Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Ken Moll
The San Diego Chargers appear to have found a new, unconventional way to control games: throw the ball more, throw it deeper and throw it near the goal line.
In the past, LaDainian Tomlinson was the focal point of the Chargers' offense. Not so in 2008. Over the previous three seasons, San Diego averaged 139.4 rushing yards per game (the third-best total in the NFL during that span). That's a stark contrast to the team's current clip of 98.5, which ranks 21st in the league. Meanwhile, a relatively conservative Chargers passing game (which averaged 203.4 yards per game over that same three-year stretch) has jumped to 239.8 in Philip Rivers' third season as starter.
Clearly, the coaching staff's confidence in Rivers and his ability to make plays downfield is at an all-time high. His willingness and ability to throw to all levels mark a big change in his game, and the greater involvement of his wide receivers has made the offense more diverse and less predictable. And if the game plans haven't called for more intermediate and deep throws, Rivers is reacting to coverage and beating defenses when he spots weaknesses. That in itself demonstrates maturity and a higher stage of development.
Coach Norv Turner also is giving Rivers more opportunities in the red zone, which in the past had been the unquestioned domain of Tomlinson. Most opposing defenses will stack the line of scrimmage with eight-man fronts and attack with zone run blitzes to derail L.T. inside the 20. And because Tomlinson's ailing right toe has hindered his cutting ability, his burst to and through the hole and his power, Rivers is getting the call on a short field more frequently than at any other point during his NFL career.
Rivers' vision and ability to find his second and third options continue to improve. He isn't moving any better than when he entered the league, but he's thinking faster on his feet. His ability to get rid of the ball quicker is a main reason his sack rate has improved every year (down to one every 20.6 dropbacks so far in 2008). Showing better judgment with the ball and hitting his spots more consistently, Rivers is putting together his best season as a pro.
Turner has moved toward a slightly more balanced attack, and even is using the passing game to set up L.T. and the run game -- rather than vice versa. The reason it works is that defensive coordinators overplay the run, which leaves a very talented group of receivers, tight ends and backs to shake free on pass routes and exploit coverage matchups. Early-down passes out of a variety of spread formations have led to big plays and softened opposing defenses, the results of which finally are being realized by Tomlinson (who had one of his better games Sunday).
San Diego's altered approach sticks opponents firmly between a rock and a hard place: Load up to stop the run or use a nickel package to match up with all those talented targets? If Rivers continues to make strides and Tomlinson returns to full health, this offense may take the next step, from dangerous to lethal.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.