Week Eight Key Matchups: Chargers vs Broncos

Los Angeles Chargers Linebacker Denzel Perryman With Running Back Melvin Gordon
Los Angeles Chargers Linebacker Denzel Perryman With Running Back Melvin Gordon

The Chargers were finally able to finish a game and secure Justin Herbert’s first career win in the NFL. Herbert was outstanding against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, particularly in the second half. He consistently made plays in key moments, and for really the first time all season we saw him make a bunch of plays with his legs. Including the longest run from a Chargers quarterback in two decades. The Chargers pass rush also showed up in a big way, logging five sacks and over 30 pressures on Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew.

Other than that pass rush, the defensive performance from the Chargers left much to be desired. Jaguars running back James Robinson absolutely shredded the Chargers front seven. Head Coach Anthony Lynn said they made him look like Earl Campbell out there. A lot of credit goes to their offensive line for generating a significant amount of push up front for their running back. But Robinson continually made people miss or simply ran them over. The secondary in particular missed a ton of tackles, which allowed the Jaguars to come back from a sixteen point deficit early and make the game much more interesting than it should have been.

This week, the Chargers will head to Denver to take on the Broncos and their former running back Melvin Gordon (more on him later). Thankfully the forecast does not call for a cold and snowy day like the Broncos had last week against the Chiefs. But this will be Herbert’s first divisional road game, and playing in that altitude is no joke. Not to mention the Chargers are dealing with their first Covid lockdown. This is going to be a very interesting game. 

As of right now, the Chargers are favored by three and a half points, and the over/under is set at 44. So Vegas is expecting a relatively low scoring game. That being said, let’s get into the three key matchups for this week. 

Shane Steichen vs Vic Fangio

It’s been a while since this series featured a coaching matchup. Let’s start with Denver’s head coach Vic Fangio. He has been considered a great defensive mind in this league for a very long time, and finally got his head coaching shot a couple of years ago in Denver. He was the architect behind Chicago’s great defense from a few years ago. Despite losing Von Miller, he has another very good unit again this year in Denver. 

The Kansas City Chiefs went into Mile High and won 43-19 last week, but that score was not indicative of the actual defensive performance that the Broncos were able to put out there. The Chiefs scored on a pick-six of Drew Lock, and on a kickoff return from Byron Pringle. The Broncos held the Chiefs offense to 286 yards, and Patrick Mahomes to 200 yards passing. 

So much of the Broncos defensive success can be attributed to their masterful performance on third down the last few weeks, the Chiefs were 0-8 on third down last week. And even though they lost Miller, they still managed to sack Mahomes four times on the day.

Bradley Chubb is probably the best defensive player on that side of the ball for the Broncos but their secondary is the best position group on the team. A.J. Bouye is a true shutdown corner, rookie Michael Ojemudia has been very good, Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan are very solid, and Justin Simmons just might be the best free safety in the league. Teams have been daring Mahomes to beat them with short passes, as they send multiple players deep to limit Tyreek Hill and company. The Broncos did that beautifully on Sunday and it showed that Mahomes got a little frustrated at times. Herbert is not Mahomes, but the entire league has taken notice of his incredibly strong arm and that includes Fangio. While not expressly stating his plans, the expectation should be for the Broncos to give Herbert the Mahomes treatment. 

Chargers offensive coordinator Shane Steichen called a great game last week against the Jaguars, and it’s clear that the self-scouting they did over the bye week worked. He called multiple end-arounds, zone-read runs for Herbert, and quick passes as they attempt to work around their abysmal running game. Ever since Herbert’s first start against the Chiefs, Steichen has been incredibly aggressive with their downfield passing attack. Herbert has more deep touchdown passes than anyone in the league not named Russell Wilson. They are taking four or five shots every game. How will that change if Fangio is keeping Simmons and Jackson 20 yards down the field? We have seen Herbert pass through every challenging situation with flying colors, but we haven’t seen what he’ll do against a defense that is keying in on the deep passing attack. Steichen might have to adjust on the fly this weekend and not call as many down the field attacks. Herbert has shown great progress in the last two weeks in not forcing the issue and taking what the defense gives him, and he’ll have to do that again this week. 

The Chargers Secondary vs The Broncos Wide Receivers and Drew Lock

The Chargers secondary has not been what any of us thought they would this season. They have really struggled this year. There hasn’t been a ton of development from Nasir Adderley or Rayshawn Jenkins – a popular breakout pick in the offseason. Michael Davis has improved slightly but he’s still getting beat way too often. Casey Hayward hasn’t been his usual self either. He hasn’t hit the over 30 wall yet, but he is starting to show some cracks. 

This group got exposed this past weekend by Laviska Shenault and Robinson. In past years, they have at least been solid tacklers. Now, they are struggling in coverage AND in the tackling aspect of the game. They lack playmaking. They miss Derwin James and Chris Harris DESPERATELY. Jenkins had a great opportunity to stomp out any kind of Jacksonville comeback early in the second quarter. He lined up against Shenault on third and six, had him dead in the rights but then he hesitated. Shenault then took what should have been an interception, or at worst a third-down stop, and turned it into a 36 yard gain. Robinson scored two plays later, followed by a successful two point conversion. 

The Chargers defenses of the last few years have been great in getting off the field. The “bend but don’t break” mantra has served them well. But that has not been the case this year. The Buccaneers, Saints, and even the Jaguars have had great success at sustaining long drives the last few weeks and it has cost the Chargers three big leads. 

This is a divisional game, which means more. The Chargers are going up against a very familiar team and the aforementioned Gordon. The secondary needs to bounce back in a big way.

Chargers Front Seven vs Melvin Gordon (and Phillip Lindsay)

Now for the section you’ve been waiting for. Gordon said earlier this week that he’s not preparing any different than normal this week. What a load of bologna. There is no chance that Gordon didn’t have this game circled, underlined, and starred on his calendar heading into the season. Gordon has been his usual self for the Broncos, not overly efficient but he’s scored five combined times and has been a nice outlet for Lock in the flats from time to time. But he’s also, not so surprisingly, lost three fumbles this time. 

Phillip Lindsay is the better player in that Denver running back room. The Broncos should have built this running game around him, and not Gordon. But Lindsay has been hurt and is now dealing with a concussion. If he does play, he should have a better day. But there have been enough revenge games in the past to make that a legitimate narrative and Gordon fits that bill more than anyone in recent memory. Things did not end well for him in Los Angeles, really due to his own actions, but expect him to be highly motivated to dominate his former team. 

The Chargers defense got torn a part by an undrafted free agent last weekend. The defensive line got pushed around by an inferior opponent. The Broncos offensive line isn’t great in pass protection but they are a very capable run-blocking unit. Chargers fans have seen that if Gordon can get on a roll early, he is very capable of having a big day. He’s very much someone that gets better with more touches throughout the game. It’s definitely possible that, in an attempt to keep Herbert off the field, Fangio opts for a run-heavy and ball control offensive game plan where they feed the ball to Gordon 25+ times. The Chargers’ defense will have to respond accordingly. The Chargers holding Gordon under 50 yards rushing and maybe forcing him to fumble would be a HUGE feather in their cap.

The Chargers are the better team in this game. They have the better quarterback – keep an eye on how aggressive Lock is pushing the ball down the field this week, he hasn’t looked like the same player coming off the shoulder injury earlier in the season. Vegas sees this as a close and low scoring game and I tend to agree. For now, I’ll take the Chargers over the Broncos 23-20.