By Max Luckan
The playoffs are closer than they appear. And with both the San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers sitting at 4-4, this week’s matchup at Raymond James Stadium is somewhat of an indicator game, and also a fairly important one at that.
Both teams are in a position to make the playoffs, but the Chargers have a better shot than the Bucs currently do because the AFC is a much weaker conference at the moment. Sunday’s game should be intriguing, as Chargers head coach Norv Turner is trying to secure his future with the team and Bucs head coach Greg Schiano is looking to lead his team to a third straight victory.
Currently, the Chargers hold a 4-4 record and are 3-1 in their division, the AFC West. And perhaps rather surprising is the fact that the Chargers are only a game behind the division-leading Denver Broncos, who are sitting at 5-3 on the year.
The most disappointing loss of the year to date came against the Cleveland Browns a few weeks back. The Browns were able to hold off the Chargers for a 7-6 victory in what could have been Norv Turner’s last game as head coach of the team. However, the team rebounded with a solid 31-13 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last Thursday.
Chargers on Offense
Stagnant at times, the Chargers offense is currently ranked 26th in the NFL with an average of 323.1 yards per game. However, the Chargers only average 23.1 points per game, compared to the Bucs’ average of 28.2.
Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is a large part of the offense, both on the ground and in the passing game. With quarterback Philip Rivers struggling at times this season, the running game has been quite a large chunk of the offense. But Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle also get their fair share of touches. The Chargers use all three frequently, and they are all threats to catch passes out of the backfield.
To that end, the Chargers use their running backs in the passing game more than any other team in the league, and that is evident on the tape. And because the backs are so involved in the passing attack, the opposing linebackers are forced to stay put and can’t drop deep into coverage.
As far as offensive strategies, Mathews doesn’t run between the tackles very often. Many of the run plays are stretches or pitches to the outside. Rivers also likes to check-down to the running backs frequently and then take the occasional shot down the field to Antonio Gates, which is something to look out for. Obviously, the tight ends are very involved in the passing game for San Diego.
Chargers on Defense
The Chargers fair a little better on defense than they do on offense. At the moment, the dense is ranked 9th overall in the league, allowing only 19.6 points per game.
San Diego runs a base 3-4 defense, which means that most of the time they have three defensive linemen and four linebackers.
While they don’t blitz a lot, the defense appears to be geared towards stopping the run. Quite frequently, they’ll put seven or eight defenders in the box in order to slow down the opposing running backs.
Takeo Spikes and Shaun Phillips, two of the better linebackers in the NFL, have combined for 70 tackles and two forced fumbles so far this season. Meanwhile, the secondary is solid as well powered by free safety Eric Weddle and corner Quentin Jammer. Weddle has two interceptions to his credit this year.
Chargers Players to Watch
Ryan Mathews: Some say Mathews is injury-prone, others say he coughs up the football too much. But the fact of the matter is that Mathews has speed and the elusiveness to get to the outside and break off big runs. In order to contain him, the Bucs can’t allow him to get to the outside and force him to run between the tackles.
Philip Rivers: Rivers has really struggled at times this year. Against the Chiefs, however, he was excellent. Rivers likes to throw to tight end Antonio Gates, and he does so successfully most of the time. Under pressure, Rivers has been hesitant this year, so the key is to bring the heat.
Eric Weddle: Weddle is sort of a wildcard in the Chargers’ secondary because he doesn’t do one thing extremely well, but he’s good at a lot of things. He can read the quarterback and can come up to stop the run. An eye needs to be kept on him.
The Chargers boast an 8-1 all-time record against the Bucs, which includes a 5-0 record in Tampa. This game will certainly be a challenge for the young Bucs, who are looking to peak at the right time and make a push for the playoffs. As for the Chargers, they’re looking to get some consistency into their game in a season that has been played on-edge so far.
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Max Luckan lives in Tampa, FL and is a sports writer covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NFL. Luckan has been covering the Buccaneers for a few years now. You can find more of his work at Examiner.com.