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Key Matchups: Chargers at Chiefs
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Here are five keys to the game heading into Sunday’s match between the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs:
1. Antonio Gates vs. Eric Berry– The Chargers and Chiefs have authored some memorable games throughout their history, and enter their 112th showdown deadlocked at t 55-55-1. In recent seasons, it’s also featured a terrific individual one-on-one matchup as Antonio Gates battles Eric Berry. Each player has established himself as one of the elite playmakers at his position, and has grown accustomed to squaring off against the other twice a year. With Gates healthy after nagging injuries and Berry back after a bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Head Coach Mike McCoy explained how the clash between the two All-Pros is always a must watch matchup:
“It’s a great matchup with the two of them. You look at it, and it’s a 50/50 out there with those guys the way they’ve competed. There’s the good and bad of every play. They’re true competitors. Two of the great players in the NFL going at it every time. So it’s great to see a guy like (Berry) come back and make it to where he is today. He’s his old self again, which is great. Just his attitude and his approach to everything, and what he had to get back to where he is; it’s great to see guys like that back in the game.”
2. Keep 17 Clean – Philip Rivers has had time to operate for most of the season, but was under duress most of last week against the Broncos. Denver hit Rivers 11 times and tallied four sacks, and number 17 struggled with his worst passer rating of the year. Once again, the Chargers had to shuffle the offensive line as King Dunlap (ankle) and D.J. Fluker (concussion) were inactive. Both stalwarts up front have returned to practice as full participants this week, and Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich explained what it would mean to have a fully healthy O-Line to keep Rivers upright against a ferocious Chiefs pass rush:
“Everybody knows the injuries that we’ve had, and how we’ve had to shuffle the o-line. For the most part, our o-line has done I think a very good job protecting the passer. Like any other offensive line in the league, you have ups and downs. And so last week wasn’t a shining moment, but as a whole, the offensive line has protected well and we’re getting two guys back. King is to me a premiere pass blocker, so he can block the edge the best with anybody. Fluker brings that element of physical toughness. We’ve had so many games where we had three offensive line starters out, so now to get most guys back, it not only gives you a sense of confidence, but it also gives you depth so that if somebody gets nicked in the game ,you just plug in. We feel we have guys who have played a lot of reps.”
3. Stick with Smith – Alex Smith isn’t just one of the most efficient passers in the game today, he’s on a streak rarely seen before in NFL history. The quarterback is known for his ball security, and is in the midst of the third longest streak attempting a pass without an interception. Smith hasn’t thrown a pick since Week 3 vs. the Green Bay Packers, spanning 305 attempts to mark the third longest stretch in NFL history. He is three attempts shy of tying Bernie Kosar for second and 53 from Tom Brady’s all-time record. Smith is a handful as an athletic 6-4, 217-pound passer who can also beat you with his feet. Even though the quarterback is on a historic stretch in terms of ball security, Defensive Coordinator John Pagano said it won’t change how his defense is run:
“No. There have been opportunities. I’m not going to document every one, but there have been opportunities on tape where guys have hands on the football and you’ve got to make that play. The thing with Alex is he’s smart with the football because he’s not going to put himself in a bad position to make a bad throw. And their offense is set up for him to make quick decisions, see it, and if it is not there he has the ability to scramble at a high level. You have to lower your target on him because he’s such a big, strong quarterback that you have to make sure you wrap him up (to) get him down. From our last time playing him, there are guys that bounce off of him. When you go up high, he has that type of wiriness. He is a strong, big athletic quarterback that can run.”
4. Ball Security a Must – On the flip side, the Chargers offense must protect the football with the same efficiency as Smith. The team coughed it up three times last week and put it on the ground on two other occasions. Two of the turnovers came in Denver territory while the Broncos returned the other for a pick-six. Melvin Gordon had a pair of those fumbles (one recovered), and McCoy noted earlier this week that there will be a bullseye on the rookie running back as defenders target him to turn it over. Reich agreed with the head coach, explaining how that is always the case for a player after he struggles with protection. As a result, Gordon and the Bolts must rise to the challenge:
“I think usually if a guy puts the ball on the ground, anybody at any position, there’s always weeks you’re going to have a bullseye. As a great player, you always welcome the challenge and just fight through it….You’ve got to balance it. Probably avoid the extremes of saying we’ll just let a guy keep going no matter what, and you don’t want to go to the other extremes saying no, he’s done. So you find a role, you want to keep everybody playing and we play guys anywhere. So you just kind of keep rolling, and then you adjust as you go in a game. As you get a feel for the game, you get a feel for the look in a guy’s eyes. How confident they are feeling, and you get a feel for what you are trying to do. ”
5. Bombs Away with M-80– Malcom Floyd is one of the best in the league at stretching the field. Against a Chiefs defense loaded with size and length, the Chargers will look to hit M-80 deep in order to soften things up underneath. Floyd has caught 23 passes for 436 yards and three touchdowns this season, averaging a team-high 19.0 yards per game. Reich noted how against this Chiefs defense, his prowess with the deep ball is especially important:
“I think Malcom matches up well against most corners just because he can run, he can high-point the ball (and) is always a threat to go deep. They have length and they can run. Particularly (Sean Smith) has length. So Malcom adds that threat to our offense that quarterbacks need. At any time, Philip just has the confidence to throw the ball deep to Malcom, whether it’s a signal to him, a designed play or something they do on their own. And then Malcom has those special abilities to make those plays.”Read