In the third preseason game, the San Diego Chargers traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to face the Arizona Cardinals. This is the game where the starters get the most exercise as the first team played into the third quarter. The Chargers soundly defeated the Cardinals 24-7, but how did the team that takes the field on Monday Night against Houston look? In a word? Fantastic!
Ryan Mathews has continued his phenomenal job of running the ball this preseason. Mathews rushed 14 times for 57 yards and a touchdown. The lone and biggest slight against him is a fumble he had trying to go over the top of the pile at the goal line. Mathews was hit, fumbled, and in a wacky chain of events the Cardinals gained then lost the ball trying to lateral. The Chargers regained the ball as John Phillips plucked the ball out of midair and scored the touchdown.
Mathews has run with power and speed, swift and decisive in his cuts and hitting the hole. Fumbling, especially in the red zone, has been one of many knocks on Mathews and until that play we were beginning to forget it. Does the pressure get to Mathews in big situations like goal line? The Chargers got lucky in regaining the ball and scoring in spite of Mathews fumble. It won’t go the same way in the regular season. Regardless, Mathews has looked great all preseason and even for me, who is not a Mathews fan after watching him fail year after year, I am encouraged by what I have seen from him so far if he can duplicate his preseason production in the regular season.
Philip Rivers was in rhythm and looked great passing the ball, going 10-18 for 71 yards. Rivers did have an interception but that was the result of Rivers getting hit on the arm and the altered pass landing in the hands of the Cardinals defender. Rivers was not sacked and pressure only leaked through a couple of times, including that play. Rivers led a beautiful 12-play, 92 yard drive in the first quarter that chewed 7 minutes of the clock in the first quarter. The drive was a great mix of runs and short passes as Rivers spread the ball around to Antonio Gates, Danny Woodhead, Seyi Ajirotutu and Keenan Allen. The Chargers offensive line blew back the Cardinals front line down the field the entire half and Rivers continually found open receivers amidst the Cardinals highly touted secondary. Very encouraging.
With the Chargers afflicted by injuries at the wide receiver position, the Chargers started Ajirotutu, Allen, Mike Willie and Vincent Brown with Gates at tight end. The unit was solid and just proves that with protection, Rivers can turn whoever is receiving into Pro Bowl worthy studs. The opener will have a different lineup as Willie has gone to IR with a knee injury. Malcolm Floyd will be back in the lineup and Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal still have opportunity to crack the starting lineup with impressive performances in the finale against San Francisco on Thursday.
Rivers drew three pass interference penalties on the same Cardinals defender. Rivers found the weak line (no, it wasn’t Antoine Cason) and exploited the matchup brilliantly, gaining the Chargers easy yardage by identifying the best matchup and getting the ball there accurately enough to draw the penalty. Rivers is a master at this and when he has time to throw, we’ll see more of the same.
D.J. Fluker showed his athleticism by running down Cardinals defensive back Patrick Petersen as he returned the interception after the ball was pitched to him. Petersen has sub 4.4 speed and returned multiple punts for touchdown last season! D.J. Fluker ran from his spot on the right side and caught Petersen as he raced by. For a man who’s 350-plus, no way not to love that! Most linemen would not even try to catch someone that fast and Fluker ran a good 10-15 yards to catch Petersen on the sideline. He will only get better folks…
The Chargers were over 50% on third down (8 for 15). Great play calling and execution by Rivers and Whitehurst. The Chargers also had 14 first downs in the first half, 22 for the game.
Dwight Freeney looked amazing as he turned Cardinals starting left tackle Levi Brown into a turnstile. I counted four times Freeney got to the quarterback, flushing him from the pocket, getting a hand on him or getting a big sack, as he did on the last play of the first half. Freeney drew double teams and when he was left alone, he dominated the Cardinals tackles.
Larry English has an impressive open field tackle of Patrick Petersen, who was in the game on offense. English prevented a short pass that could have turned into a big gain if he secure Petersen with a textbook form tackle.
Shareece Wright was also good in run defense as he had a beautiful open field tackle on Cardinals running back Alphonso Smith who had made it through the first level and gaining speed.
Safety Brandon Taylor made his return to the lineup and had a bone jarring hit which forced a fumble. Linebacker Andrew Gachkar had a batted ball and an interception in the second half.
The Chargers prevented the Cardinals to 25% on third down, 3 for 12.
The special teams looked brilliant! Cornerback Darrell Stuckey blocked a punt. Nose tackle Kwame Geathers blocked a field goal, both in the first half against the Cardinals first team. Keenan Allen caught each kick that came to him flawlessly and showed when he has room to run, he will gain big yardage. Allen showed excellent speed and nice moves as he weaved through defenders for a 20-plus yard return. Richard Goodman secured his head to the chopping block by fumbling another kick. Goodman did recover the fumble but for the second week in a row he fumbled a kick and has yet to show he can gain good return yardage in any game this preseason.
In summary, this game was a curb stomping by the Chargers first team against the Cardinals first team. The offensive line pushed the Cardinals around at will and the defense did the same to the Cardinals offensive line. The Chargers offensive line looked better than it has all preseason and considering this is the game that would tell the most about what we will see in September, you can’t help but feel hopeful. If the Chargers can stay healthy, and that’s an if of monumental proportions, the Chargers will be very dangerous. The Chargers problem is depth and it will remain so until the players of the future come off of injured reserve. This will be a team to watch!
The Greg One