NFL Nation: Derek Cox


The Baltimore Ravens ran over the New Orleans Saints in a 22-13 win Thursday night in the preseason finale for both teams.

Rookie running backs Lorenzo Taliaferro and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 191 yards rushing, as the Ravens sat most of their starters. Toussaint, who is likely headed to the practice squad, rushed for 103 yards on 17 carries. Taliaferro, who could be the Ravens' No. 2 or 3 running back to start the season, gained 88 yards on 25 attempts.

The Ravens didn't play their top three running backs: Ray Rice, who will soon start a two-game suspension; Bernard Pierce, who didn't make the trip to New Orleans because of a concussion; and Justin Forsett, who was given the night off.

This marked the first time since 2009 that the Ravens (4-0) finished the preseason undefeated.

Here are some other thoughts in the Ravens' final preseason game:
  • Backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor continued to put up points. He led the Ravens for scores on four of five drives. For the preseason, he has produced points on 12 (four touchdowns, eight field goals) of 21 drives. His worst throw was chucking the ball downfield into double coverage and getting it intercepted. Taylor finished 10-of-17 for 105 yards and one touchdown. Two of Taylor's passes were batted down at the line while the Ravens were in Saints territory.
  • It's going to be difficult to keep wide receiver Deonte Thompson off the 53-man roster after he scored a touchdown in his third straight game. He took advantage of a coverage breakdown to catch an 8-yard pass from Taylor in the end zone. Rookie seventh-round pick Michael Campanaro, who had 153 total yards, and Kamar Aiken, who led the Ravens with 57 yards receiving, also are in the mix at wide receiver. Could the Ravens keep seven receivers?
  • Second-year linebacker John Simon was the best player on defense. He set the edge against the run and had a handful of quarterback hits. Simon, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, needed a big game to make the roster. He entered the preseason finale on the bubble and put an exclamation on his strong night with a fourth-quarter sack.
  • Undrafted rookie Tramain Jacobs made a costly mistake when he ran into the kicker. Derek Dimke, who had missed the 54-yard field goal attempt, then hit from 49 yards to end the first half. Jacobs is still likely headed for the practice squad.
  • In the fourth quarter, cornerback Derek Cox, who was signed a day before the preseason finale, made an open-field tackle and broke up a third-down pass while covering the slot. It was impressive for a player who hasn't even practiced with the Ravens.
  • Backup guard Ryan Jensen, who is battling rookie John Urschel for a roster spot, was flagged twice for holding, although the last one was questionable. Still, Jensen needed to shine in this game after falling behind Urschel on the depth chart. Jensen was later hurt in the fourth quarter.
  • Justin Tucker was in midseason form, kicking field goals from 36, 27, 45, 32 and 24 yards. His only mistake was throwing his shoulder into a returner and making a tackle on kickoff coverage. Who cares if the Saints scored a touchdown in a preseason game? The Ravens can't afford to lose Tucker to an injury.

W2W4: Baltimore Ravens

August, 28, 2014
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The Baltimore Ravens (3-0) and New Orleans Saints (3-0) face off in the preseason finale Thursday night (8 ET) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

1. Wide receiver battle. The Ravens have four players (Michael Campanaro, Kamar Aiken, Deonte Thompson and Jeremy Butler) fighting for one or two spots. It all depends on whether the Ravens are keeping five or six receivers. At this point, Campanaro and Aiken have the edge. The Ravens traded back into this year's draft to get Campanaro, so it's obvious the team likes him. Aiken had an impressive training camp, and he is a valuable special teams player. But Thompson could force his way onto the team by scoring a touchdown for the third straight preseason game. Butler seems headed to the practice squad unless he puts together a tremendous performance in the finale. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the wide receiver battle remains bunched up. "It’s still very competitive because all those guys are doing so well," Harbaugh said. "Nobody has dropped out of the race, and they’re all proving they can play.”

2. Pecking order at cornerback. Newly signed Derek Cox is expected to play, and when he gets on the field, it could indicate where he initially stands with the team. For the past two preseason games, Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks have started and rookie safety Terrence Brooks has worked at nickelback with the first-team defense. Cox hasn't practiced with the team, so the Ravens may bring him along slowly in this game. But, if Cox cuts into the playing time of Brown or Franks, this would be a sign that the Ravens want him to play meaningful snaps to start the season. As I wrote Wednesday, Cox isn't the answer at cornerback for the Ravens.

3. Keith Wenning's status. The rookie sixth-round quarterback appears headed to the practice squad. Will the Ravens give him a chance to prove he deserves to be on the 53-man roster? No one really knows. Backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor is starting the final preseason game because the Ravens are sitting Joe Flacco. It's possible the Ravens will let Taylor finish the game because he doesn't get many live reps during the regular season. Wenning has only appeared in one preseason game, and he looked very shaky in his three drives. He completed 2 of 4 passes for 23 yards and fumbled after getting sacked. Harbaugh said the decision to keep two or three quarterbacks is not difficult. "You just decide who your best 53 players are," Harbaugh said. "If the third quarterback is in the top 53, he’s on the team. If he’s not, he’s not. It’s simple.”

W2W4: Minnesota Vikings

August, 28, 2014
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The Minnesota Vikings (3-0) try to finish the preseason undefeated as they take on the Tennessee Titans (2-1) on Thursday night at LP Field:
  1. Crunch time for middle linebackers: While coach Mike Zimmer said he has an idea of what he wants to do with the Vikings' starting middle linebacker spot, he still wants to see more before making a decision between Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole -- so much so that the Vikings might stay in their base defense more often on Thursday night so they can see the middle linebackers on the field. Brinkley and Cole rotated series last week against Kansas City, and will probably do the same on Thursday. But if they're on the field in passing situations, the Vikings will get a more complete picture of where each one stands, rather than shifting to their nickel package as readily as they might in the regular season.
  2. Robinson gets another shot: Cornerback Josh Robinson has gone through a tough training camp and preseason, in large part because of a nagging hamstring injury, but after the Vikings cut Derek Cox in their initial set of moves this week, it seemed less likely the team would give up on Robinson in his third season. The cornerback is likely to play Thursday, and Zimmer -- who exasperatedly referred to Robinson as "that other guy" when discussing players who were still sitting out because of injuries last week -- sounded more positive about Robinson on Tuesday, saying he was in the right position on a 42-yard pass interference penalty last Saturday against the Chiefs, adding, "I'm confident and hopeful he will continue to progress to where we need him to be." With Marcus Sherels having logged much of the playing time as the third cornerback lately, Robinson will have to make the most of his time on the field Thursday to push his name back up the list of the Vikings' top corners.
  3. Ponder to play, Bridgewater to start? The Vikings will give quarterback Christian Ponder some playing time on Thursday night after sitting him out of their last two exhibition games. While Ponder has rarely seemed more insignificant in Minnesota, he'll get his chance to show whether he's made some progress in the Vikings' offense. Zimmer praised the quarterback on Tuesday, saying he made several "really nice throws" in practice. If Ponder can do that during a game, it'd help raise his stock for the Vikings or (more likely) another team down the road. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater has a "good chance" to start the game, Zimmer said, and if that happens, it will be interesting to see how Bridgewater does in that setting. The fourth preseason game isn't exactly a reliable indicator of performance, but starting Bridgewater would provide the best chance for the rookie to play with (and against) a smattering of first-team players.
The Minnesota Vikings cut 14 players on Monday morning, trimming their roster to 76 players. They'll have one more cut to make before Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET deadline, at which all teams must be down to 75 players.

Most significant move: The Vikings signed former San Diego Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox to help with their depth at that position, and Cox -- who'd excelled in systems where he'd been able to play press coverage -- seemed like a good fit for the Vikings' defense. Despite a couple interceptions in training camp, he never was able to elevate himself on the team's depth chart, and his release creates more room for young cornerbacks such as Jabari Price to make the team.

Clarity at cornerback: With Cox and Robert Steeples among the players the Vikings released, the team is down to eight cornerbacks on the roster, and it's conceivable as many as six of those players could make the final roster. Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn are safe, Marcus Sherels would seem almost assured of a roster spot, as well, and three of the remaining five players (Josh Robinson, Jabari Price and Kendall James) were Vikings draft picks. If one of those players gets bumped, it could be James, who hasn't shown much in camp and could get beat out by Shaun Prater, who had an interception in Saturday's game.

Vikings' cuts: The Vikings released 13 players -- S Brandan Bishop, T Pierce Burton, CB Cox, WRs Andy Cruse, Kamar Jorden and Erik Lora, T Kevin Murphy, DT Kheeston Randall, DEs Tyler Scott and Jake Snyder, TE Kory Sperry, CB Robert Steeples and WR Ty Walker -- and waived S Mistral Raymond with an injury designation.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It has been fairly clear from the Vikings' early forays into free agency that shoring up the defensive line was among the biggest priorities for new coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen before the start of free agency, gave former New York Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph a five-year deal on the day the market opened, and on Thursday, they added two more free agents to build the depth of the group.

Wootton
Wootton
The second of those two, former Chicago Bears lineman Corey Wootton, signed a one-year deal with the team on Thursday night, his agent Mike McCartney announced on Twitter. The 26-year-old end is coming off hip surgery, but seems like a solid fit in Zimmer's system; at 6-foot-6 and 271 pounds, he's got a similar lean, long-armed build to Michael Johnson, and has also played defensive tackle for the Bears. He had 7.5 sacks in 2012, starting seven games that season, and gives the Vikings a versatile reserve who's also, at the moment, the tallest defensive end on their roster.

Wootton also is the proprietor of a fairly significant footnote in Vikings -- and NFL -- history. The Vikings will play their next two seasons at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, where they played one game against the Bears after the Metrodome roof collapsed in 2010. Wootton was a rookie that season, and got the first sack of his career that night, on what turned out to be the final play of Brett Favre's career. When Wootton took Favre down, he banged his head on the frozen field, sustaining a concussion that would usher him into retirement.

The Vikings have now signed six free agents from other teams: Wootton, Joseph, former Saints lineman Tom Johnson, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, Chargers cornerback Derek Cox and Cardinals linebacker Jasper Brinkley (who's returning for his second tour with the Vikings). All six are defensive players, three are defensive linemen and four are playing on one-year deals. There's been a clear strategy to remake the defense to suit Zimmer's scheme, and with the exceptions of Joseph and Munnerlyn, the Vikings have done it with few long-term commitments.

We won't know for months how much Zimmer can use the pieces to improve the league's worst scoring defense, but the Vikings' free-agent strategy has been clear and decisive. The team had just over $13 million in cap space left before signing Wootton, and we're mostly in the bargain phase of the free-agent period at this point, so it's hard to see more splash signings. But the Vikings have added some youth to their defense, and they're betting on Zimmer's ability to put together a cohesive product out of those pieces. There have been teams with more high-profile signings than Minnesota, but the Vikings have moved efficiently through their shopping list.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Coming off a frustrating season where he played much of the year with a broken left wrist and heading into a season where he was due to count $8.2 million against the Vikings' salary cap, 31-year-old linebacker Chad Greenway seemed like a possible candidate to restructure his deal with the team. Now, he has.

Greenway
Greenway dropped his base salary to $5.5 million for the 2014 season, saving the Vikings $1 million in exchange for a fully guaranteed salary. The move, first reported by overthecap.com, is the third contract restructuring the Vikings have done in a week, following similar moves for safety Jamarca Sanford and fullback Jerome Felton. All told, the moves saved the Vikings $1.75 million under the cap, and they still have just over $16 million to play with after signing former San Diego Chargers cornerback Derek Cox, with wide receiver Jerome Simpson's contract still not on the NFL Players Association ledger.

The way the Vikings restructured Greenway's deal is reminiscent of what they did with Kevin Williams in 2013 (except the Vikings also voided a year of Williams' contract in that case). It effectively protects Greenway from being cut, since the Vikings are on the hook for his entire $5.5 million salary. Greenway saw his play slip in 2014, though his broken wrist undoubtedly had something to do with it. He will have to adapt to new coach Mike Zimmer's defense, which asks linebackers to be more active than the Vikings' old Cover-2 system did, but the change could also rejuvenate Greenway, who seemed at times like he was trying to cover for the inexperience of other linebackers last season.

Felton's base salary drops $500,000 for next season, and Sanford's deal saved the Vikings another $250,000. According to overthecap.com, Felton is also able to void the final year of his deal after the 2015 Super Bowl.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Shortly after they finished a deal with former Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, the Minnesota Vikings were preparing to add another cornerback to their roster. According to a league source, the Vikings were finalizing a deal on Thursday night with former San Diego Chargers cornerback Derek Cox, who could add some depth to their group of defensive backs next season.

Cox
The 6-foot-1 Cox began last season as a starter for the Chargers, but lost his starting job for good after he was benched three times in four weeks last November. Cox gave up three catches and a touchdown on three targets last Nov. 24 against Kansas City, and didn't play a significant role after that. Still, he had been a serviceable player in 2012, and intercepted four passes that season for the Jaguars. He'd give the Vikings another big corner, and he'd represent a low-risk gamble by the Vikings on the ability of coach Mike Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray to get something out of Cox.

He might also represent another closed door for a return by Chris Cook to the Vikings. The four-year player's future seemed uncertain after a conversation with Zimmer last week, and though Zimmer mentioned his ability to improve players who have a history of underachieving, like Cook does, the Vikings' order of business might tell the story better than anything else. They signed Munnerlyn and Cox on the same day Cook was scheduled to visit the San Francisco 49ers, and the Vikings now have eight cornerbacks signed for next season.

Of those eight -- Munnerlyn, Cox, Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, Marcus Sherels, Shaun Prater, Robert Steeples and Kip Edwards -- only a handful might make the team, but the Vikings could also take another cornerback high in the draft. Those players might occupy whatever real estate and cap space was remaining for Cook to make a return to Minnesota.
The NFL's free-agent market is suddenly being flooded with former Pro Bowl cornerbacks -- which is a great thing for the New Orleans Saints.

I think the cornerback position should rank as New Orleans' No. 1 priority in free agency -- even more than the draft, because I think they could use an experienced veteran capable of stepping right into their starting lineup along with Keenan Lewis now that Jabari Greer has been released. I still like third-year pro Corey White's potential, but think he’d be an even better fit as a nickel back.

Whether the Saints have interest in guys such as Champ Bailey, Cortland Finnegan or Brandon Browner, they should still benefit from the fact that there are more options available in a free-agent class that was already pretty deep to begin with.

[+] EnlargeTarell Brown
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThe 49ers' Tarell Brown is considered one of the top free-agent cornerbacks available this offseason.
The Saints won’t be huge spenders in free agency because they're pretty snug against the salary cap. But I think they'll still be aggressive with one or two acquisitions -- like when they signed Lewis to a five-year, $26.3 million contract last year (after first flirting with pricier outside linebacker Paul Kruger).

Here is a glimpse of who is available in free agency, with some insight from ESPN Scouting Insider Matt Williamson:

TOP TIER: I don’t expect the Saints to be in the market for the New England Patriots' Aqib Talib or the Tennessee Titans’ Alterraun Verner. Those guys could be closer to the $8 million range, similar to what the Miami Dolphins just paid to re-sign Brent Grimes (four years, $32 million). The Indianapolis Colts’ Vontae Davis probably will be too pricey as well.

It's possible the Saints could flirt with the Green Bay Packers' Sam Shields or the Denver Broncos' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, especially if those players don’t find big offers quickly. But chances are, the Saints will be shopping in the next tier down.

SECOND TIER: This is the range I’d most expect the Saints in -- experienced starters who won’t necessarily break the bank. I like the possibility of the San Francisco 49ers' Tarell Brown (29 years old, 5-foot-10, 193 pounds, a starter for the past three years). ESPN analyst KC Joyner recently tabbed him as a good fit for the Saints Insider. And ESPN’s Free-Agent Tracker Insider, which used input from former general manager Bill Polian and analysts Williamson, Gary Horton and Field Yates, ranks Brown among the top options overall.

"[Brown’s] a good one," Williamson said. "I think he starts for just about every team out there, though it didn’t hurt that he benefited from a great supporting cast."

Or maybe the Saints should consider stealing Captain Munnerlyn from the rival Carolina Panthers after the 25-year-old just had his best year to date in 2013. Munnerlyn is just 5-8, 195 pounds, but he plays physical. And he has an uncanny knack for turning interceptions into touchdowns (all four of his picks over the past two seasons and five out of seven in his career).

"I would think maybe that’s the position you would splurge on a little bit," Williamson said. "I really like Captain Munnerlyn, and you’d steal him from a rival. He’s a slot guy who could be a starter. ... He’s really feisty, a little undersized but a slot guy, tough. He played his best football this last year; he’s peaking at the right time."

Williamson said he also likes Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond (age 26, 5-11, 190) after his best year to date as a part-time starter in 2013. But Williamson wonders if Thurmond will get overpaid after being part of that Super Bowl-winning defense.

Bailey, Finnegan, Browner and Chicago Bears standout Charles Tillman probably all fit in this same class now, too, but they all come with some question marks.

Bailey, who is being released by the Denver Broncos, is a 12-time Pro Bowler and an all-time great who might have another strong year left in him. But he's 35 years old and missed most of last season with a foot injury.

Likewise, Tillman is 33 and missed most of last season with a torn triceps.

Finnegan, 30, also landed on injured reserve last season with a fractured orbital bone. And his two years with the St. Louis Rams were disappointing after he signed a blockbuster contract there in 2012. Still, the 5-10, 179-pounder is still young enough to have a bounce-back year.

Browner, 29, is facing a four-game suspension to start the season after repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy. But the 6-4, 221-pounder who helped define the Seahawks' physical style of pass defense should still be coveted.

THIRD TIER: I don’t think the Saints are likely to bring back Tracy Porter, but I found it interesting that he earned one of the highest grades of any corner on ESPN’s Free-Agent Tracker after a nice season with the Oakland Raiders. Health wasn't an issue for Porter last season after it was his biggest issue during his time with the Saints from 2008-2011.

Another wild-card possibility is Derek Cox (age 27, 6-1, 195). Cox was released by the San Diego Chargers after one very disappointing 2013 season (after he signed a four-year deal worth up to $19.8 million). The Saints had lined up a visit with Cox last year before signing Lewis. Maybe they’ll be glad they dodged a bullet -- or maybe they will consider taking a chance again now that he’ll come cheap.

Williamson also suggested Will Blackmon (age 29), Drayton Florence (33), and Rashean Mathis (33) as guys who have had up-and-down careers but played well last year and might be good "under-the-radar" signings on short-term deals.
Like most other NFL organizations, the San Diego Chargers are a team that builds and maintains its roster through the draft. General manager Tom Telesco doesn’t necessarily put any more value on securing impact players through the draft, versus trade or free agency.

But annually selecting rookies that can make an impact on a team’s roster is important, particularly when you consider the player will be under the team’s control for at least four years, likely at an inexpensive salary.

So getting detailed medical evaluations and vetting players through the intense interviewing process are the most important things for teams this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Of the 53 players that finished the season on San Diego’s roster, 23 were secured through the draft, compared to 27 free agents, two through trades, and one claimed off waivers.

The Chargers have seven original picks in this year’s draft, one in each round beginning with the No. 25 overall pick. So they will be paying close attention to the more than 330 players invited to this year’s combine.

Along with evaluating draft prospects, Telesco will have an opportunity to meet with middle linebacker Donald Butler's representation as the Chargers try to get him signed to a multi-year deal before he hits free agency next month.

Here are five things to keep an eye on regarding the Chargers.

1. Physical cornerbacks who can turn and run: A major area of need for San Diego is improving the overall talent and depth at cornerback. Last year’s top free agent signee Derek Cox likely will not be back after being supplanted in the starting lineup by Richard Marshall. San Diego’s 2013 fifth-round selection Steve Williams could work into the conversation at corner in 2014. The Cal product sat out his rookie year after suffering a torn pectoral muscle during preseason play. But the Chargers need to add a couple physical corners who can cover -- through the draft, free agency or trade. Some names to keep an eye on include Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy. Those players stand out to me because of their length, athleticism and playmaking ability.

2. Edge rushers needed: The Chargers have several veterans at this position, but you can never have enough athletes who can rush the passer. And San Diego struggled at creating consistent pressure, particularly on third down. Three guys potentially available on Day 1 of the draft who could make an impact include Missouri’s Kony Ealy, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, and Auburn’s Dee Ford.

3. A run-stuffing defensive tackle: San Diego gave up an average of 4.59 yards per carry on defense in 2013, No. 29 in the NFL. Cam Thomas started the most games at defensive tackle, but will be a free agent in March. Sean Lissemore finished as the team’s starter at the end of the season, but needs to add some bulk to effectively fill this position. San Diego could certainly use a two-gap defensive tackle to control the middle of the defense, similar to Dontari Poe in Kansas City. Potential candidates in the draft include Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III, Minnesota’s Ra'Shede Hageman, and Penn State’s Daquan Jones.

4. Improved interior offensive line depth: With center Nick Hardwick contemplating retirement and veteran guard Jeromey Clary a potential salary-cap causality, the Chargers need to add some depth to the interior of the offensive line. Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson and Stanford’s David Yankey are the top rated guards in this year’s draft. And USC’s Marcus Martin could be the long-term answer for a team at center.

5. Add a couple explosive playmakers: San Diego could use some help in the return game. Keenan Allen should not be the team’s main punt returner. He’s too valuable on offense. And the Chargers could use someone with some juice in the kick return game. Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, and Oregon’s De'Anthony Thomas makes some sense because of their ability to create explosive plays on offense and in the return game. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers needs a few more weapons on offense to make his job easier, and all three of these players would fit the bill.
 
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: The production from rookie receiver Keenan Allen is the headline here, with the turnaround of quarterback Philip Rivers a close second. The rookie season of Allen, picked in the third round of 2013 draft, was supposed to be a redshirt year. But season-ending injuries to Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander forced the Cal product to play sooner rather than later. After a sluggish start, Allen responded. He finished the regular season with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards, and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with eight. Allen finished with eight catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason, emerging as an offensive rookie of the year candidate and San Diego's No. 1 receiver.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Derek Cox signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Chargers in free agency as the team's top cornerback but failed to live up to that expectation. Cox gave up several big plays and was one of the reasons San Diego's secondary struggled during the first half of the season. Cox ultimately was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran Richard Marshall in Week 13.

Biggest need: More talent in the secondary, with a pass rush help and beefing up the interior of the offensive line a close second. The Chargers gave up 23 passing touchdowns this season, No. 12 in the NFL, but 18 of those came in the first 11 games of the season. And San Diego also finished with just 11 interceptions on the season, No. 26 in the league. Veteran safety Eric Weddle played solid, mistake-free football for the most part in earning his second Pro Bowl berth, but he needs help. Shareece Wright gradually played better in his first season as a starter, but overall San Diego needs to add more young talent in the secondary.

Team MVP: Rivers elevated the play of the entire offense and deserves to be part of the conversation of league MVP. In his 10th season, Rivers benefited from former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's conversion of San Diego's offense to a short passing game. Rivers finished in the top five in completion percentage (69.5 percent), yards per pass (8.23), passing yards (4,478), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5). At 32 years old, Rivers looks like he still has the ability to play a few more years at an elite level. The Chargers need to add a couple of more pieces on offense to make his job easier.

 
Phillip Rivers, Peyton ManningGetty ImagesExpect a high-scoring AFC West fight when Philip Rivers' Chargers take on Peyton Manning's Broncos.
For the second time in six weeks, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos will square off, with each team working through its postseason checklist.

The Broncos (11-2) want the division title and the AFC's top seed. Due to a loss to New England last month, they will likely have to win out to get both, unless the Patriots stumble down the stretch. The Chargers (6-7) know the time is now if they are going to snag an AFC wild-card spot, so much so that Jarret Johnson called Thursday night's game "a playoff scenario for us."

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Thursday night's game.

Legwold: Eric, former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels once called the Chargers the "measuring stick" of the division, but the Broncos are 4-1 against San Diego since John Fox replaced McDaniels and 3-0 since Peyton Manning became Denver's quarterback. How is former Broncos coach Mike McCoy framing this one, especially with the Chargers clinging to at least some postseason hopes?

Williams: McCoy has done a good job of making sure his players are staying in the now and not looking too far ahead. But with their postseason aspirations on life support, San Diego players view the trip to Denver as a playoff game. Defensively, the Chargers are frustrated with how sloppily they played against Manning in Week 10, giving up several big plays in the passing game. San Diego's secondary has played much better in the past two games, allowing just two touchdown passes. So the Chargers are looking to redeem themselves on Thursday.

Wes Welker will miss Thursday's contest due to lingering concussion symptoms. How will Denver replace his production?

Legwold: Even in the Broncos' ultrabalanced attack in the passing game, Welker will certainly be missed given he's second on the team in targets (111), receptions (73) and touchdown catches (10). But how the Broncos deal with that should look familiar to McCoy because the Broncos figure to field a lineup similar to the one McCoy called plays for here last season. The Broncos will move to a two-tight end look with Jacob Tamme working out of the slot. Tamme caught 52 passes last season, with the majority of those receptions coming when he was lined up as a slot receiver. It was a job he did well enough that Manning called him one of the most important players in the offense last season. Manning has confidence in Tamme -- they played together in Indianapolis -- and Manning threw to Tamme this past weekend in many of the situations where Manning usually throws to Welker.

The Chargers' secondary had a quality day against the Giants this past Sunday. How do you think they'll line up against the Broncos?

Williams: Cornerback Derek Cox was replaced by eight-year veteran Richard Marshall in the starting lineup two weeks ago, bringing stability to the back end defensively. San Diego has given up 20 passing touchdowns this season, but just two touchdown passes in the past two games. The Chargers had just four interceptions through the first nine games, but have hauled in five picks in the past four. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said his defensive teammates just made too many silly mistakes against the Broncos earlier this season, and that they need to make Manning work for Denver's touchdowns by playing sound fundamental defense with multiple looks up front.

How has Broncos coach John Fox made the transition back to the sideline after heart surgery?

Legwold: Fox had surgery to repair a condition that was diagnosed during his time with the New York Giants in the late '90s, so he knew the surgery was coming at some point. He has also lived with the difficulties a faulty aortic valve brought on. He says he now feels better than he has in 20 years. Doctors cleared him to return to work the Monday before the Titans game and he worked through the week without any difficulties. He coached from the sideline during the game this past Sunday and was on the field last week even though the team practiced outside in below-zero temperatures for three days.

Manning is five touchdowns away from tying the NFL single-season record, but Philip Rivers has two three-touchdown days over the past three games. Do the Chargers feel like they left some points on the field the last time these two teams met?

Williams: Yes, that's certainly the case. Rivers mentioned this week during his conversation with reporters here in San Diego that even though the Chargers had the ball for more than 38 minutes the last time these two teams played, the Chargers scored only 20 points. Rivers understands that can't happen again on the road at Denver. The Chargers seem to have a better plan for how they will attack teams when they get into the red zone. Running back Ryan Mathews has emerged as more of a focal point of the offense when they get near the end zone. Mathews has scored four touchdowns in San Diego's past seven games.

While Denver's offense purrs, the defense continues to sputter. What has Fox done to change his fortunes on that side of the ball?

Legwold: The Broncos have surrendered at least 17 points in every game this season and four times they have trailed by at least 11 points in games they eventually went on to win. They have certainly missed cornerback Champ Bailey, who has played in just three games this season, and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, one of their best run defenders up front who is now on injured reserve. Fox juggled things some this past weekend when he essentially benched linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a team captain, in the base 4-3 look, playing veteran Paris Lenon there instead. Fox also switched out Duke Ihenacho at safety, putting in Omar Bolden instead. Woodyard will still play the specialty packages, but the Broncos have juggled things in the base. Von Miller has had a dominant half against the Patriots and a dominant half against the Titans, but the Broncos are still waiting to see the impact player he can be for an entire game. The last time they played the Chargers, they were in the nickel most of time -- 42 snaps in all to go with 11 in the dime. They are far more consistent in those looks and have struggled more against teams that make them play out of their base defense.

Mike McCoy mum on DB competition

November, 29, 2013
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SAN DIEGO -- Derek Cox was the last player on the field at Friday’s practice for the San Diego Chargers, working on back pedaling and speed work.

About 30 yards away, San Diego coach Mike McCoy talked with general manager Tom Telesco and team president Dean Spanos. That conversation likely included a decision on if Cox would make his 12th straight start of the season on Sunday against Cincinnati.

However, for now McCoy will not make that decision public.

Cox
“We have a very good idea of what we’re doing,” said McCoy, when asked if he had made a decision on who the starting cornerbacks will be after holding an open competition in the secondary this week.

Cox followed suit in the locker room, telling reporters that he did not know what decision had been made.

“I’m not sure, you’ll have to ask Coach [McCoy],” Cox said.

Signed to a four-year, $20 million deal in the offseason, Cox has been benched in three of the past four games. Cox said he’s not letting the uncertainty of his starting job affect his preparation.

“You have to continue to believe in what you’re doing,” Cox said. “Because I’m working hard, and the main thing is to just go out and keep competing, stay positive about what you’re doing and believe in the process. And things will work out your way.”

McCoy did say that whoever starts on Sunday will be the best player to help the Chargers defeat the Bengals.

“It’s like everything else in this business, you can’t worry about the past,” McCoy said. “You’ve got to worry about the future. The future is now, and we’ve got to worry about Sunday. So we’re doing what we think is best moving forward.”

After missing the first two days of practice this week, tight end Antonio Gates (hamstring), center Nick Hardwick (neck) and safety Darrell Stuckey (concussion) returned to practice on Friday.

Gates and Hardwick are probable, and Stuckey is questionable.

Johnson
Along with Stuckey, Jarret Johnson (hand) and Eddie Royal (chest/toe) are questionable. Royal hasn’t practiced since injuring his toe against Indianapolis on Oct. 14, but has played in every game since.

Johnson missed last week’s game at Kansas City with the hand injury, but is hopeful to play on Sunday. Johnson, who has a soft cast on his left hand, said he played six games with a similar injury while with the Ravens.

“It sucks,” Johnson said. “You’re limited to what you can do. But you always want to play.”

Left tackle King Dunlap was a limited participant in practice for a second straight day, but is listed as doubtful, which means D.J. Fluker likely will get his third start at left tackle.

Fluker (knee), receiver Seyi Ajirotutu (hamstring), defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe), defensive end Corey Liuget, running back Ryan Mathews (hamstring), and long snapper Mike Windt (ankle) all practiced and are probable for Sunday’s game.

McCoy would not say if outside linebacker Melvin Ingram will be activated for Sunday’s game. Ingram practiced for a second straight week, but remains on the physically unable to perform [PUP] list. The chargers have until Dec. 10 to place Ingram on the active roster or keep him on the reserve PUP list.

“We know what we’re doing,” McCoy said about Ingram. “And we’ll let everybody know. And he’s taking it one day at a time.”

Also, Philip Rivers was named the FedEx Air Player of the Week and receiver Keenan Allen won Pepsi Rookie of the Week honors for their performance against Kansas City last week.

“Philip had another outstanding game, and Keenan’s been getting better every week, so they both deserve it,” McCoy said.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- An examination of four hot issues from the San Diego Chargers41-38 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelKeenan Allen caught nine passes for 124 yards, and he drew double coverage that opened things up for teammates.
Allen is a No. 1 receiver: Yes, the Chiefs showed the ultimate respect for Chargers rookie receiver Keenan Allen. After he blistered the Chiefs for eight catches and 104 yards in the first half, Kansas City double-covered him, putting a safety over the top of the cornerback on his side. Allen finished with nine catches for 124 yards, but the double coverage opened up opportunities for teammates such as tight end Ladarius Green and slot receiver Eddie Royal. And it shows that Allen is emerging as a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Allen said he looked forward to playing against the Chiefs because the corners play so much press man coverage. “That’s when I’m at my best,” Allen said. “I can work a release off the line of scrimmage and make a guy miss.”

Woodhead the utility man: Running back Danny Woodhead did a little bit of everything for San Diego. He finished with an 11-yard touchdown reception and a 3-yard touchdown run. He made a block that allowed Royal to pick up an important first down on a scoring drive. And he finished with 137 kick-return yards, helping to give San Diego good field position. Woodhead has a career-high five receiving touchdowns this season, and he leads all running backs in receptions with 59 for 469 yards.

Time for Cox to take a seat: Cornerback Derek Cox was benched for a third time in four games after giving up a touchdown to Donnie Avery. Cox was replaced in the lineup by Richard Marshall, and did not return. Cox obviously feels pressure to perform because of the four-year, $20 million deal he signed in the offseason. But Cox doesn’t seem right physically; he doesn’t appear to have the ability to hit another gear and run with faster receivers. Maybe it is time for him to be placed on injured reserve, or at least benched for an extended period of time until he gets his confidence back. Both Cox and coach Mike McCoy maintain the cornerback is healthy.

Home cooking: Along with Philip Rivers leading the offense, one of the main reasons NFL observers are giving San Diego a shot to make the playoffs is because of the team’s schedule down the stretch. The Chargers finish with four of their last five games at home, and still have three games against AFC West foes. The favorable schedule gives San Diego plenty of opportunity to make the postseason for the first time since 2009.

Rapid Reaction: San Diego Chargers

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
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SAN DIEGO -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 28-20 loss to the Denver Broncos.

What it means: The Chargers (4-5) fall under the .500 mark for the first time since a Week 5 loss at Oakland. San Diego is 0-2 against the AFC West this season.

Comeback falls short: Down 28-6 in the second half, the Chargers could have easily packed it in and mentally started getting ready for next week. They didn't. San Diego scratched its way back to 28-20 with just over 10 minutes left, but failed to get past midfield on the potential game-tying drive.

Demaryius Thomas thrives: San Diego's smallish corners had trouble dealing with Denver's big-bodied receiver Demaryius Thomas, who finished with seven receptions for 108 yards, including three touchdowns. The Chargers' secondary has struggled with big receivers all year. Denver tight end Julius Thomas -- another big, fast player -- finished with three receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown.

Redemption for Mathews: After gaining just 34 yards on seven carries last week, Ryan Mathews rebounded with a solid performance, finishing with 59 yards on 14 carries, including a 35-yard run. Mathews also had a 1-yard touchdown run on a goal-line play that San Diego would have been wise to use last week, when the Chargers failed to get the winning score from a yard out against Washington. The Chargers rushed for 131 yards as a team, but 113 of those yards came in the first half.

Cox benched again: For a second straight game, San Diego’s top free-agent addition, cornerback Derek Cox, was benched for poor play. Cox failed to get Denver tight end Julius Thomas out of bounds on his 74-yard reception for a score in the opening quarter, and received an earful from defensive coordinator John Pagano on the sideline after the play. Cox later returned to the game after fellow cornerback Shareece Wright suffered an apparent leg injury. Cox was benched in the second half of San Diego’s overtime loss to Washington last week.

What’s next: The Chargers hit the road and travel to Miami for an afternoon game next Sunday.
 
SAN DIEGO -- At 4-4 overall at the midpoint, the San Diego Chargers are about where they should be heading into the season's backstretch.

Quarterback Philip Rivers' bounce-back season has been one of the main storylines for this team, along with the return of a competitive spirit established by first-year head coach Mike McCoy.

Still, the Chargers face a daunting schedule if they want to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. San Diego still has five AFC West division contests left -- two each against division leaders Kansas City and Denver.

 

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