Since the season schedule was announced, this was as dreaded a game as on the schedule. Facing a playoff team, on the road, to open the season. Then, Steve Smith lost his mental capacity and found himself suspended for the first two games, making this even more tough than it seemed.
So why is it such a great time to play the Chargers?
First off, injuries. Antonio Gates is just returning from injury, and fellow offensive star Ladainian Tomlinson didn't play at all in preseason. Starting center Nick Hardwick is out for this game; so is starting left tackle Marcus McNeill. RT LJ Shelton, never successful on the left side, has to move over to defend red-hot Panthers end Julius Peppers. Star defender Shawne Merriman will play
Meanwhile, only Smith and fellow WR Ryne Robinson are out for the Chargers game; only DJ Hackett and Chris Harris are playing that didn't make it into preseason.
Second, change. The Chargers are relatively intact, injuries aside. The Panthers start linemen in new spots for 5 spots. They start two receivers different from last year; the third WR is an untested, but still new, player who hardly saw the field last year; 6 of the 7 spots of the front 7 are in new spots or new players. It's a lot to gameplan against, when you're talking individual matchups, to re-scout half of the opponents' starters that haven't played in a regular season game in that alignment.
This one could go either way. The Chargers could easily unravel all the Panthers' progress, or Carolina could physically dominate. This is a highly variable game that could come down to attitude and execution. So, onto matchups.
Schematically, the Carolina offense attacking the 3-4 of San Diego gets a bit of a break - the team gameplanned for the Pittsburgh 3-4 all week but never had to show its first team looks against it. It's a great time for Carolina to play a 3-4 - directly after playing another one. The injuries to Merriman and DT Jamal Williams will possibly add a wrinkle or two, but both should play.
A downside? As is traditional, the league is set up to block the 4-3. So this week, our big guards go up against air, where the center and tackles, traditionally finesse players, face up against heft. Jeff Otah won't struggle blocking Igor Olshansky, where he does still have a tremendous size advantage; it's harder to see Jordan Gross taking on Luis Castillo, a solid run defender, and getting exceptional push. That'll be more of a stalemate. Ryan Kalil faces Williams at NT, the largest player on the front at 6'2, 324, but with a bad knee; Kalil should get some help on combo blocks, but does come to the table 30 lbs shorter than Williams and should make sure to not get overpowered on run plays.
Now's when the athleticism of LG Travelle Wharton should show up, as he'll get to the second level well. It's harder to see Keydrick Vincent doing as well, but the veteran has looked good as a drive blocker overall and should be a help on short yardage doubles, blocking backside on movement plays, and getting out to the DE on playside plays. Secondary blockers can make good headway against the 3-4; sealing outside or chipping inside is easier than in a 4-3. As well, the front 7 of the defense is simply smaller in a 3-4; Carolina's resurgent running game could benefit from simply having to play smaller contain men and having only 3 bigger defenders.
So - success running the ball? The Chargers play the 3-4 as a one-gap defense, so they're going to try to shoot gaps rather than take up space; influencing a one-gap 3-4 with misdirection. As well, a team that can leverage the NT one way, and the end another, lends itself very well to an ILB isolation block. Doubling the NT and letting Otah clear the DE allows for I formation isolation on MLB Stephen Cooper; as long as the TE gets some contact on the playside OLB, there's little chance of a loss and a good chance of a 5 yard gain. Inside, the Chargers funnel plays to the ILBs, and give up less than outside, but struggle more v/s bigger lines.
Running outside against a one-gap 3-4 is more effective with the toss sweep than the power sweep; it's even more effective with a crack block by the flanker, Muhsin Muhammad, since it means he can clean up the pursuit and the playside guard can try to take on the playside ILB. Backside, running at Merriman will probably bear fruit - playing dirty against the injured Pro Bowler isn't really a good thing, but running the ball down his throat isn't a bad idea to wear him down. Going gap-down with Gross taking on Merriman and Wharton taking on Castillo should give Carolina backs the option of cutting off-guard or cutting outside, where both Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams have shown the ability to turn the corner. San Diego gave up 5.6 yards/carry outside Merriman, and 6 off left tackle running at Merriman and Castillo, versus 3.8 each off right end/tackle apiece.
The skill players line up with Muhammad on the more physical corner Quentin Jammer, and wth DJ Hackett facing the more athletic Antonio Cromartie (who started only 8 of 16 games, but had 10 INT). It's a good matchup for San Diego, so Carolina can't have mis-steps in the passing game. Muhammad should out-muscle Jammer, but it won't be easy; the team doesn't have timing with Hackett, who didn't play in preseason, and a cocky corner like Cromartie shouldn't give Hackett much room.
Secondary receivers should have a good game; the Chargers covered the #1 and #2 WRs 11th and 1st best in the league last year, and had a good pass D overall, but were down to 28th against the 3rd WR, and 19th against TE. They can be challenged deep, and they can be challenged across the middle. Situationally, Dante Rosario should be a good player to drop behind the ILBs, and Jeff King is a physical matchup against either player. Second year FS Eric Weddle didn't have great numbers last year and can be tested deep; Clinton Hart at SS is a veteran but lacks experience from scrimmage, having started just one year.
In expected pass situations, the Chargers do the traditional swap for the nickel defense - they go with a 4 man line, 2 linebackers, and 5 DBs. Their nickel, like most 3-4s, takes them out of their element for blitzing, and doesn't give them great 4-man line personnel either. I'd be surprised if Merriman plays many snaps in the nickel, though the team could pull him out of base snaps instead. The Chargers like Ryan Bingham (6'3, 300) as a change-up for the passing game, as well as hybrid end/OLB Jyles Tucker (6'2 258), a second year who will probably rush the edge on nickel and play in relief of Merriman at times on running downs. The Chargers don't disguise blitzes out of nickel nearly as well as out of base, and just have less options there.
They bring on backup S Paul Oliver (5'10, 190) as a nickelback, instead of rookie Antoine Cason or 2nd year Cletis Gordon; Oliver is a solid technician that plays back on his slot receivers and isn't a great man-cover player. This puts Dwayne Jarrett at a physical advantage, not just for height/weight, but also because most players challenge Jarrett at the line and keep him from getting separation. Jarrett will take some nickel snaps, unless the team moves Hackett inside on 3 WR sets, which may make more sense.
However, a 2 TE approach may be more potent given the Panthers' health at WR, and could bolster the run game. Motion against a 3-4 can cause balance problems in the team's favor, and more ably contains blitzes. Spreading them into a nickel look from base will help them as well - forcing an ILB out into space and covering a secondary receiver at the line is a good way to create mismatches. It also gives 6-on-6 blocking up front, if the team can get the Chargers into such an alignment for running downs. The team would do well to push the Chargers into a spread look by bringing base personnel into a 5WR look as well, giving good short-yardage mismatches with backs on safeties and linebackers on TEs. Playing base offense v/s base defense probably won't be a win for Carolina, so being more creative should be a boost.
Overall, the team wants to beat San Diego blitzes with short passes, and pound the ball when possible at the corners. Wearing the San Diego defense down gives the defense life and keeps Tomlinson off the field, and controls both the tempo and toughness of the game. Shaun Phillips will be the defensive star to watch now, probably moving around based on Merriman's availability, so more focus should be placed on his presence, being the only top notch rusher left on the squad.
San Diego was top in the league last year for turnovers, so any planned big plays should be metered carefully against risk. Their offense doesn't take a lot of risks, so getting in the hole against this defense and hoping that their O will bail you out isn't really in the cards.
Carolina's more polished unit, its defense, faces San Diego's stars in Tomlinson and Gates. Carolina's first teamers were stellar in preseason, giving up few points, and can't afford much different against the Chargers.
The passing game matchups show Chris Chambers facing Ken Lucas and the more physical Vincent Jackson facing Chris Gamble. Gamble may get out-muscled but won't get beaten; Chambers is a good second-level receiver that will challenge Lucas but won't be more than he can handle.
The team must take account for Tomlinson, and certainly must watch for Sproles in the passing game as well. Gates' health will be a concern; if he's healthy, he could hurt Carolina, which was 22nd in covering the TE last year. Gates is a concern in playaction as well, and Chris Harris has never been considered under-aggressive. Chambers and Jackson combined for 76 receptions, whereas Antonio Gates had 75 himself and Tomlinson had 60. So, playing close against the run has the added advantage of containing the short pass, and the Carolina linebackers must be on top of their game to play the underneath pass.
The Chargers like to go 2 TE for running downs, and 2nd TE Brandon Manumaleuna is a load at 6'2, 285. Tomlinson doesn't run on lead plays blocked by Lorenzo Neal anymore; the Chargers cover lanes and let Tomlinson pick what's open. This counters Carolina's speed and forces them to maintain gap integrity instead of cheating playside. Manumaleuna only caught 10 balls last year, and isn't a threat outside of the redzone, where they have better options already in the tall Jackson and Gates.
Up front, missing McNeill means starting LJ Shelton, another big OT, but lacking in the athleticism of McNeill and therefore a weakness in pass protection and reaching blockers in the running game. Julius Peppers can be overpowered head up against guys with huge wingspans, but is stronger this year and could still get push. Outside rushes will be dangerous. On the other side, Jeromey Clary has only six games' experience in the NFL. A solid run blocker, Chary gave up 2 sacks and 5 penalties in those six games. Carolina will throw the under-powered tandem of Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson at Clary.
Inside, pivot Nick Hardwick forces them to lose toughness and puts in aging vet Jeremy Newberry in the lineup. A finesse player, Newberry lacks inline strength, but won't make many mistakes. He'll also struggle getting to the second level before Carolina's quick linebackers are gone. Kris Dielman is an incumbent Pro Bowler, a nasty and somewhat dirty left guard to face Ma'ake Kemoeatu. Kemoeatu must keep leverage and not get turned, hoping to force stalemates at the line of scrimamge. Mike Goff is a solid, reliable veteran, and the unit's leader. An 11 year veteran, Goff is still a solid inline blocker and hasn't given up a sack in the last two years, and faces Damione Lewis/Darwin Walker. The pair can push Goff around a bit, but can't afford mistakes against the crafty vet.
The Chargers' offense works on options and choices. Blitzing them doesn't often help, and run-based blitzes are ineffective. They're not unbeatable, though - they were a middle-of-the-road offense despite having an elite RB. Finishing in the top 10 in rushing and attempts, they finished 2nd in rush TDs and 5th in points scored. But they were 20th in total yards and 26th in passing yards. You definitely stop the run first, and Carolina is setup as just such a team. It's a game in which you probably don't get cute - the DE-as-DT experiment, the blitzing 7 philosophy, and other tricks in preseason won't work today. Save your backups for rotation, and play tough and smart.
Darren Sproles is an effective and potent PR/KR - his 27.2 yards/return with kicks is top notch and he's as elusive as almost any returner in the league (short of Devin Hester, who Carolina faces next week). You don't kick line drives to Sproles, and while Jason Baker gets good hangtime, he does kick deep a lot. Without Steve Smith on board, the team will probably keep an extra special teamer active, but they can't afford to sleep on Sproles.
Mike Neugent is a very solid kicker, and punter Mike Scifres gained 6 yards on his net last year with no change in attempts. Scifres had 36 of 80 punts downed inside the 20, best in the league. Their kick coverage is very good, starred by standout Kassim Osgood and backed by Carlos Polk, Brandon Siler, and Tim Dobbins.
Carolina faces well in the passing game matchups, despite not having an advantage on the lines. The running game will be where it passes or fails against San Diego, and must make up for a deficiency in special teams. This could be a battle of field position and conservative play, in which Carolina could win, or it could very well be a blowout loss and a letdown for Carolina starting the season.