Photos and VideosMore Photos and Videos
Darren Sproles carries the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs at Qualcomm Stadium on Dec. 12, 2010, in San Diego.
The game film can blur and shake. It can veer to the side. It can zoom too far in and zoom too far out.
But it never lies.
On Nov. 22, the Chargers wide receivers were given so much space to run their routes, the Broncos safeties were nearly off the video screen.
The next week, the Colts had their safeties play similarly deep, only this time the linebackers followed, playing deeper coverage than past film had shown.
Chargers running back Darren Sproles said it is a trend that has continued in the past two games. Whether it will continue against the 49ers, the team will have to wait until after Thursday's 5:20 p.m. kickoff to learn.
“That's why now we keep getting a lot of check-down [passes] and are able to run the ball,” said Sproles, who had eight carries for 53 yards and five catches for 51 yards against the Chiefs on Sunday. “They're scared of the deep ball. That's the thing.”
The fear is warranted.
The Chargers passing offense averages 8.8 yards per attempt, a distant speck from the league's standard deviation and nearly a full yard ahead of the next best team.
Wide receiver Malcom Floyd runs a higher percentage of deep routes -- 52.9 percent -- than any other player in the NFL. Last year, Floyd finished second (50 percent) in the category, and the now-healthy Vincent Jackson (calf) ranked sixth (42.1 percent).
Between the offense's design to look downfield, quarterback Philip Rivers' deep-ball accuracy and the ongoing focus to establish a running game, the Chargers have started a game of cat-and-mouse with opposing safeties.
Playing deep forfeits room for check downs and a running game that totaled 207 yards last week in a 31-0 win. Covering at shallow or even regular depth literally plays into Floyd's and Jackson's hands.
Rivers calls it “the game within the game,” the one the camera sees and the casual observer does not.
“The biggest thing, I guess, about our passing game is to get a big play, it doesn't have to be a long pass,” Rivers said. “With the guys we have who can run after the catch, and Darren and the different things we can do, we can throw a short pass and make long runs.
“And if they're going to play you that soft in coverage, you've got to be able to run the ball. Once you're able to get the run going, they can't stay back there. ...It's not just calling a run or calling the pass. It's playing chess with that opposing defensive coordinator.”
In three of the past four games, dating back to when they faced the Broncos, the Chargers (7-6) have won while scoring 31 or more points. That short surge now has them one game back in the AFC West.
If they win their final three games and the Chiefs lose but one, the Chargers will win their fifth straight division title.
Check downs. Checkmate.