While shutting down the St Louis Rams was good (and very fun to watch) let's not overestimate that team. PFF had them ranked as the 17th offense in the league (12th passing, 26th rushing) before that game. The figures are gone now but I think their NY/A (Net Yards Gained Per Pass Attempt) was ranked about 12th before that game.
The Rams are a mediocre offense. They have mediocre skill position players . They have a mediocre Qb. Sam Bradford last year, in what was his third year, had a career high Qb rating of 82.6 Folks that's very mediocre (or worse). For the last few years young Qb's have been entering that territory or leaving it well behind in their first season (rookie ratings Newton 84.5, Dalton 80.4, Luck 76.5, Griffin 102.4, Tannehill 76.1, Wilson 100.0). In 2012, of the 27 Qb's who played at least 50% of their snaps Bradford's QB rating ranked him 18th (PFF ranked him 19th of 27). As a team the Rams were 21st in offensive NY/A in 2012 and will probably finish in the same area this year.
Last year the Rams D ranked 16th in Yards Allowed Per Play (Y/P). Again perfectly mediocre. I know last year is not this year but this early in the season sometimes it's still very useful to look at how teams performed in the recent past.
So, I'm not of the belief that this was a particularly tough or ascending team we just beat. In a Qb driven league I think it's relevant to the results that Bradford is the worst Qb (with at best an average skill group) we've played this year.
That doesn't mean there isn't joy to be found though. When discussing mediocre teams it's good to remember that Dallas was itself perfectly mediocre the last 2 years (8-8, 8-8) and that a crushing victory against a fellow past mediocre dweller (Rams 7-8-1 in 2012) and likely future mediocre dweller in 2013 is a positive sign that we're making a clear step above average and into the 'good team' territory.
This week against the San Diego Chargers I think will be a really interesting test. Actually, I think the next 2 weeks, Chargers and Broncos, will tell us more than the first 3 about what sort of team we have. We should beat the 1-2 Chargers but it may not be easy and it boils down to one simple reason: Philip Rivers. Through 3 weeks he has been terrific. Unlike Sam Bradford, Rivers is a proven quality Qb. He had a Qb rating of over 100 for three years straight (2008/2009/2010). That's quality play. After 3 weeks he's 2nd in the NFL in Qb rating with a stellar 116.2 What's more interesting is he's done it with an unremarkable bunch of skill position players. TE Antonio Gates aside, his WR's consist of Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown (losing Malcolm Floyd, who was playing well, will really hurt them). Danny Woodhead can be an effective scat-back but is hardly a dominant player.
Apart from Gates it's a fairly ordinary group and yet Rivers is making it work and work effectively (Ranked 6th in NY/P). I don't know if San Diego without Floyd can keep their Pass O up to that standard but I do think Philips Rivers is clearly the best Qb we will have faced this year (until Peyton comes to town) and we're playing in San Diego. ***Update: OCC just published a fine article discussing Career Qb Performance and Rivers ranked very well, coming in at 6th overall in the league. More proof that Rivers is not to be taken lightly. And to further add to my previous point, Bradford ranked 23rd of 25.***
This should be a fascinating test especially because Rivers, with a fairly uninspiring WR core, throws a lot of passes to his RB's and TE's against the LB's and Safeties. Out of Rivers 23 targets against the Titans 17 went to RB's or TE's (Woodhead 8, Gates 6, Green 2, McClain 1), roughly 74%. Out of those only one pass was thrown beyond 20 yards (a 34 yard reception to TE Green). Floyd was the Chargers deep threat and without him in Week 3 they played small ball.
They executed their short-ball attack well but it was not enough as the Titans, who have played solid defense this year (9th Y/P, 8th in NY/P), scored within the final seconds to steal the game. I don't expect the Chargers to be as conservative at home next week. San Diego will not play a patient Offense and rely on their poor D against Dallas. That may have been an ok strategy against Locker and Co. but against Romo and Co. it's a bad one.
Watch out for:
*TE Lardarius Green. A young small school player but at about 6'6" 240 and with 4.45 speed he gives the Chargers a dimension that's sorely needed with Floyd out. Against the Titans he was targeted twice, once in the 10-19 range and once in the 20+ range. He came up with both catches (2 for 48 on the day). Expect him and Antonio Gates to get some deep looks against Dallas' LB's and Safeties. How we do against these two will go a long way to deciding who wins the game. This should be a great warm up test for young Safety J.J. Wilcox before Manning and his crew arrive.
*The Draw Play. San Diego used the Shotgun draw play extensively last week. To open the Second Half Rivers went no-huddle Shotgun and ran 4 straight draw plays to Danny Woodhead. It netted them 24 yards and 2 first downs. The Shotgun draw was an effective chain mover for them against the Titans. I expect we'll see it several times against us too.
If Rivers does get a groove going against us we could be in for quite a shoot-out. San Diego's Defense is one of the worst in the league through 3 weeks (D ranked 32nd in Y/P and 30th in NY/P) and our Offense should have good success against them. If the D contains Rivers we win easily. If they don't we can still win in a shoot-out but it may get nerve racking or exciting depending on how you view these things. San Diego are not a very good team they just have a good Qb and good Qb's have had a habit of enjoying themselves against our D the last several years years. The week before Peyton Manning and his loaded Denver offense arrive is a good time for Dallas to make a defensive statement against a quality Qb.