Setting the Stage:
We open on a Monday night, and the players are stoked over the opportunity to play on the national stage. Last season, every loss was magnified because we were competing with the Seahawks and Niners in the NFC West. (and 10 wins weren't enough to qualify us for the playoffs). Every game - no matter how early or how seemingly unimportant - becomes all the more precious. Like every other game on our schedule, this game is, therefore, a "must" game. Late Breaking - 9/7 - Zastudil injured a groin. Bishop was cut. The roster spot may (or may not) have been created to sign a punter. Otherwise, Catanzara might have to do the punting.
Not much to learn from for two reasons - (1) most if not all the starters for both teams didn't play. (2) The Cards and the Chargers played one another in that final preseason game. (You can bet your bippee that Arians and McCoy kept things extremely vanilla so as not to expose tendencies).
WR1 13 Allen 16 Ajirotutu 15 Inman
LT 77 Dunlap 69 W. Smith
LG 78 Rinehart 74 Ohrnberger
C 61 Hardwick 74 Ohrnberger
RG 63 Troutman 65 Watt
RT 76 Fluker 69 W. Smith
TE 85 Gates 89 L. Green
TE 88 D. Johnson 83 Phillips
WR2 80 M. Floyd 11 Royal
QB 17 Rivers 10 Clemens
RB 24 Mathews 39 Woodhead 34 D. Brown
DE 93 Campbell 96 K,Martin 95 Kelly
NT 92 D. Williams 66 Ta'amu
DT 98 Rucker 72 Stinson
SLB 91 Shaughnessy 94 S. Acho 53 Keiser
ILB 50 Foote 54 Demens 56 Carson
ILB 51 Minter 52 Bishop
WLB 55 Abraham 57 Okafor 97 Alexander
LCB 21 Peterson 28 Bethel
RCB 31 Cromartie 25 Powers
SS 22 Jefferson 36 Bucannon
FS 32 Mathieu 26 R. Johnson
Matchup: Charger Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
A key reason for San Diego's return to the playoffs with a 9 & 7 record last season was the return to form of QB Rivers under the tutilege of head coach Mike McCoy and his OC, former Cardinal HC Ken Whisenhunt (who has moved on this season). Most notable was Rivers' improved accuracy on deep throws and under pressure.
Traditionally San Diego's most dangerous receiver has been their tight end, Antonio Gates, but understudy Ladarious Green is emerging as the best run blocking TE on the squad as well as a deep receiving threat (averaging 19.0 yards per catch). WR Keenan Allen has developed into a reliable playmaker (ranked #10 by PFF in percentage of targeted passes caught and tied for #10 in tackles missed after the catch). There are concerns about LT King Dunlap's durability and consistency of play as River's blind-side protector.
The Cardinals (who signed Antonio Cromartie to pair up with fellow CB Patrick Peterson) may have the best CB tandem in pro football, but other areas of concern include (a) an anemic pass rush (at least during the preseason - probably due in part to John Abraham's late arrival) and (b) difficulty matching up with TE's in coverage (the Chargers have two outstanding TE's in Gates and Green). Improved play by Tony Jefferson, the arrival of top draft pick Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu's return from a badly injured knee figures to represent an upgrade at safety, but it may take a few games for us to see the results of this improvement. The loss of two Pro Bowl ILB's (Dansby and D Washington) and the season-ending injury to Darnell Dockett complicate matters, but it is felt that the defense is deep in backup talent and the creativity of DC Todd Bowles should make up for the loss of Dansby, Washington and Dockett both in coverage and in rushing the passer.
Key Matchup: Charger TE's vs. Cardinal pass defense.
Matchup: Charger Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
Ryan Matthews was finally healthy for an entire season and ranked #7 in rushing yardage in the NFL last season. The Chargers added breakaway capability with the addition of Donald Brown (second only to Andre Ellington in yards per carry). One other reason for the renaissance of the San Diego running game was improved run blocking by the O-line.
The Cardinal defense ranked #1 in the NFL in rush defense a year ago, and there's no reason why we shouldn't repeat in 2014. In fact, S/LB Deone Bucannon and ILB's Kevin Minter and Larry Foote could make us even better vs. the run. The Cardinal front seven is laced with experienced veteran leadership (which bodes well for our discipline in protecting our gaps and outside-contain vs. screens, misdirection and scrambles).
Key Matchup: Charger rushing attack vs. Cardinal rush defense.
WR1 11 Fitzgerald, 19 Ginn, 13 John Brown
LT 68 Veldheer, 79 Sowell
LG 62 Larsen, 61 Cooper
C 63 Sendlein, 62 Larsen
RG 74 Fanaika, 78 Watford
RT 70 Massie, 79 Sowell
TE 87 Niklas, 85 Fells
WR2 15 M. Floyd, 13 Jaron Brown
QB 03 Palmer, 05 Stanton 06 Thomas
RB 38 Ellington, 30 Taylor, 20 Dwyer, 39 Hughes
TE 89 Carlson, 84 Housler
LDE 91 Reyes 71 Guy
DT 98 Lissemore 92 Carrethers
RDE 94 Liuget 72 Palepoi
OLB 54 Ingram 93 Freeney 97 Attaochu
ILB 50 Te'o 52 R. Walker 59 Gachkar
ILB 56 Butler 53 Conner
OLB 96 J. Johnson 58 T. Williams
CB 26 Flowers 31 Marshall 23 S. Williams
CB 29 S. Wright 22 Verrett 20 C. Davis
SS 38 Gilchrist 37 Addae
FS 32 Weddle 25 Stuckey
Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Charger Pass Defense
Last season, when Carson Palmer was good, he was very very good, but when his pass blockers didn't give him enough time to locate his receivers and remain upright, his productivity could vanish. GM Steve Keim and Coach Arians did two things that should make Palmer very happy: (1) they (finally!) overhauled the offensive line by bringing in a "real" LT in Veldheer, along withthe versatile Ted Larsen or (eventually Jonathan Cooper) at LG, Paul Fanaika at RG and Bobby Massie at RT. Only center Lyle Sendlein remains from last year's starting squad. (2) to take some of the pressure off starting receivers (Fitzgerald and Floyd) they added two speedsters in veteran Ted Ginn and rookie sensation John Brown. Improved big play production by the "other Brown" (Jaron) is icing on the cake. More icing: If newly added veteran TE John Carlson can remain healthy, the Cardinal passing game could turn out to be something special.
Chargers have three pass rushing terrors in LB's Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram and DE Corey Luiget. But there is concern about pass coverage by Wright and Marshall (who ranked 6th and 9th worst among all NFL corners in coverage according to PFF. They brought in Brandon Flowers (who may be playing the back nine of his career) and rookie Jason Verrett (who is still fighting his way back from off-season shoulder surgery). One bright spot in pass coverage has been safety Eric Weddle (described by one writer as a "school teacher" type trying to keep control of a group of unruly kids in the secondary). But he may not be enough.
Key Matchup: Palmer and his receivers vs. San Diego corners.
Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Charger Run Defense
Keim and Arians decided in the off-season to make breakway speedster, Andre Ellington their all-purpose RB threat and hope to get him 20 - 25 touches a game in a myriad of ways (as a deep back, slot receiver, split out wide, on screens, set in motion etc.). When they need more "thump" between the tackles, the Cards will probably rely more on bigger backs like Dwyer and Taylor. Ellington led the NFL in yards per carry last season, but there are some concerns about overusing him (The Cards are carrying no other breakaway RB to step in for Ellington should he go down). Although the OL is supposedly much-improved in the run-game, we didn't see much proof of this in preseason - you could count the times you'd see a RB blow through an open hole for 4+ yards (let alone 20) on the fingers of one hand).
Fortunately, the Cards will be facing a Charger defense who (at least a year ago) looked anemic vs. the run - especially at the D-line level (tied for lowest run-stop percentage and 4th-worst run-defense grades, according to PFF). They have, however, gotten some production out of LB Donald Butler (despite an off-season in 2013) and from their safety, Weddle.
Key Matchup: Between the tackles - More Dwyer and Taylor than Ellington vs. the Charger front seven.
P 05 Scifres
K 09 Novak
H 05 Scifres
LS 47 Windt
KR 34 D. Brown
PR 11 Royal 13 K. Allen
K 07 Catanzaro
P 09 Zastudil
H 09 Zastudil
LS 82 Leach
KR 19 Ginn 12 John Brown
PR 19 Ginn 21 Peterson 12 John Brown
Matchup: Charger Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
Novak outkicked Catanzaro a week ago in the SD vs. AZ preseason tilt. Zastudil can be deadly inside the ten as a directional punter bit shanked three punts a week ago in SD. In the return game, D. Brown has breakaway pop. Royal and Allen aren't slouches either, but Ginn should have a leg up on all of them as an experienced return man who know how to make the first man miss and can take it to the house every time he touches the ball. A week ago, Cardinal coverage men outplayed Chargers special teamers. This advantage could prove crucial in a close contest.
Key matchups: Novak vs. Catanzaro (FG's). Ginn vs. SD coverage teams.
We saw last season what can happen when a football team in an extremely competitive division gets off to a so-so start. Every game is important. Every seemingly insignificant early-season loss can create a hole too deep to dig out of. On paper, we appear to match up favorably with the Chargers, but - unless we can turn this into an actual "W" - "paper don't mean nuthin'."