OCC took the weekly look at how the Dallas Cowboys graded out last week at Pro Football Focus. I am taking my look at the upcoming opponent, the San Diego Chargers, but starting this week, I am going to be primarily interested in the cumulative scores for the season. I want to have as good an idea of how the team performs long term, and not get distracted by the last game, which may have been atypically good or bad.
We are all waiting to see whether Dallas can continue the excellent performance from last week, or if they will slide back. But there has to be an opponent to have a ball game, so here are the numbers on San Diego.
The Chargers, like the Cowboys, drafted a first-round lineman, in this case tackle D.J. Fluker. He has not only had some rookie struggles, but he also missed the third game of the season because of injury and was replaced by Michael Harris. Fluker is practicing this week and is expected to play. It is a mixed bag for San Diego, since he has been better in pass protection than Harris, but not as effective run blocking.
These are cumulative grades for the line, so remember that Fluker's represents 2/3 as much play, and Harris' is 1/3. A quick take is that the place for the Rushmen to attack this line is right up the middle, which is similar to the take Bryan Broaddus has on how to get after Phillip Rivers. King Dunlap may also be a vulnerable with DeMarcus Ware primarily lined up against him.
Late word out of San Diego is that Chad Rinehart will not play due to injury. His prospective replacement, Rich Ohrnberger, played 42 snaps against the Tennessee Titans, with a total score of -0.4, but -1.7 in pass protection. The rest of the line is not in good shape, either. Jeromey Clary and Dunlap also missed practice, although they have not been ruled out. Additionally, Nick Hardwick was limited in practice. A beat up Chargers line and a bunch of Rushmen that love to get after the quarterback could make for a long afternoon for Rivers. And, judging by the motivational sign Rod Marinelli put in Ware's locker, that is the idea.
This is what Marinelli has put on DWare's locker. Motivator. Artist. pic.twitter.com/Vd283BmGEf— Carlos A. Mendez (@calexmendez) September 25, 2013
Philip Rivers is off to a very strong start. Whether using his standard quarterback rating for the season (116.3) or PFF's own version (103.94), he is the second-highest rated quarterback in the league after three games. And the guy ahead of him is the seemingly ageless Peyton Manning, who the Cowboys will face the following week. If the Rushmen can't get pressure, the secondary will have to put together two excellent performances to keep those two under control. But Rivers is vulnerable to pressure up the middle, since he is not very mobile.
San Diego comes into the game at 1-2, which is probably a little bit of a surprise to those who think that the quarterback is who wins and loses games. However, the reason for the record will be clear a little further on.
The Chargers are like the Cowboys in that their wide receiver group is a little banged up. Malcom Floyd missed the Titans game and his status for Sunday is uncertain with him missing practice on Wednesday. Floyd (+3.6) and Eddie Royal (+3.4) are the best targets for Rivers.
But both take a back seat to Antonio Gates (+4.8), who is the third highest rated tight end in the league. Gates is both a top receiver and a very good blocking TE. And his primary backup is a familiar name for Cowboys fans, John Phillips.
In the running game, the Chargers still carry a fullback, Le'Ron McClain, but he has only been on the field for 34 offensive plays the entire season. He still grades out at a nice +2.3 for his blocking.
The triple running back threat of Danny Woodhead, Ronnie Brown and Ryan Matthews is effective. Woodhead and Brown both are in the top twenty for all running backs on PFF. Matthews is the leading rusher for the team, but gets marked down by PFF for his decision making, and he does have the lowest yards/carry.
The Chargers are averaging 359.7 yards/game, eleventh best in the league, and scoring 26.0 points per game. Dallas needs to push both those numbers down. The way to do that would be to go right at that beat-up offensive line, especially up the middle.
Dallas is facing another 3-4 alignment. PFF is not impressed with the three down linemen. NT Cam Thomas is ranked 57th out of 66 NT/DT in the league. DE Jarius Wynn is 11th in his grouping, but he has seen limited snaps in relief of Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes. And they are next to last and last for 3-4 DEs.
This is a curious disconnect from what Broaddus has to say. He likes Liuget on tape. PFF hates him.
The DEs may be shaky, but the OLBs are not. Dwight Freeney is the leader of this group, and he is still a formidable player at 33. He is ranked 9th, but he is just barely ahead of teammates Jarret Johnson at 13 and Larry English at 14. This may be one of the most consistent sets of edge rushers that the offensive line is going to face all season, and Tyron Smith and Doug Free have a job ahead of them.
The inside linebackers, Bront Bird and Reggie Walker, are decent to good against the run, but can be exploited in the short passing game. Watch for Andrew Gachkar, who has had some nice grades in limited action. However, there is another, sort of unknown factor working. You may not have seen it, since the situation has been a bit out of sight, but this is probably going to be the first game for rookie Manti Te'o. He has been invisible so far as he recovers from injury.
I only insert the lame jokes because they are required by union rules.
If there is a unit that should be exploited by the Cowboys, particularly by Tony Romo and his receivers, it is the secondary, which is pretty much a hot mess for San Diego. Everyone points to safety Eric Weddle as the best player they have back there, but his grade certainly does not indicate it, with Jahleel Addae and Marcus Gilchrist both having better numbers - but all are in negative territory. And the cornerbacks look worse.
Defensively, the Chargers are simply not good. They are next to last in total yards allowed per game at 470.7, dead last in passing yards, are giving up 130.0 yards on the ground, and 27.0 points per game. The only strength defensively appears to be the edge rushers, so Bill Callahan should be going right up the middle with both the run and the pass.
Attacking the middle looks to be the way to go for both offense and defense. If the numbers here are correct, Dallas can handle this game. But stats from games already played are one thing. A lot of fans are already looking ahead to the Denver Broncos, but the team needs this win, and the Cowboys had an issue with stringing wins together the past few seasons. Rivers is the strongest threat they have, by a good margin, and he will challenge the defense. This does not project to be a walk for Dallas. But Jason Garrett should have the team ready to go.