Putting pressure on a quarterback, even if it does not result in a sack, is an important component of a successful NFL defense. Through two games the Bolts only have four sacks, but that doesn't mean they're not making life difficult for opposing passers.
Melvin Ingram, in particular, has been a thorn in the side of Cardinals QB Carson Palmer and Seahawks Pro Bowler Russell Wilson. The Bolts outside linebacker has one sack, but is among the league leaders in QB pressures (any hit, hurry or sack) and really looks like he's coming in to his own in his third NFL season.
Unfortunately, for the second straight year, Ingram will miss a large chunk of time with an injury.
On Saturday, the Chargers placed Ingram on "Reserve-Injured, Designated For Return" with a hip injury. Ingram had already been ruled out of Sunday's game in Buffalo with what the official injury report stated was a hamstring ailment.
Ingram will be eligible to return to the active roster after San Diego's bye week on November 9. If there's a silver lining to this, it's that Melvin seems to be a quick healer. In 2013 he returned from a torn ACL in a ridiculous 29 weeks, helping the Chargers earn a playoff berth and making his first career interception in a Wild Card Playoff win in Cincinnati.
So, who is going to pick up his production? Perhaps a man who is already matching Melvin this year.
Dwight Freeney is in his 13th NFL season. He missed 12 games last year after tearing a quadriceps muscle in Week 4 against the Cowboys. It might have been your proverbial "blessing in disguise."
It's only a two game sample, but so far it looks like Freeney took a Tardis to his rehab. If I didn't know any better, I'd say Freeney looks like the 2009 version that had 13.5 sacks in just 14 games, helping the Colts reach the Super Bowl.
Freeney is tied for the league lead in pressures and got his first full sack as a San Diego Charger last weekend against Russell Wilson. He'll be starting again, with fellow veteran Jarret Johnson on the opposite side. However, those guys combined have played 25 years in the NFL. They're remarkably durable, but they will been to get a breather here and there.
Rookie linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu is questionable to play with a hamstring injury. If he can't go, the Bolts will be dangerously thin at linebacker. And that is what leads us to this week's three players to watch for:
Reggie Walker, LB:
One of those moves Tom Telesco made that didn't move the news needle at the time, but has turned out to be a fantastic signing. Walker can play both inside and outside. Last year he played in all 16 games, starting six, and finished with 3.0 sacks and a forced fumble. He's the guy who delivered than crushing shot on Wilson in the 4th quarter last weekend, helping force a 4th down that ultimately led to Chargers kicker Nick Novak nailing a field goal to put the game away. If Attaochu can't go, or is limited by his injury, Walker will have to spend more time outside, which is his natural spot anyway. Whenever he's on the field, he'll need to be one of many defenders keeping an eye on C.J. Spiller. Against Seattle, the Chargers defense allowed two touchdown passes inside the red zone, both to wide open running backs, both on plays Defensive Coordinator John Pagano termed this week as mental breakdowns. Spiller is one of the most elusive backs in the NFL. If he gets the ball in space like Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin did, he could run to Niagara Falls and nobody would touch him.
Marcus Gilchrist, SS:
The Bills are averaging 26 points a game, but have only earned 28 first downs. The Chargers racked up 26 first downs last week alone. Buffalo does not exactly run a "ball-control offense." The Bills rely on explosive plays that eat up huge chunks of yards. Rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins is "explosive" incarnate. Last week against Miami, Watkins caught eight passes for 117 yards and his first NFL touchdown. Second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel already feels awfully comfortable throwing at Watkins, targeting him on 11 of his 26 passing attempts. While the Chargers will have 2-time Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers back, and Shareece Wright and Jason Verrett have played extremely well through two games, Watkins is the kind of threat you need to seriously think about double-teaming, especially because no other Buffalo WR has really established himself as a consistent threat. Gilchrist, a converted CB, will likely spend a good chunk of time finding out where Watkins is and offering help in coverage. If Watkins makes a catch, it is imperative to tackle him immediately. His combination of size and speed make him extremely dangerous if he gets going. Gilchrist will have chances to take Watkins down immediately. If he doesn't tackle well, Watkins will be joining Spiller on I-190 North.
Branden Oliver, RB:
This is a bit of a wild card pick because, although Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich said this week he expects Oliver to get snaps at running back (due to Ryan Mathews' knee injury), there's really no way to tell how much time Oliver will be in the offensive backfield. However, I have a hunch he'll be returning kickoffs, and the University of Buffalo product has worked out with the return teams in practice. Oliver has good speed and is an underrated open field runner, making him a potentially dangerous return man. The Bolts will have to be solid on special teams because the Bills run out arguably the best special teams unit in the NFL. Spiller has already returned a kickoff for a touchdown, punter Colton Schmidt has already stuck seven of his nine punts inside the 20 (with no touchbacks), and kicker Dan Carpenter has made eight of nine field goal tries. If Oliver can provide a spark in an area where Buffalo believes it has an advantage, the momentum swings to San Diego's sideline.
I never want to hear about this whole "West coast teams can't win flying East" thing again. At least, not when the Chargers are involved.
Last year under Mike McCoy the Bolts went 3-2 in games that start at 10:00 a.m. San Diego time. Since 2009, the Chargers are 10-8 in early games. Typically, west coast teams lose about 70-percent of early games played three time zones away, so obviously the Bolts have figured something out.
While the Bills have a Top-10, maybe even Top-5, defense, I simply cannot overlook the discrepancy at quarterback. Manuel has never topped 300 yards passing in 12 career starts, and only gone over 200 yards five times. He's a young QB who's still figuring things out.
On the other hand, you have Philip Rivers, a man Seahawks CB Richard Sherman called an "elite" quarterback just last week. Sherman does not hand out false praise. When there is this much distance between the men playing the most important position on the field, I have to give the edge to experience.
Look for Rivers to play another solid, if not entirely mistake-free, ballgame while Manuel gives the ball away at least once and has trouble finding his playmakers.
Final score: Chargers 23, Bills 17