game and the Chargers would have been at home through the playoffs. It's not a stretch to think that they would have won the Superbowl. They certainly would have been favored for the following rounds.

9 Re: Film Room: Philip Rivers

I know "what-ifs" can go too far sometimes, but the Chargers would have been a very good bet to at least reach the Super Bowl that year had they held on - they had a great record against those Manning/Dungy Colts teams (5-2 from '04 - '10) and knocked them out of the playoffs in both of the next two seasons. Then a shot at Rex Grossman...