Key Matchups: Chargers Season Finale Against The Chiefs

Chargers Players To Watch. Los Angeles Chargers Defensive End Isaac Rochell During 2019 Training Camp. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | Sports Al Dente
Los Angeles Chargers Defensive End Isaac Rochell During 2019 Training Camp. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | Sports Al Dente

The Los Angeles Chargers head to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs for their season finale. The Chiefs will be resting most of their key players, and the Chargers will be missing a lot of key players due to injury. This game really has the feel of a preseason game to it, but the Chargers still have a lot to play for. If they’re able to win, they’ll pull off a four-game win streak to end the season and go .500 in the division. Regardless of what happens with the coaching staff, Chargers fans have to take some solace in that after watching the Chargers go 5-11, and 0-6 in the division in 2019. 

The Chargers will likely be without Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry, Bryan Bulaga, Sam Tevi, Joey Bosa, Rayshawn Jenkins, and Casey Hayward this week. That’s going to give young players like Trey Pipkins, Tevaughn Campbell, and Alohi Gilman the opportunity for some much-needed game reps. But it will also make it more difficult for the Chargers to get a victory, even as the Chiefs will be resting a lot of key players.

At the end of the day, the Chiefs still have Andy Reid and his excellent scheme to fall back on. Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, and Le’Veon Bell are no slouches either. The Chiefs will still be able to manufacture points, and the Chargers should not take them lightly. 

With that being said, let’s get to the key matchups.

Chad Henne vs The Chargers Defense

This matchup is a total wildcard. The Chiefs surprised a lot of people when they named Chad Henne the primary backup over Matt Moore. Moore played rather well for them last season and did a fantastic job keeping them afloat while Patrick Mahomes dealt with a knee injury. 

Henne hasn’t been a primary starter in the NFL since the 2013 season when he started 13 games for the Jacksonville Jaguars. That season, he only completed sixty percent of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Since that season, he spent most of his time being the primary backup for Blake Bortles in Jacksonville. He did not sign with any team in the 2019 season. And he’s only attempted six passes for the Chiefs this season. Reid is the only person who knows what to expect from Henne, and that alone is cause for concern.

The Chargers defense will be playing without at least seven starters, and the scoreboard didn’t really tell the whole story of their performance against the Denver Broncos last week. They struggled to generate any real pressure and failed to stop the run at an effective clip. Even with the uncertainty surrounding Henne, the Chiefs do have the capability of putting up a lot of points against the Chargers backups. Kenneth Murray, like his offensive rookie counterpart, has been a rare bright spot defensively and seems to have turned a corner, ever since the game against the New England Patriots and the Chargers could really use another breakout game where he forces a turnover. 

Trey Pipkins and Storm Norton vs The Chiefs Pass Rush

As I mentioned above, the Chargers could be without their usual starting offensive tackles this week. Bulaga’s 2020 season has been a total nightmare for the former Packer. He’s only started and finished five games this season, as he’s dealt with injuries to his ankle, knee, and back, a concussion, and food poisoning. The Chargers don’t really have a choice but to hope he’s able to stay healthy in 2021. They have an out after that season, but cutting him this offseason would cost them a dead cap hit of nearly $15 million. That number drops to $3 million if they decide to cut him in 2022. 

On the other hand is Tevi, who by all accounts has improved tremendously this season after making the switch from the right side. He’s been very good as a run blocker and serviceable as a pass blocker. That really was the main question about his play this season, and to his credit, he has made that leap. His future in Los Angeles is uncertain, as the Chargers seem to be in a prime spot to draft an offensive tackle in April. However, a team that has historically dealt with a lot of injuries up front would be wise to keep him, even as a backup.

Storm Norton has been serving as the team’s swing tackle the last few weeks, and he’s been very solid. Pro Football Focus grades should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it is notable that they have him as the team’s highest-graded offensive lineman over the last month. Norton is coming off his best game as a Charger, after stepping in for Bulaga in the first quarter. 

Pipkins was considered a massive project when the Chargers drafted him in 2019. Their plan was to essentially give him a redshirt season in 2019 but then was thrust into action earlier than planned after Russell Okung’s struggles with the pulmonary embolism. He is probably one of the players that was most impacted by the Covid shortened offseason because he needs all the practice reps he can handle. Playing behind the oft-injured Bulaga has been a tough experience for him, and he’s understandably struggled with the lack of practice reps and uncertainty of his role. That being said, it is a bit of an issue when a former XFL player is better than your former third-round draft pick. It’s still possible that he returns value for the team, even if he just becomes a serviceable swing tackle in the future. 

I would imagine that Frank Clark does not play this week, but the Chiefs and their aggressive defense will still provide quite a challenge for the two backups. They have to do their part to keep Herbert clean.

The Chargers Run Defense vs The Chiefs Running Backs

Rookie standout Clyde Edwards-Helaire won’t play in this game, and Bell hasn’t practiced all week. If Bell isn’t able to play, that will leave Darrel Williams and Darwin Thompson as the Chiefs main running backs. They provide the Chiefs with quality depth, and each are capable players. 

The Chargers’ run defense has been quite the mixed bag this season, but it has been better when Denzel Perryman and Murray are on the field together. However, the injuries on the edge would be a lot for any team to overcome, especially when one of those players is Bosa. Jerry Tillery is learning how to play outside on the fly, and he struggles to set the edge on a regular basis. Isaac Rochell has been solid against the run but struggles to generate any pass rush. Joe Gaziano and Jesse Lemonier are undrafted free agents, and both saw a lot of action last week against the Broncos. 

Regardless of which running back is seeing the field for the Chiefs, the Chargers need to be better at the point of attack if they are going to win. They cannot allow the Chiefs to sustain long, clock churning drives and keep Herbert off the field. That was a big reason why the Chargers weren’t able to get any rhythm on offense last week against Denver.

What was considered the strength of the team before the season, is now clouded with uncertainty. Melvin Ingram only played seven games and didn’t register a single sack. I believe Uchenna Nwosu is a capable starter in the NFL, but it doesn’t seem like the Chargers share that belief. They are trying to figure out where best to play Tillery but he’s been better as a pass rusher on the interior and is a liability on early downs. They’ll have four picks in the first three rounds of the draft next year, and one of those probably needs to be some kind of defensive linemen. 

Ultimately, I think the injury-depleted Chargers should be able to beat the Chiefs’ backups this week. It all comes down to the quarterback position. If the Chargers open up the playbook as they did against the Raiders, I think Herbert will have a big day and they will win. If they bring the same kind of conservative game plan to the table that they did last week, they will lose. I’m thinking it will be the former, and the Chargers will win 27-23.

Thanks for reading all of these this season, can’t wait to start covering the draft! Happy New Year, Chargers fans!