Over the coming weeks, we’ll be checking in with the Chargers’ position coaches and coordinators to get the inside scoop. We continue with Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.
Evaluating the Defense with DC John Pagano
Chargers.com:Right now in the middle of May, what are your general overall thoughts on the offense? What is your focus on?
Whisenhunt:Well, obviously we want to be better overall. The number one thing that comes to mind is running the football. We want to get back to some of the things that will help us be more efficient overall. We want to stay on the field (more) and have longer, more sustained drives. But there are a lot of good things we have in place offensively, and I’m excited. We have a good staff and a good group of players. As with anything in football, it’s about developing chemistry that brings you together as a team. We feel good about where we are at that point, but understand we have a lot of progress to make.
Chargers.com:There’s been a lot of talk externally between being in shotgun compared to under center. What is your philosophy between operating the offense in both formations? Is there a concerted effort to be more balanced and what is the benefit of each?
Whisenhunt: I think it depends, and a lot of it goes back to what you are trying to do (each game). When you are in shotgun, it enables you to do some different things. But a lot of times it is good to be under center, go downhill and get after guys. It makes the linemen feel like bad asses. Part of that is being able to run the football better. It sets up some of your play action. But, there are a lot more versatile things you can do from shotgun from the standpoint of your back being able to cross protect from both sides. When you have a quarterback like Philip (Rivers) that understands protections, it can really help with that because when the defense brings pressure, and you don’t have to throw it quick but can actually let a play develop, you can really hurt a team that way. It’s important to do both. We had a pretty good balance with that in 2013.
Chargers.com:You mentioned a need to improve the run game. After you were hired in January, you mentioned how excited you were to get to work with Melvin Gordon as you were a fan of his coming out of college. What are your thoughts after getting some more time to evaluate him?
Whisenhunt:I’ve seen some tape from practice last year, and some games he played last year. He shows flashes of what he can do. He has to be more consistent. He has to understand what we’re trying to do. Part of that is finding what he is most comfortable with, and which run schemes will fit him. That is all the process of growing together. Like I’ve said before, coming out last year I thought he was a very talented football player, and he has those same traits. He is a big guy and can do just about all the things you want a running back to do. One of the areas I was most impressed with watching from last year was how well he caught the ball out of the backfield. He didn’t show that much as a running back coming out of Wisconsin, but he made some nice plays on the ball coming out of the backfield, so if we can add that versatility, he has a chance to be a really good player.
Chargers.com:It’s more than just Melvin, though. Do you think there is too much focus on him when talking about the running backs, and not the group as a whole? What is your philosophy on how to use the backs we’ve got when you also have Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver at your disposal.
Whisenhunt:Danny rushed for 429 yards and averaged 4.0 yards per carry back in 2013 when I was here, and he was very successful in that role. Ronnie Brown did a good job, too. So I think you need all those guys. There will be some instances and some packages where we have two backs on the field at the same time. And I’m not just talking about a fullback, but two halfbacks. Danny is going to get his opportunities because he’s earned that. He’s a hell of a football player. I’m very impressed with Branden and just watching him play. We will have different packages with and for all those guys so they will have an opportunity to be involved. If you look back to 2013, Ryan Mathews had the most carries, but Danny had a lot as well. And he had a lot of yards (1,034 combined). I would call us a running back by packages team. We’re trying to create matchups and put guys in positions with things they do best. If you think you are going to give one guy all the carries, well it’s hard to last a whole season.
Chargers.com:When it comes to the offensive line, there are a lot of returning pieces. Still, in the last two weeks we drafted Max Tuerk and Donavon Clark, and agreed to terms with Matt Slauson. How much is it a competition to find the best five right now?
Whisenhunt:When you go through tough times and a tough season and say there is going to be competition, you can really back that up. I don’t think anybody is comfortable with their job after a 4-12 season. Everybody has to have a little fear for their job because a lot of the time that is when they play their best. So obviously, there will be competition. If someone is pushing you to play better, that makes everyone better. Chemistry is so important. The front five is the engine for the offense. They are the motor that drives the team. They are on the field every snap, there is a tremendous amount of communication involved between them and they are not doing their job on their own most of the time. You are working with someone else to be successful. That takes communication and work together. We just have to figure out who those guys are. Who will step up and do it? We need to find the group that works well together.
Chargers.com:We’ll get back to the run game in a bit, but I want to switch gears for a second to the wide receivers, namely Keenan Allen. You were with him as a rookie. What do you want to see out of him this year?
Whisenhunt:He’s grown. He obviously understands the game, the speed and what he has to do. The one thing that shows up all the time is that he makes plays. But he is at the point now where this is an important year because he’s going to be a focal point. He is going to have to win one-on-one matchups. That is something that is a real testament to a receiver. There have been a couple of games where he struggled at times to get off of a good corner. Look at (Darrelle) Revis. If he wants to be viewed as one of those guys who can change a game and make those plays, then he has some guys in our division that he is going to have to go up against and win. That is going to be a challenge for him. There is a lot of talk about him, and he is a good football player. He’s been productive. But it really is going to come down to Keenan being really focused on techniques, details, doing it the right way and seeing if he can do that.
Chargers.com:With Travis Benjamin, everyone talks about how fast he is. Is that something you have seen already, or is--…
Whisenhunt:Oh, no question! You can see his speed. Obviously there are things we will try to do with him to put him in position to get some shots down the field. But a lot of times with someone like him, he takes pressures off the other guys. The threat of that big play is equally important. In today’s game, it comes down to matchups. When you have guys who create those matchups, that’s always good. But what’s even better is when you can move them around so defenses don’t know where they are going to be or how they are going to match up with him. We know Keenan can do it. We know we can do that with Antonio (Gates). Now we have to see if we can do it with Travis, and some other guys, too. If we can create different matchups with different players in different spots, we feel we have the potential to be an effective receiving group.
Chargers.com:We can’t talk about the offense and not discuss Philip Rivers. There are so many superlatives to describe him. Fiery. Leader. Competitive. Passionate. So on. But which to you is the one that best encompasses number 17?
Whisenhunt:He loves football. You can say all those things and really not know the guy’s desire for football. This guy loves football. He can sit in there, watch tape, talk about plays, be engaged and help players. That is what drives him. By nature, quarterbacks are the most competitive guys. But you can tell that Philip loves his family, he obviously has strong faith, and he loves football. And that to me is something that is an important piece. You see that anytime you talk with him and he is on the field. I have tremendous respect for that.
Chargers.com:Moving on to the tight ends, what did you think when we drafted Hunter Henry?
Whisenhunt:We had him rated high. To me, he was the top of the group in the tight end class. He has a good combination of size and speed. He catches the ball really well and works hard in the run game. He played in a more conventional offense (at Arkansas) opposed to the spread offenses, so we got to see him do some things as a tight end and as a blocker and a receiver that you will see tight ends at this level do. The thing I’m excited about with him is he is one of the few I’ve seen come out over the past years who is good (catching and blocking). And he’s further along in both. Now that’s not to say he’s ready to go by any stretch of the imagination, but he is further along than most college tight ends coming out. Generally, those guys in college aren’t blocking. They are just pass receivers, or they are the inline blocker and that’s it. It is getting hard to find those tight ends who can do both.
Chargers.com:Finally, getting back to the run game as mentioned earlier, why did we bring in the two fullbacks we did in Derek Watt and Chris Swain?
Whisenhunt:Well with Watt, number one, he played the position in college for a team that ran the football a lot more conventionally. He’s athletic, he can play the position and hopefully he can contribute on special teams. As a fullback, we know he can do it. With Swain, he is somebody we have to find out about. He has a little bit more skill as a running back type, but his best track for success in the NFL is to do some of those things as a fullback and some as a halfback. Like a Le’Ron McClain role as a combination guy. Those guys are valuable , too. But we have to find out what their versatility is. You can’t just play fullback in this league. You don’t just line up with two backs and run your offense that way for 60 plays a game. You just don’t see that anymore. We are looking for a guy who can fill multiple roles for us. Can he flex out? Can he do something that will create distress for a defense? That’s really what this is all about. We have two guys right now we feel really good about.