On Sunday the Chargers play the Broncos at Qualcomm Stadium. The talk of the NFL in 2013 has been Denver's offense, and rightfully so.
Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano, who has drawn up game plans to stifle some pretty good offenses the last two years, has spent a whole lot of time breaking down Peyton Manning and company. His assessment is simple and accurate.
"They've number one in everything," said Pagano.
That is not an exaggeration. The Broncos lead the league in total yards, points scored, points per game, passing yards, passer rating, yards per play, first downs per game, field goal efficiency, Red Zone efficiency and 3rd down conversion success.
At this point, NFL defensive coordinators are more scared to face Peyton Manning than they would be locking themselves in a room with carving utensils and Hannibal Lecter.
Manning has already thrown 29 touchdown passes. No other offense in the league has scored more than 25 touchdowns, TOTAL! But, Coach Pagano has stopped Peyton before. He knows the blueprint.
"Our theme of the week is disguise and disrupt," said Pagano. "Disguise and show the different kinds of looks, and disrupt as much as we can, whether it's in the run game or the passing game. You've got to be able to put pressure on this quarterback. If he sits in the pocket and has the comfort that he needs it makes it a long day for anyone."
The question is, does he have the personnel to pull it off? The Chargers secondary has been a primary source of frustration. The Bolts are giving up a league-worst 6.5 yards per play, which does not bode well for an afternoon against Manning.
San Diego's defense must have help from its offense, first, by not turning the ball over like they did last year at the Q (six times), and second, by simply not letting the Broncos on the field.
The Chargers lead the league in drives that last at least 10 plays (20). Those drives take a lot of time off the clock and often end by putting points on the board (a league-high 87 of them). Plus, they have the added benefit of keeping Manning on the sideline where he can't do any damage.
So, after all that, here's your list of three players to watch for Sunday's showdown in Mission Valley.
King Dunlap, LT:
Sure, Dunlap protects Philip Rivers' blind side, but he's on this list because of the running game. When the Chargers run around the left end of the line, they average a robust 5.6 yards per carry, 2nd-best in the NFL (behind the Rams). When they run up the middle, the average drops more than a full yard. When they run around the right end, the average drops nearly two full yards. Dunlap and Chad Rinehart, who likely returns to the starting lineup this week after Johnnie Troutman played extremely well in his absence. If the Chargers are going to have any chance at all they MUST run the football. Going over the left side is their ticket to big gains.
Donald Butler, LB:
He is back from his groin injury, and he is going to have one heck of a challenge. Denver runs so much play-action, and Manning changes plays so often at the line, Butler will have to diagnose what exactly is going on almost constantly. His positioning both pre-snap and in the first few seconds of a play will be critical in stopping the Broncos from getting those plays that rip off large chunks of yardage. A few years back Stephen Cooper had a way to figure out what Manning was doing. If Butler can do the same, the Chargers have a shot.
Kendall Reyes, DE:
Last year, his rookie season, Reyes got his first two NFL sacks against Peyton Manning. This year his two sacks have been of Tony Romo and Andrew Luck. Reyes seems to have a knack for dropping Pro Bowl-caliber QB's (and Greg McElroy). As coach Pagano mentioned, putting pressure on Manning is absolutely vital to slowing his offense down. Reyes is physical enough to be one of the guys to do that, and his experience against the Broncos from a year ago proves the moment won't be too big for him. If Kendall can get to Manning again, and maybe not even sack him, just get there fast enough to disrupt the timing and alter throws, again, the Chargers have a shot.
I have hemmed and hawed about this for a while and all I can come up with is: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.
Sure, Manning will get his numbers padded up nice like he always does. But, he will also make at least one costly mistake. Derek Cox, back in the starting lineup after being benched late in the Chargers' loss in Washington, returns with a renewed purpose to play his best game as a Bolt and pick off a pass.
The Chargers offense will control the ball with four different drives that go at least 10 plays and end with points, keeping Manning and company at bay. Philip Rivers tops 400 passing yards for the franchise record fourth time this season. Keenan Allen will have his fourth 100-yard game in his last five outings, this time getting in the end zone twice. Antonio Gates will also score, and Ryan Mathews will go back to his success against the Broncos (three career 100-yard games vs. Denver), scoring a pair of rushing touchdowns.
It'll be a shootout like you'd expect to see from an Oregon vs. Baylor game, and it will leave the San Diego fans a very happy bunch.
Final score: Chargers 53, Broncos 48