Key Matchups: Chargers Vs Broncos Round Two

Steven Haglund
Melvin Gordon
LA Chargers Running Back Melvin Gordon Watches On During Chargers Training Camp. Photo Credit: Monica Dyrud

The Los Angeles Chargers beat the Las Vegas Raiders last week, and in doing so, got their first AFC West victory since 2018. This week they play host to the Denver Broncos and have the chance to get their first win streak of the 2020 season and win back-to-back divisional games for the first time since 2018. 

The Chargers will look to avenge one of the worst losses of the season. Back on November first, the Chargers got out to a roaring lead over the Broncos in Mile High. After taking a 24-3 lead in the third quarter over the Broncos, they ended up losing 31-30 after Drew Lock threw a touchdown pass to KJ Hamler on the very last play of the game. That game was one of many heartbreaking losses for the Chargers this season, but it was the fourth game in a row in which the Chargers had blown a 16+ point lead, and fifth of the season up until that point. 

Injuries in the secondary, and the looming trade of Desmond King, played a huge part in that loss. Chris Harris being on injured reserve, and King being inactive forced Tevaughn Campbell into action against the Broncos. While Campbell played admirably, you have to think that if Harris or King had been on the field, it would have been a different result. Harris will be playing his first career game against his former team, and while he’s definitely not the player he once was, he still has been the Chargers’ best slot corner this season. 

Casey Hayward also left that game early, which forced Brandon Facyson – fresh off the Covid reserve list – into action in the fourth quarter as well. Hayward is still battling through some nagging injuries and has been struggling in coverage, but like Harris, he is certainly better than the alternative. 

The Chargers and Broncos have each struggled to live up to their pre-season expectations, but the Chargers have won three of their last five games and have Justin Herbert’s development to look forward to each and every week. The Broncos were viewed by many as a potential breakout team back in the summer and instead are faced with some long term question marks because of their rather anemic offense. 

That being said, let’s get to this week’s key matchups. 

Chargers Vs Broncos Round 2 Key Matchups

Chargers Pass Rush vs Drew Lock

A large portion of the blame for the anemic Broncos’ falls at the feet of quarterback Drew Lock. He carved apart the Chargers secondary in their first matchup and has had some really good moments this season, but there’s also been a lot of bad ones.

One thing that has remained consistent for Lock is how he struggles under pressure. Two weeks ago, I wrote about Matt Ryan’s struggles under pressure and the Chargers were able to make that happen and forced Ryan into three interceptions. Lock’s struggles are even more drastic, and the Chargers defense will have to take advantage if they are to win.

When given a clean pocket, Lock is completing 67% of his passes and has a two to one touchdown to interception ratio, which is good enough for a 96.9 passer rating. However, when under pressure (this does not mean when blitzed) his completion percentage plummets to 37.2, and his passer rating drops all the way down to 29.5, which is dead last in the league among quarterbacks with at least 50% of their teams’ dropbacks. Add in the seven interceptions on the season, and the Chargers path to victory becomes quite clear: they have to get after Lock early and often.

All that is fine and dandy, but the Chargers pass rush has to hit home for that plan to work. That could be quite the challenge this week since Joey Bosa is likely going to be inactive as he deals with his second concussion of the season. Anthony Lynn failed to say in his Tuesday press conference if they are planning on shutting him down for the season, but that seems like the likely course of action for the team’s best player.

The Chargers could also be without Uchenna Nwosu this week. He left Thursday’s game early after he took a vicious cut block from a Raiders running back. Nwosu, like all the other edge rushers on the Chargers, has battled injuries all throughout the season. 

If he is unable to play, that would leave Jerry Tillery, Isaac Rochell, Emeke Egbule, and either Jesse Lemonier or Joe Gaziano as the only active edge rushers on the Chargers roster. Tillery has been much improved in year two and has looked dominant at times, but has had his own struggles with inconsistency as well. The last time these two played each other, Tillery registered six pressures, two quarterback hits, and a sack in what was easily the best game of his young career.

Rochell has been getting much more playing time due to all the recent injuries and arguably had the best game of his career last week. He registered three quarterback pressures, had three tackles and the game-saving pass break up in overtime. He also had a sack in the previous matchup with the Broncos. 

The Chargers are going to need a strong performance from those four if they are going to win. Gus Bradley has been calling a few more blitzes per game ever since the bye week, but he still believes in dropping seven defenders into coverage more often than not. Someone has got to step up and show out.

Justin Herbert vs The Broncos (Depleted) Secondary

The last time these two teams faced off, Herbert posted the first multi-interception game of his career. The good news then, was that the Broncos only managed three points from those two interceptions. The Herbert-led offense started out the gate rather slowly in Denver last time around. It was Herbert’s first time playing at altitude, and that could have played a factor. The young rookie bounced back strong from the slow start, though, including a stretch where the Chargers scored twenty-four unanswered points. 

Herbert needs just one touchdown to break the rookie record, but beyond that, he needs to build off the last two games and close the season out strong. The Broncos secondary gave him some problems last time, but most of that secondary will not be playing this time around. A.J. Bouye is suspended and Bryce Callahan is injured. We’ve seen Herbert take advantage of some poor secondaries in the past, particularly against the Jets and the Raiders. Putting out three consecutive games of 300+ yards and multiple touchdowns to finish off his rookie season would do a lot for his confidence heading into year two.

The biggest challenge for this Chargers offense has been putting together four full quarters of good football. In the first game against the Broncos, they scored zero points in the first quarter and were unable to convert two key opportunities in the red zone in the fourth quarter, one of which was set up nicely due to a Rayshawn Jenkins interception. Last week, the game against the Raiders went to overtime due to the Chargers offense being unable to convert third downs in the red zone.

Now, yes, the play calling and execution from the coaching staff played a very large role in those situations. Especially in the game last week against the Raiders when Anthony Lynn and company decided to take the ball out of Herbert’s hands, even though he was absolutely dealing against a porous Raiders secondary. Herbert was able to save the day in overtime, and he’ll probably have to take things into his own hands this week as well.

Melvin Gordon vs The Chargers Run Defense

Leading up to the first Chargers and Broncos game, I wrote about the Chargers defense needing to stop the duo of Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay being inactive for this game changes that dynamic a little bit, but the principle remains. He’s one of the most explosive running backs in the league and is a true home run threat any time he touches the ball. That came to fruition in that first game, when he took a handoff and broke off a 55-yard touchdown run that sparked the Broncos’ comeback.

Michael Badgley kicked a field goal with seven and a half minutes left in the third quarter to take that 24-3 lead for the Chargers. At that point in the game, literally, the only thing the Chargers defense could not do was give up a big play, quick-strike scoring drive. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. Lindsay made rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray miss in the hole, then he made Nasir Adderley miss in space and he was off to the races. The Broncos scored in three plays and took just over a minute off the game clock.

Without Lindsay,  Gordon will take on a much larger role for the Broncos and those kinds of explosive plays cannot happen under any circumstances. The Chargers know him better than anyone. He’s a back who thrives off of big plays and getting touches in droves. The Broncos could opt to play more of a ball-control centric game plan to keep Herbert and company off the sidelines. The Chargers front seven has to ensure that Gordon does not get going.

The Chargers run defense has been much better over the last few weeks. The play of Justin Jones has been a huge factor in that success. He was clearly a little rusty in the middle of the season, after returning from his injury. But he is rounding into form over the last few weeks. With Tillery being forced to the edge they need Jones to keep playing well, both in the short term and in the long term. 

The Chargers could be getting Denzel Perryman back this week, which would be a huge help in the run game. Before hurting his back, Perryman was arguably playing at the highest level of his career. Up until that point he had been one of the most efficient linebackers in the league against the run. There’s still a place for him on this team, especially with Kyzir White and Kenneth Murray going through some growing pains.

Murray has flashed great potential at times in this season but is still a little too hesitant to trust his instincts. That’s why Perryman is so important in a game like this. He fully trusts his instincts and when he sees something, he just takes off and flies to the ball. We all remember how he blew up Mekhi Becton a few weeks ago. If Perryman does end up playing, don’t be surprised to see him make a big impact play in this game, and he probably has to against his former teammate if the Chargers are going to win.

I know there are a lot of fans that are still hoping the Chargers lose out for a better draft pick, or so Lynn and company will get fired. For whatever reason, the Chargers have been able to bounce back the last couple of weeks after they got utterly destroyed by the New England Patriots. Whether that’s a factor of the players playing for their coach’s job or simply getting healthier as a team, is up for debate. However you shake it, they are playing their best football of the season right now. That’s not saying much obviously, but it’s true. I still don’t think they’re doing enough to save Lynn’s job, but it’s certainly more likely now than it was three weeks ago. 

Ultimately, I do believe the Chargers will get revenge on a division foe for the second consecutive week. I am a little worried about how this defense will play without Bosa, but I just don’t think the Broncos will be able to stop Herbert and company. The Chargers quarterback will have another big day, officially break the rookie passing touchdown record and lead his team to their third straight victory: Chargers 30 – Broncos 24.

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