SAN DIEGO -- For the first time in five games, the San Diego Chargers will be the favored team in an NFL game this season. So playing the “we don’t get any respect” card NFL teams like to use as motivation each week will be a little more difficult when you’re favored by five points on the road against your AFC West rival, the Oakland Raiders.
But in talking to San Diego veteran safety Eric Weddle, you get the sense that this team still doesn’t feel like it gets respect from league observers nationally, and to a degree he’s correct. Even though he’s put up the best numbers in the NFL, except for Denver’s Peyton Manning, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers’ name does not roll off the average fan’s tongue when discussing players in the MVP race with fellow workers at the water cooler.
And even though the Chargers are putting up points each week, the defense has yet to prove it can put teams away, particularly on the road. So Sunday night’s nationally televised contest will be an opportunity for San Diego to do what it is supposed to do -- quickly dispose of a short-handed, inferior opponent.
That said, here’s what I will be looking for when the Chargers and Raiders square off on Sunday night.
1. Get off to a fast start: The Chargers need to let the Raiders know early that they mean business by grabbing a lead and taking control of the tempo. San Diego has done a good job of getting on the scoreboard early, scoring on three of the team’s first four opening-game drives. By taking the lead early, the Chargers could put pressure on an Oakland offense not built for playing from behind.
2. Who will rush the passer? With Dwight Freeney out for the season after suffering a torn quadriceps muscle last week, the Chargers will count on three players to step up in his absence -- Larry English, Tourek Williams and Thomas Keiser. However, in order to take some pressure off of that trio, defensive coordinator John Pagano needs the rest of that pass-rushing unit to play up to its potential, including the team’s leading sack man, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, and defensive tackle Cam Thomas. A solid performance by that group will take some pressure off of the newcomers.
3. Limit explosive plays: Making good, open-field tackles is important every week, but has been stressed even more with the Chargers facing mobile quarterback Terrelle Pryor. With fragile running back Darren McFadden likely out due to a hamstring injury, it will be up to Pryor to carry that Oakland offense. San Diego’s defense has to rally to the ball and not let Pryor get outside the pocket, where he’s more effective as a passer.
4. Get Rivers in a rhythm: Rivers has the hot hand offensively, so why not keep riding him? Coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt need to keep that up-tempo, no-huddle offense rolling by relying on the quick passing game. Short, quicker passes also should help protect the team’s patchwork offensive line.
5. Create balance on offense: While Rivers has been very effective throwing the football, San Diego still has done a nice job mixing in runs to maintain balance on offense. That needs to continue. Specifically, starting running back Ryan Mathews is due for some explosive runs on the ground. Mathews has totaled 226 rushing yards, but his longest run through four games is 20 yards. Mathews runs hard, is healthy and has done a nice job of taking care of the ball (one lost fumble on 64 carries). But a couple explosive plays running the football would make San Diego’s offense even more lethal.