- Eric D. Williams, ESPN Staff Writer
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As the San Diego Chargers head into the bye week on a two-game winning for the first time this season, is the glass half-full or half-empty for Mike McCoy’s team?
You certainly could argue for half-full just looking at the offense. Led by a resurgent Philip Rivers, the Chargers are in the top 10 offensively in total yards (No. 5, 402.9 yards per game), passing yards (No. 6, 294.1 yards per game) and third-down efficiency (No. 2, 49.4 percent).
Defensively, the Chargers are in the top 10 in perhaps the most meaningful statistic, points allowed (No. 9, allowing 20.6 points a game). Defensive coordinator John Pagano’s defense also has gone 11 quarters without giving up a touchdown.
Still, San Diego has allowed 378.6 yards a contest (No. 23 in the NFL) and forced just four turnovers. They’ve been resilient and resourceful defensively, but not dominant.
And the Chargers need to get healthy on the defensive side of the ball as they head into the second half of the season. Key players like outside linebackers Jarret Johnson (hamstring) and Melvin Ingram (knee), along with inside linebacker Donald Butler (groin) are still nursing injuries.
The Chargers still face the meaty part of their schedule, with three of their next four games on the road and five AFC West divisional games left on the schedule, including two each against Denver and Kansas City.
So McCoy understands that while his team is playing better, there’s a tough road ahead.
“It’s a long year,” McCoy said. “Now is a time where you’ve got to start talking to the younger players, because we’re making the turn now, and it’s coming at a good time.
“But we’ve got a lot of football left. So No. 1, we’ve got to take care of our bodies and enjoy the time off that we’re going to have at the end of this week. I think they are improving every day and have done a lot of good things.”
With that, here’s a look at midseason position grades for the Chargers.
Rivers’ turnaround this season has been remarkable. McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whishenhunt have done a nice job tailoring the passing game around the 31-year-old quarterback’s strengths, and it shows in his statistics this season.
Through seven games, Rivers leads the league in completion percentage (73.9) and is second in the NFL in passing yards (2,132) and passer rating (111.1).
But the head-scratching decision to try and run for a touchdown at the end of the first half against Jacksonville is Rivers at his worst. As a 10-year veteran, Rivers cannot let the competitor in him make decisions that are bad for the rest of the team. Rivers could have easily been injured on that scramble, making the choice to run an even more costly decision. Know and understand your limitations.
Rivers also threw three interceptions against Oakland, one of the worst teams in the league. Though he is playing at an elite level, there’s still room for improvement.
With back-to-back rushing games of more than 100 yards, the emergence of Ryan Mathews as a focal point of the offense has been fun to watch. The Chargers have had more rushing attempts than passing attempts in the past two games. Let’s see if that continues during the second half of the season.
Mathews has 446 rushing yards, and is averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Even more impressive, Mathews has just one fumble on 110 rushing attempts.
The signing of Danny Woodhead during the offseason has proved one of the best additions during free agency. Woodhead has 40 receptions for 311 yards and three touchdowns, which is first in receptions among running backs in the NFL.
Keenan Allen has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Chargers. With Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd suffering season-ending injuries, Allen has stepped in to fill the void, posting 26 catches for 399 yards and two touchdowns through seven games.
The Chargers are No. 4 in the league in passing plays of 20 yards or more with 28. San Diego has just three passing plays of 40 yards or more, so they could produce more chunk plays in the passing game. But that’s a minor critique.
At 33 years old, Antonio Gates is healthy and back playing at an elite level. With a team-leading 42 receptions for 497 yards and two touchdowns, Gates is second in the NFL among tight ends in receptions (Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron has 45 receptions). Gates has a great rapport with Rivers, and also has held his own blocking in the run game.
Second-year pro Ladarius Green only has five receptions, but he’s averaging an impressive 22.6 yards per catch.
With as many injuries as this group has suffered, the offensive line’s performance so far in my opinion has been commendable, and the most impressive feat for the Chargers this season.
Offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris deserves credit for keeping this group playing at a high level. Center Nick Hardwick is the only member of the offensive line to start every game this season. The Chargers have had five different starting offensive line combinations in seven games, and five different players see time at left tackle.
San Diego’s offensive line has given up just 11 sacks, which is tied for second-best in the NFL. The addition of second-year pro Johnnie Troutman at left guard has helped San Diego run the ball more effectively, although Troutman’s five false-start penalties in three starts needs to be cleaned up.
This group is the most improved unit on the defensive side of the ball, with defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes anchoring this group. Both have played well against the run, and by pushing the pocket have allowed pass-rushers like Thomas Keiser and Larry English to get sacks.
After a slow start, the Chargers have 14 sacks in the past four games, including a season-high six-sack effort against Jacksonville. And San Diego has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
Starting middle linebacker Donald Butler has missed three games with a groin injury. And even when he has been active, Butler has not made many game-changing plays.
The same can be said of rookie linebacker Manti Te’o. Although he missed most of the preseason and the first three games of the year with a sprained foot, Te’o by his own admission has not played up to his potential, with just 17 tackles, no sacks and no forced turnovers in four starts.
Besides Liuget, Jarret Johnson has been San Diego’s most consistent player on defense. Johnson is tied for the team lead in sacks with Liuget (3).
Versatile safety Eric Weddle leads the team in tackles with 47, and has been a steadying influence in the back end with his consistent approach each week. But this unit has just two interceptions this season. The Chargers also have given up 27 passing plays of 20 or more yards, which is fourth-worst in the NFL.
The Chargers have not scored a defensive touchdown this season. Cornerback Derek Cox understands that he has to play better, particularly with the contract he received in free agency (four-years, $20 million). The return of Shareece Wright gives San Diego some much-needed speed in the back end. And in limited roles, Johnny Patrick and Jahleel Addae have been effective.
Kicker Nick Novak has only missed two field goals, and both were blocked. However, Novak has just eight touchbacks on 38 kickoffs (21.1 percent) -- which is the worst in the NFL. Punter Mike Scifres has 11 punts inside the 20 yard line, but is averaging just 43.9 yards a punt. The Chargers have not gotten much out of the return game to help improve field position.
In his first season, McCoy has paid attention to the little things, instilled confidence in his players and surrounded himself with an experienced coaching staff. He’s made his share of mistakes, but overall has San Diego headed in the right direction.