As NFL teams across the country are busy at work trimming their rosters down to 53 men, it’s time to take a quick look back at what has transpired this preseason. Some questions about the team were answered, while others remain a mystery. We’ve had a chance to see how NFL-ready the team’s rookies are, as well as how the rest of the Free Agent pickups have performed  and adapted to the new McCoy/Whisenhunt/Pagano ideology of Chargers football.

Let’s start with what we know. Given the anemic offensive performance by the Chargers in 2012, it was obviously a big concern in the front office to bring in a new strategy of attack.

 

The Running Game

Much to the pleasure of the Chargers’ faithful, the early glimpses of the 2013 ground attack have been impressive. Coach Mike McCoy, being known for his adaptability in using different strategies based on different personnel strengths, knew coming in that in order to help (or “fix”, according to many national pundits) Philip Rivers, he would have to get opposing teams to once again respect the Chargers’ ground attack.

The addition of D.J. Fluker to the Right Tackle position on the offensive line has already shown dividends in terms of the power and attitude. Standing at 6’5″ and weighing in at 339 lbs, Fluker certainly has the size and power to be an effective run-blocker. Often being described as “nasty” when he is fighting in the trenches, this monolith of a man has shown the ability to blast through defenders, effectively opening running lanes for Ryan Mathews and the rest of the stable of Running Backs on the team.

Ryan Mathews, always a popular subject of conversation in Charger-land, flashed signs of dominance in his preseason appearances. Leading up to the 2012 NFL season, Mathews spent quite a bit of time bulking up. Former Chargers Fullback Jacob Hester had described Ryan as “looking like Arnold did in the old days”. This year, however, the point of emphasis has been on trimming down and becoming more flexible with the hope of making him less susceptible to injury. While Mathews has struggled to stay on the field in his professional career, hopes are that by focusing more on speed and agility as opposed to brute strength, the young back will be able to (finally) live up to some of the team’s lofty expectations for him. Mathews has at times been criticized for his decision-making when following his blocks, though his patience to wait for the correct lane or block seems to have matured somewhat this preseason. This is also a contract year for Mathews, and his performance and ability to stay focused and contribute will be put under great scrutiny.

A fan-favorite among free agent signings this off-season, Running Back Danny Woodhead is expected to be a nice change-of-pace back as well as a viable third down option. However, due to some lingering injuries sustained during training camp, he has not been able to get very involved in the offense as of yet. Fozzy Whittaker, a fan favorite this preseason, has shown he can contribute, though the drop off in talent from Mathews to any of the other backs is still quite significant.

Ronnie Brown is still a valuable asset as a pass-catcher and pass-blocker, though it is presumed he will not be getting many actual carries as a runner. The Fullback position looks to be shored up by veteran Le’Ron McClain. The role of the Fullback in the McCoy/Whisenhunt offense is still somewhat of a mystery that will unfold as the regular season progresses.

 

The Passing Game

 

It’s no secret that the Chargers have paid the butcher’s bill this preseason in terms of injuries to its stock of Wide Receivers. What began as one of the deepest position groups on the team has become a hobbled group of hopeful contributors. When healthy, the top three Wide Receivers can be very effective. Unfortunately, the entire group seems to be prone to injury.

Last year’s “golden boy” and incumbent No.1 receiver Danario Alexander suffered a tragic season-ending torn ACL during training camp. Alexander is a bit of lightning in a bottle when healthy, but the young receiver has earned a reputation of having knees made of glass. With Alexander out, long-time Charger Malcom Floyd will be charged with the No.1 receiver duties. The team is still expecting big things from youthful receivers Vincent Brown and Keenan Allen, though once again, these players have been known to be bitten by injuries in the not-so-distant past.

On the positive side, Tight End seems to be a position of strength this preseason. Antonio Gates has looked great, and is fully healthy going into the regular season. John Phillips, a pickup from the Cowboys, has been solid and should also be a factor in the running game due to his size and blocking ability. Ladarius Green has had a great preseason showing and looks ready to become a meaningful contributor to  the aerial campaign this year.

Though the true nature of the 2013 Chargers passing game has yet to be revealed, we have seen a couple of new ripples. With the horrible protection Rivers had to deal with in 2012, the popular thought has been to use fewer five and seven-step drops, with receivers running routes that develop more quickly than the deep patterns that Norv Turner was so fond of during his time in San Diego. This should almost certainly help Rivers’ completion percentage and, hopefully, put an end to the epidemic of turnovers that have plagued this offense over the past year.

Of course, the most important piece of the passing game is Quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers’ struggles of late have been well-documented. From what we have seen this preseason, it is still hard to say if the passing game will be able to balance the running game. Aside from Rivers learning a new offense and occasionally wearing a glove on his left hand (Has anyone figured this out yet?), there isn’t a lot that will be different about Rivers’ game; he will still have a strange release, he’ll still be perhaps the most awkward running quarterback in the NFL, but most importantly, he’ll still provide leadership and a great knowledge of the game.

One notable difference with Rivers has been with the integration of a fast-paced, hurry-up type offense. This looks like something to get excited about. Rivers has long been heralded as a great student of the game, growing up the son of a coach and a film room guru. Under Norv Turner, Rivers wasn’t given the freedom to run an offense from the line of scrimmage. This preseason, however, we have on occasion seen Rivers hurry the team to the line, force the defense to set and adapt the plan of attack at the line. It should be interesting to see Philip match his wits against defenses in this manner.

 

What have we learned? 

From the limited playing time we have seen from the Chargers’ starters this preseason, we can start to form an idea of what the overall offensive strategy and personnel will look like. Fixing the running game is of huge importance to the overall potency of the offense, and so far, so good. The newly minted offensive line seems to be better suited to running the ball and getting a push off of the line of scrimmage than it is at providing Rivers with a clean pocket.

While Max Starks has shown us he cannot be depended on at Left Tackle (Update: Max Starks has been cut by Chargers, 8/30/13),  King Dunlap has been surprisingly effective. The rest of the line continues to gel as Jeromey Clary gets more comfortable at his new spot at Right Guard. Though we didn’t see much of Danny Woodhead, expect to see him play a key role in screen passes and as an overall safety valve for Rivers. On the downside, if the Wide Receivers fail to get healthy and stay healthy, this could be a difficult year to watch Rivers throw the ball. Ryan Mathews is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the offense we have seen so far, as he is looking explosive, hungry,  and healthy.

Perhaps more than anything, this preseason has raised new questions about the direction of the 2013 Chargers offense. Reality should unfold very rapidly as fans eagerly await the team’s first real test: Wade Phillips’  Houston Texans defense.

 

Kyle Pardue

 

 

 

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