Sunday, 15 September 2013

NFL 2013 Week 2: Chargers 33, Eagles 30

Maybe the Chargers aren't as putrid as we thought they were.  I was very pessimistic this summer, seeing an overall lack of talent and depth on the team.  Critical areas in my eyes were on the offensive and defensive lines.  The D line has some talent in Kendell Reyes and Corey Liuget, but I thought we were in trouble starting Cam Thomas at nosetackle, or if any injuries struck, since we had no-hopers as backups.  The offensive line was even more nauseating, a patchwork of rejects, free agents, rookies, and Jeromey Clary.  

But a funny thing happened.  GM Tom Telesco was clear eyed at the outset, didn't try to snow anyone about the talent level, and freely admitted he'd go dumpster diving at cutdown day, searching the waiver wire for players cast off by deeper teams that might be of help.  He added that this would be a season-long process, something that would require his attention as injuries occurred and other teams shuffled their rosters and practice squads.  Mr. Telesco has had experience with this approach, having had to scramble while working in the Colts' front office, and it's a refreshing change from A.J. Smith's habit of stocking his roster with 'projects' who took up space, needed to be nurtured over time, but couldn't perform or help the team immediately.  

In any case, what I thought would be the Achilles' heel of this team and the most probable cause for its downfall, the O-line, has turned out to be relatively stable and competent.  While former Steeler veteran Max Starks was the putative front-runner for the starting left tackle spot, he was beaten out by former Eagle King Dunlap, a 6'9" giant who came into camp with something to prove and in remarkably (for him) good shape.  Max Starks was waived.  The former right tackle, Jeromey Clary was moved to right guard, making way for first round pick D.J. Fluker, and they have been surprisingly effective on the right side, especially in the run game.  Whereas last season the line couldn't open any holes, it is finding some success in the run game this season, which relieves a lot of the pressure on Philip Rivers to wing it on every snap.

In truth, the much improved offensive line is the reason for the competitiveness of the Chargers so far, since it allows the team's best player, Philip Rivers, to perform.  If Philip Rivers is kept healthy and upright, he is a threat to win any game.  So what we figured to be a glaring weakness, as evinced last season, is turning out to be a modest strength, a decent group that battles, gives Philip a pocket he can work in, and can clear the way for the running backs.

Today's game against the Eagles was foreshadowed by some to be a slaughter in waiting, an Eastern timezone bloodbath where the jetlagged Chargers would stumble and fumble their way to a humiliating blowout, or at least another fourth quarter collapse against the uptempo Chip Kelly offence.  Instead, the Chargers slowed the game down, Philip Rivers milking the play clock and keeping Michael Vick's track team on the sidelines.  Philip finished with over 400 yards passing and four TD passes.  He put up enough points on the board to win the game.  In spite of the defence and Ryan Mathews.

Indeed, if we're going to get critical, we have to start with Ryan Mathews who once again coughed up the ball near the opposition goal line, which is a troubling but all-too-regular occurrence.  Some people point to his upright running style as the reason for these fumbles, but we now have to question his mental makeup and whether the kid is a gamer.  He has received tonnes of coaching on the importance of protecting the football, and how to go about it, but it's obviously not sinking in.  Other teams are keying on him, foregoing tackling opportunities in favour of attempts to strip the ball.  If he was sharp, he'd make them pay for that, punish them and run through the resultant arm tackles.  Instead, he carries ball way out there for all defenders to see, as enticing as a ripe watermelon on a hot day, and it gets taken away.  I'm beginning to wonder if this can ever be fixed.

Antonio Gates also had a goal line fumble, but in his case we can let it slide, he's normally sure-handed, this is a blip.  This was is first fumble in years.  A more salient reason this game could have been lost was the listless effort by the defence, who couldn't make a play.  It only registered one sack, didn't cause a turnover, and gave up 428 passing yards to Michael Vick.

In the end, it took a final drive by Philip Rivers, who methodically worked down the field, using Antonio Gates and draining the clock, to put Nick Novak in position to win the game.  Mr. Novak cashed in the opportunity, and he is doing well in his role as the successor to the reliable but brittle Nate Kaeding.  We should also give kudos to Eddie Royal, who was injured and/or ineffective much of last season but has started this year with a bang.  He racked up another three touchdowns, to add to the two from last week, and we'll be stampeding this week to pluck him off waivers and add him to our fantasy teams.

My mental game plan to this season was to endure a painful losing season, one that would ensure a favourable draft position and give as a crack at a franchise left tackle, be it Texas A&M's Jake Matthews or Michigan's Taylor Lewan.  Then we could start the rebuild.  Instead, this team could be just good enough to mess this up.  We just might fall out of the Bottom/Top 10 with any more of these meaningless wins.

Of course, maybe with King Dunlap we now don't need a stinkin' left tackle no more...

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