The Battle of the Tight Ends: Cowboys vs. Chargers Preview

The Chargers and Cowboys both lead their respective divisions, but neither has time to relax.  San Diego has a chance to secure the second seed in the AFC.  If they slip, they could fall back to the Broncos, who lie just one game behind them in the standings.

The Cowboys want to reclaim the 3rd NFC seed they lost to the Cardinals last week and also maintain their tie-breaker edge over the Eagles, who match Dallas' 8-4 record.  The teams will take somewhat different approaches.  The Cowboys will play the inside game, attacking the spine of San Diego's defense.  The Chargers, on the other hand, will again rely on their superb passing attack to probe the Cowboys' secondary.

When San Diego Has the Ball

The Chargers line has been dinged up all year.  They miss C Nick Hardwick.  Their once-feared running attack has fallen down a notch; both LaDainian Tomlinson and speed back Darren Sproles average 3.3 yards per carry.  Yet, the Chargers have yet to score less than 21 points this year.  They've averaged 34 points the last month. 

Norv Turner has ridden quarterback Philip Rivers, who is having his typical year;  lots of touchdowns, few turnovers.  He has a trio of tall receivers and a speed tight end in Antonio Gates, who is back in prime form this season after some injury woes the past two years. 

The Chargers' offensive scheme will remind you of Turner's packages at Dallas in the '90s.  He's not big on formation juggling.  He uses a base two back, two receiver set, and will switch out to three receivers when the situation calls for it. 

He still runs quite a bit more than the percentages suggest, at 46%, but the Chargers make their living through the air.  When they run, you'll see the same base package Dallas still uses:  stretch plays, lead draws, bend counters, "power" counters and straight up isolation runs.  Tomlinson remains the feature back, fulfilling the Marion Barber role in their attack; his 168 carries are just more than double those Sproles gets, though Sproles is more of the 3rd down,  option.  He'll get big plays off draws, but he only gets around 6 carries per game, roughly on par with Felix Jones.

Sproles' real value comes as a receiver. He runs delays and a lot of screens when the Chargers catch teams blitzing.  He averages almost 12 yards per catch, a huge number for a back.  He gets about 4 passes per game, so the Cowboys linebackers, still smarting from the 74 yard tattoo they got from Brandon Jacobs last week, will have to locate Sproles whenever he's on the field. 

When Philip Rivers does throw, he looks primarily for two targets: Gates and Vincent Jackson.  Gates' 14.8 yards per catch are a career best, in a season where he's a primary starter.  He'll likely draw Gerald Sensabaugh, who has been very good at covering flexed running backs and tight ends this year.  Gates is another class of player, however, and Sensabaugh and FS Alan Ball will have to tackle smartly. 

Wade Phillips has been a lot more blitz happy mid-season, but I have the suspicion he'll dust off the type of game plans we saw earlier this year, where he rushed four most of the time and played a lot more zone.  His secondary misses Ken Hamlin and he wants to avoid putting his inside linebackers, Bradie James and Keith Brooking, one-on-one with Tomlinson or Sproles in space.  Coverage is not their strong suit.

The Giants used a similar game plan five weeks ago and held the Chargers to a season-low 21 points.  They kept the Chargers runners under control.  They let Gates and Jackson get some yards but avoided the big pass plays that Rivers can generate when he's blitzed and his group of giraffes can out jump and out muscle opposing secondaries. 

When the Cowboys Have the Ball

Chargers DC Ron Rivera played under Buddy Ryan in Chicago (he was Mike Singletary's backup on the '85 Bears) and he coaches under Jim Johnson at Philadelphia.  He has been a steady captain of the Chargers D since taking over for Ted Cottrell, after he was fired mid-way through the '08 campaign.

Rivera's pedigree suggests that he'll blitz you to death, but he has actually been rather restrained in his approach.  He plays a lot of basic fronts, rushes four most of the time, and plays contain behind them.  He will blitz, and uses a wide variety of packages.  He relies more on the element of surprise, however, thinking he'll get the most out of a limited number of overloads. 

Rivera has had to play with a reduced roster.  Injuries have wiped out his defensive line this year.  He lost NT Jamaal Williams early and has made do with a rotation of Ian Scott and Ogembi Nwagbuo.  They're both a lit on the light side; neither tops 305 pounds.   The Chargers inside backers are also a bit light.  Former Cowboy Kevin Burnett lists at 240 lbs. but his weight in Dallas was in the 228 range.  Draw your own conclusions. 

The Chargers are also dinged up at safety.  Starter Eric Weddle will miss the game with a knee injury, meaning backup Steve Gregory will start at the strong.

The Chargers look a bit suspect up the middle, and we'll therefore see a game plan similar to the one Dallas employed against the Giants.  The Cowboys started off with power counters and lead draws, their two best running plays.  The Cowboys threw more because the Giants were regularly putting eight men in the box and blitzing their strong safeties on first down. 

I think Dallas will stick with what it does best, and will likely run them more, as the Chargers are not a heavy run blitz team.  Success in the lead draw will open the middle for play action, and Jason Garrett certainly wants the Chargers safeties guessing run and pass.

San Diego has had trouble with big tight ends before Weddle went down, and his loss could make this problem more acute.  Heath Miller, Tony Scheffler, Brent Celek and the Browns Evan Moore had strong days against Rivera's interior secondary.

This week, they'll face Jason Witten.  The bionic tight end has ignored a sprained foot the last two games to rack up 19 catches for 263 yards.  The Cowboys played some Turner ball last week:  they used far fewer three receiver sets than normal.  When they wanted to spead the field, they would leave Martellus Bennett at the traditional tight end spot and flex Witten into the slot.  When the game was over, Miles Austin, Roy Williams and Witten had 30 snags between them.

Bennett is injured, but I still think we'll see lots of the Cowboys 12 set, with one back and two tight ends.  Dallas has big targets too, as Austin, Williams and Witten are all 6'2" or taller.  We should see John Phillips, a strong blocker, take Bennett's place on the line, with Witten being moved wide, into the slot and even into the backfield when Dallas is in the shotgun.   Garrett likes to send Witten on patterns from there because he's assured a free release upfield. 

When Dallas threw to its wideouts last week, it worked the deep and intermediate middle heavily with posts and crosses.  Late in the game, when the Giants were pressing and trying to jam the receivers to slow their patterns over the middle, they began running double moves where they faked skinny posts and released upfield. 

I see no reason to deviate much from this approach.  It will be important to make the early runs more effective, and if they succeed, Witten and his buddies will again go after the Chargers' defensive spine. 

Special Teams

Joe DeCamillis' guys had their season stinker, giving up the decisive punt return touchdown to Domenik Hixon halfway through the fourth.  They again struggled to provide a quality kickoff return game and took an annoying number of penalties. 

This week, they have to contain Sproles, who returns both kickoffs and punts. 

Overall

Don't pay too much attention to the Romo-as-holder story line.  This game will likely turn on red zone play.   San Diego has been very effective at scoring sevens when it gets deep into enemy territory and denying the seven on defense.  Look at its win over Philadelphia.  The Eagles badly outgained the Chargers but kicked field goals on their first three scoring drives, while the Chargers marched in for three touchdowns.  The Eagles never recovered the lost fours.

The Giants also out-gained the Chargers last month, holding San Diego to a season-low 226 yards.  New York was undone when it settled for three late in the 4th, after getting inside the Chargers' five yard line.  The kick put the lead at 20-14, giving Rivers the opening to drive the field for the game winner in the waning seconds. 

The Cowboys have been very good at incorporating Roy Williams into their red zone attack lately.  He has three red zone receptions the last two games and Jason Garrett seems to have found a lethal role for him in that part of the field.  Garrett will need to have some new wrinkles that will get Dallas into the end zone.  The Cowboys should move the ball Sunday, but will be as long-faced as Philly and New York if they don't finish off their drives.  The Chargers have been contained on occasion, but they're too precise an offense to be shut down.

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