Week 10 Key Matchups: Chargers vs Dolphins
The Los Angeles Chargers are coming off yet another AFC loss, this time at the hands of the Las Vegas Raiders. They showed some good things, particularly from the running game, but ultimately came up short. They lost Justin Jackson on the first play of the game but the rushing attack didn’t miss a beat. Kalen Ballage was activated off the practice squad due to Troymaine Pope’s absence and gave the Chargers quite a boost.
This week, the Chargers head to Miami this week in a highly anticipated matchup with the Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa. This will be the first matchup between the 2020 first-round rookie starting quarterbacks since Justin Herbert did not start in Week 1 against Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s been the talk of the sports media world and rightfully so due to the stellar play from this quarterback class so far. The game will surely be featured on the various highlight segments on Sunday evening after it is over.
Tagovailoa is coming off the second start of his career and has been fortunate enough to win both games. Herbert is still looking for his second career victory, unfortunately. Herbert has been setting all kinds of records but will have another uphill battle this week against a stellar Miami defense. The Chargers defense is clearly struggling, and even without wide receiver Preston Williams (recently placed on injured reserve), Tagovailoa should be in a good spot for his third career start.
Here Are This Week’s Key Matchups
Bryan Bulaga (hopefully) and Sam Tevi vs Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson
Bulaga has been a limited participant in practice so far this week. Having him active in this game would be a huge deal for this Chargers offensive line. Trey Pipkins has been extremely inconsistent at right tackle in his absence and made Maxx Crosby and Carl Nassib look much better than they actually are this past week. It’s no coincidence that the three best performances from this offensive line unit have been the three games that Bulaga has started and finished. He has struggled with injuries this season, but when healthy he’s been very good.
Tevi has been much maligned over the last two years, and rightfully so. But he has improved dramatically since his rookie season. Through eight games he has only allowed 17 pressures, and most importantly he has yet to allow more than five in a single game. Something that he did on four such occasions last year. It is not always pretty for the former University of Utah standout, but improvement is improvement. The organization put their faith in him for 2020 when they decided to pass on taking an offensive tackle in April’s draft, and to his credit, he has exceeded expectations.
The tackle duo for the Chargers will have their hands full this weekend against the Dolphins pass-rushing tandem of Ogbah and Lawson. Ogbah was a cast-off in Cleveland and was traded to Kansas City in the final year of his rookie deal. He played well as a member of the Chiefs but suffered a season-ending pectoral injury before they went on their postseason run and he was obviously not brought back.
He signed a two-year, $15 million deal in Miami during the offseason and that has proven to be a bargain deal for the Dolphins. He has been one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. He has accumulated 34 pressures and eight sacks (a career-high) in eight games. Most importantly, he has forced three fumbles – one of which was returned for a touchdown against the other team in Los Angeles.
Kyle Van Noy was the other big offseason acquisition after the Dolphins landed cornerback Byron Jones (more on him later), and many expected Van Noy to be the team’s best pass rusher. Turns out he hasn’t even been their second-most productive rusher. That would be Lawson. The former Clemson standout was another low risk signing in Miami this past offseason and it has paid off rather nicely as well. He was a major disappointment in Buffalo after they spent a first-round pick on him in 2016. He only has two sacks on the year, but he is on pace for a career-high 46 quarterback pressures. Van Noy has been placed on the Reserve Covid list and has been ruled out this weekend, so Lawson will have to step up in his place.
The Chargers offensive line has allowed Herbert to be pressured at a higher rate than any other quarterback in the league in his seven career starts. They’ve had a revolving door at right guard in Trai Turner’s absence, and the aforementioned Pipkins has not been great filling in for Bulaga.
The Dolphins bring five or more rushers at the fifth-highest rate in the league (36.2%), which creates a lot of one on one matchups and causes a lot of problems for opposing offensive lines. Against other blitz-happy teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Chargers have elected to max protect (seven or more blockers) often. The Chargers offensive linemen have to do their part. If Bulaga and Turner can’t go this weekend, Herbert could be running for his life again.
The Chargers Wide Receivers vs the Dolphins Secondary
Keenan Allen has been worth the price of admission so far this year as Herbert’s number one target. Since Herbert took over the starting quarterback position, he has targeted Allen 10 times or more in every game, except in New Orleans when Allen left after the first quarter due to back spasms. He’s been a model of consistency for the young quarterback and even leads the league in receiving on third down. When in doubt, look for number 13.
The relationship between Herbert and his number two receiver, Mike Williams, has not been quite as consistent. The jump ball extraordinaire has less than 20 yards receiving in three games this season. However, he has been a constant big-play threat yet again this year and has come down with some incredible catches on the occasions when Herbert has looked his way. The two seem to be finding their groove now, too. Over the last two weeks, Williams has been targeted 18 times and has 10 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown.
After the two star receivers, the Chargers have a few speedsters. Namely, Jalen Guyton has become one of the most explosive players in the league this year. The former undrafted free agent receiver out of North Texas has amassed 270 receiving yards on just 10 catches this season. He and Herbert clearly have a nice relationship and that has paid dividends for the Chargers passing attack.
Their counterparts on Sunday are extremely talented. Jones and Xavien Howard are one of the best cornerback duos in the league. Howard leads the team with four interceptions and has been quite the playmaker this year. Jones does not have an interception yet, but that’s never really been his style. Their safeties, Eric Rowe and Bobby McCain are also very solid. Rowe is their second-leading tackler, and McCain is their highest-graded defender according to PFF.
As mentioned above, the Dolphins blitz a lot but they are allowed to do that because they have two stellar corners in the back end that are capable of being left on islands so often. They also do a fantastic job of mixing up coverages. They play a lot of cover zero when they blitz, and also play a lot of cover three.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how they go about covering Allen and Williams this week. They haven’t been using Howard as a travel corner as much as in years past because of Jones’ arrival, but Howard did do that last year when the Chargers played the Dolphins.
Ultimately the Dolphins defense is going to come after Herbert. They’ve had a ton of success against young quarterbacks (Jared Goff and Kyler Murray) the last two weeks. Goff and Murray failed to identify and beat the Dolphins’ blitzes and it cost their teams. Herbert is going to have to get the ball out quickly on Sunday, and the Chargers receivers have to capitalize.
The Chargers Pass Rushers vs The Dolphins Offensive Line
The Chargers missed Joey Bosa dearly last week. Their pass rush was almost nonexistent against the Raiders, even missing three starting offensive linemen. Outside of Jerry Tillery’s sack to end the first half, which saved a touchdown, believe it or not, Derek Carr had all day to throw.
The Chargers secondary is in a bad place right now. Trading Desmond King makes sense long term because they weren’t going to be able to afford him anyway. Casey Hayward’s age is, unfortunately, starting to show and the rest of their secondary is either highly inconsistent or very inexperienced. If you have DeVante Parker or Mike Gesicki in fantasy, I would start them confidently.
The best solution they have to counteract the secondary struggles is to get their pass rush going. Last week the Dolphins offensive line only allowed eleven pressures on 39 dropbacks. This allowed Tagovailoa to carve the Cardinals apart. Their offensive line is extremely young (they start three rookies) but they are also very talented and are finding their groove as of late. Former USC standout Austin Jackson has battled some injuries but returned to the field in Arizona and had his best game of the season. Their second-round selection out of Louisiana, Robert Hunt, has only been starting since week five and he also had his best game this past Sunday in Arizona.
The Chargers’ defensive line was not able to capitalize on the Raiders injuries last week, but they absolutely have to capitalize on the Dolphins inexperience this weekend. The team opted to start Tillery in Bosa’s stead last week due to the Raiders explosive run game, which obviously didn’t work. The Dolphins don’t have that kind of running game. If Matt Breida can’t play, the ghost of Jordan Howard will be their starting running back. Howard is not even averaging two yards per carry on the season.
The Dolphins offense will go as far as Tagovailoa takes them. Similar to Carr, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and even Teddy Bridgewater, he likes to get the ball out of his hands quickly. The Dolphins also did a fantastic job of creating time for him to throw with bootlegs and play-action against the Cardinals.
If the Chargers are unable to get to him early and often, he will carve this porous secondary apart just like he did last week. With Bosa unable to clear concussion protocol, someone has to step up. Tillery has led this team in pressures for two consecutive weeks, and while it’s nice to see the former first-rounder developing, that absolutely cannot be the norm. They’ll need a big day from Melvin Ingram or Uchenna Nwosu if they are to hold this Miami offense at bay at all.
Ultimately, we all know how this game is going to go. It will be competitive. It will come down to the wire. That’s been the story of every single Chargers game this year. The question is, can the Chargers find a way to close out a superior team (at least record-wise) on the road? Until I see it happen on a more consistent basis, I will not be predicting it to happen. I have the Chargers losing again this week, 28-24. Herbert will have to wait a little longer for his second career NFL victory.