Key Matchups: Chargers vs. Bills
This Chargers vs. Bills matchup has some parallels to a scenario from a few years ago. The Chargers notably started the 2017 season 0-4 and then rattled off nine wins over their last 12 games to finish the season 9-7. The winning streak down the stretch was headlined by a truly epic performance from wide receiver Keenan Allen on Thanksgiving Day against the Cowboys. Allen was unstoppable that game, going off for eleven catches, 172 yards, and one touchdown. And my oh my was his touchdown special.
— Chargers Country (@ChargersCountry) November 26, 2020
Allen was coming off a season-ending ACL tear from the previous season, so his 2017 season started off a little slow. But there wasn’t a single receiver in the league who played better down the stretch that season. Including that game against the Cowboys, Allen crossed the 100-yard mark five times in the last seven games. With his performance down the stretch, he announced to the world that he was a force to be reckoned with going forward. After struggling with injuries for the first few seasons of his career, he has now taken his game to new heights. He hasn’t missed a start since he tore his ACL and he’s done nothing but produce for this Chargers team.
After losing their sixth game to Jacksonville in Week 9, the Chargers finished that season winning six of their last seven games and came up just short of reaching the playoffs due to the NFL’s tiebreaking procedures.
We are revisiting this history because there is a lot of history between the Chargers and the Buffalo Bills, this week’s opponent. The Chargers win streak to the end of that 2017 season was jump-started by a legendary defensive performance against the Bills. Searching for their own spark that year, Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott decided to bench current Chargers backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor in favor of Nathan Peterman.
Peterman of course then ended up posting one of the worst performances of any quarterback in NFL history. Peterman threw five interceptions in the first half in what ended up being a 54-24 rout for the Chargers. McDermott inserted Taylor back into the lineup at halftime and the Bills ended up making the playoffs that year over the Chargers, despite the head-to-head loss and wound up losing to the Jaguars in one of the most boring playoff games in recent memory.
The two franchises have gone in opposite directions since that point. The Bills drafted Josh Allen the next year and have been on an upward trajectory ever since. The Chargers won 12 games in 2018 but then took a massive regression in 2019 and wound up taking Justin Herbert in the 2020 draft, and unfortunately find themselves at 3-7 heading into this current matchup.
As if the recent history between the two teams isn’t enough, Herbert was often compared to Allen throughout his own draft process. The two young quarterbacks are very similar in terms of physical profile, with their rocket arms and strong acumen for running the ball as well. Get your popcorn ready for this quarterback matchup.
As for the game itself, let’s get to the key matchups this week.
Stefon Diggs vs The Chargers Secondary
The Chargers announced they activated Chris Harris off of Injured Reserve today, which is fantastic news. However, Casey Hayward will not play this week and despite his shortcomings, that is a big loss for the Chargers secondary. The group dubbed as the “Jack Boys” has struggled mightily this season, particularly against big and fast receivers down the field. This week they’ll get to match up with Stefon Diggs and a very talented wide receiving core of the Bills.
Diggs has been one of the most talented receivers in the league over the last few years but never truly produced at an elite level in Minnesota while sharing targets with Adam Thielen. After being traded to Buffalo this offseason, where he is now the unquestioned number one receiver, he is finally producing at that level. Diggs enters Week 12 ranking second in the league in receptions (73), third in targets (101), and third in yards (906). He has been worth every penny for the Bills.
How the Chargers go about defending him will be quite the challenge for this shorthanded secondary. They have asked Hayward to travel with elite wide receivers in the past, but it is doubtful they would ask Michael Davis, Brandon Facyson, Tevaughn Campbell, or even Harris to travel with him.
The Bills are really smart with how they employ their best offensive weapon. They often motion Diggs pre-snap to get opposing defenses to tip their hand and identify mismatches. Then they use his versatility and ability to run every route in the route tree to their advantage. He runs all the deep, intermediate, and short routes. Without John Brown, Diggs will be even more important to the Bills passing attack. If the Chargers were smart they would shade coverage towards Diggs in an effort to limit the damage he does on Sunday. But that’s not really their style, is it? If you have Diggs in fantasy, start him and enjoy your win this week.
The Chargers Pass Rush vs The Bills Offensive Line
Like the secondary, the Chargers’ defensive line is also hurting with their own injuries. Melvin Ingram has been dealing with a knee injury all season and was just placed on Injured Reserve for the second time this year. Uchenna Nwosu might soon join him. The former USC standout is dealing with an AC joint sprain in his shoulder and it could sideline him for three weeks. The Chargers haven’t yet placed him on IR, so it’s possible they think he might be able to come back sooner. Either way, heading to Buffalo without their second and third best pass rushers is certainly not ideal.
Joey Bosa has been playing at an elite level this season, despite dealing with a tricep injury and a concussion. Ingram has not been super productive when healthy, but his reputation still takes some attention away from Bosa. The Chargers are 3-1 in games in which both Bosa and Ingram start and finish. The coaching staff absolutely has to do better, but it’s also really difficult to win games in this league when your three best pass rushers have all missed time throughout the year.
In his press conference today, Anthony Lynn said that Emeke Egbule and Jerry Tillery will rotate in Ingram’s place on Sunday. Egbule has really only seen significant action in one game this season all the way back in Week 5. He registered three pressures and one quarterback hit on Drew Brees.
Tillery played defensive end in Bosa’s absence against the Las Vegas Raiders a few weeks ago and registered three pressures and got a sack right before halftime that sent the Chargers into the locker room with a lead. But he also really struggled to set the edge and that was something the Raiders really exploited. The Bills don’t run the ball as well as the Raiders do, but one would think they would attack the spot vacated by Ingram and Nwosu.
However you shake it, the Chargers need someone to step up and produce as a pass rusher. Linval Joseph has registered 18 pressures for them but doesn’t have a sack just yet. Sunday would be a great time for him to get his first. Justin Jones has been very good against the run, but his overall production after being hyped up by the coaching staff and players throughout training camp has been a big disappointment. He has only registered eight total pressures and also does not have a sack yet this season.
The Chargers have actually been blitzing a lot more since the bye week, up nearly 10-percent. They got a sack from Denzel Perryman last week against the New York Jets. They probably need to get another sack from a blitzer this Sunday.
Allen has improved tremendously as a passer this year, but when a team can get after him with an effective pass rush he will make mistakes. The Chargers have to capitalize on his gunslinger’s mentality.
Chargers Wide Receivers vs The Bills Secondary
The aforementioned Josh Allen has been on an absolute tear this season and is on pace for a career season. But the Bills arguably have the best cornerback in the AFC in Tre’Davious White. White got a massive extension right before the season and has proved his worth. The interceptions haven’t come in bunches as they did in 2019, but he is being targeted much less this season. White has traveled with elite wide receivers such as Keenan Allen in the past, but he traditionally doesn’t travel to the slot, which is where Allen lines up quite often. White is the headliner but Josh Norman, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer are no slouches for them either. Make no mistake about it, Buffalo’s secondary is very good.
Allen has been amazing all season as Herbert’s number one target, but someone else needs to step up and take the pressure off of him. Mike Williams has flashed moments of explosive brilliance this season. Hunter Henry has been a model of consistency, albeit a little underwhelming. Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson are two of the league’s best deep threat specialists.
But Allen has 40 more receptions than Henry, who is second on the team in that department. Williams is second on the team in receiving yards but trails Allen by more than 300 yards. Allen even leads the team in receiving touchdowns, which has never really been his thing.
Allen is clearly an elite player and announcing it to the world as he did back in 2017. But White is one of the best in the business too. It’s going to be an incredible matchup of strength versus strength. It might be best for Herbert not to play with fire this week and force the ball to Allen so much. Someone else on the Chargers has to take some pressure off of Allen and make some big plays. Needless to say, Austin Ekeler’s return would be a HUGE boost.
This is a tough spot for the Chargers this week. Making a coast-to-coast trip and playing the early game is always tough for NFL teams. Losing Ingram, Hayward, and Nwosu against the high octane Bills offense does not make it any easier. The good news is that Herbert and Company should be able to keep up just enough to make a competitive game out of it. If Ekeler does return, I think that gives the Chargers offense just enough of a push to pull off the upset.
If he does not, I think they will come up just short as Allen and Diggs will take advantage of all the Chargers’ injuries on the defensive side of the ball. If Ekeler plays, give me the Chargers over the Bills 37-34. If he doesn’t, give the Bills over the Chargers 34-31.
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