Heading into NFL Network’s first “Thursday Night Football” broadcast, the Raiders and Chargers (both 4-4) are looking for something to tip control of the AFC West in their favor.
In a matchup this tight, we could see the quarterbacks — Phillip Rivers and Carson Palmer — as the tipping point.
Let’s break down these two offenses through the gaze of these two signal callers:
After a breakout performance against the Packers last week (385 yards and four touchdowns), Rivers seems back on track and throwing bombs to WR Vincent Jackson.
However, Rivers, the quintessential pocket passer, leads an offense that ranks 31st in passing against the blitz. Watching coaching tape, we pinned 10 of the 19 sacks on Rivers this season as coverage sacks, when he holds the ball and refuses to budge in the pocket.
Rivers will have opportunities to sit in the pocket against a defense that likes to send four-man pressure. With only 3 sacks in their last two games, each coming on five- or six-man pressure, the Raiders aren’t getting it done with four rushers.
If the cradle remains clean, Jackson is going to be Rivers’ main option. He has been targeted more than any other receiver — 64 times — but has only hauled in 34 of those attempts. Jackson will certainly have opportunities to get open versus the Raiders, who are a traditionally man-to-man team, and will be the focal point with Malcolm Floyd out.
Rivers’ next most targeted receiver is RB Mike Tolbert with 44. Do you think the Chargers miss RB Darren Sproles? We do, because, while Tolbert’s receptions come mainly on check-downs, the Chargers designed routes for Sproles, who was a mismatch in coverage. The Raiders have great safeties in Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff, who provide a solid matchup versus Tolbert, RB Ryan Mathews or TE Antonio Gates in the red zone. If needed, Branch and Huff can also provide pressure as blitzers.
Palmer might run an offense predicated on the run and a lot of two-back formations, but the Raiders are dangerous because of their ability to line up in 20-, 21- or 22-personnel and still be effective in the passing game.
We profiled FB Marcel Reece earlier this week, who is a matchup problem for defenses. The Raiders are second only to the Saints in number of plays (111) with two backs in the game and lead the league with plays of 20-plus yards (28) on those plays. The Raiders’ play-calling is not dictated by their personnel, which will put the Chargers’ defense in a bind.
At the same time, Palmer still does not look in-sync with his receivers and has not been able to sustain drives (the Raiders averaged 4.5 plays per drive versus the Broncos). While losing RB Darren McFadden hurts — Michael Bush’s 4.22 yards per carry is a drop-off from McFadden’s 5.43 — Palmer’s ability to utilize his array of weapons will be a key to the game.
If the Raiders can hold onto the football, they still have a run game that can move the chains.
Coming off Rivers’ explosive performance in the second half versus the Packers, which could signal the return of the offense we are used to seeing in November, we will toward the Chargers in this one. Neither team is really at the top of their game — symbolic of the .500 records throughout the AFC West — but San Diego has at least one thing going for it: a franchise quarterback.
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