The biggest change in San Diego is the man at the helm. Former Denver Broncos quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has taken over for Norv Turner as the Chargers head coach. During his time in the Mile High City, McCoy demonstrated his ability to adapt his offensive game plan to suit the talent that he had available to him. Working with quarterbacks that ranged from Kyle Orton to Tim Teb...Tim Te...oh, heck; the guy who is now out of football, McCoy proved capable of adapting himself to best fit his players. Now Philip Rivers is showing signs of being the latest passer to benefit from working with Mike McCoy.
As mentioned above, Philip Rivers returns for his tenth season in San Diego. He is looking to rebound from a miserable 2012, in which he had nearly as many turnovers as he did touchdown passes. His 26 touchdowns were off-set by 15 interceptions and seven lost fumbles. Additionally a career low of 6.8 YPA, caused many to ask if Rivers' days were numbered. Early indications from this season are showing a reversal of fortune for Mr. Rivers; through three games, he has produced eight touchdowns while yielding only one interception. Under McCoy, Rivers is still leading a pass first offense, but now it is more focused on efficiency and maintaining control of the ball. In this scheme his accuracy is improving. Rivers has completed 70% of his passing attempts this season.
All of the offensive troubles in San Diego last season should not be laid at Philip Rivers' feet. His offensive line surrendered 49 sacks last year; that works out to over three sacks per game. During the off-season, the Chargers used the eleventh overall selection to help bolster the line by selecting tackle DJ Fluker out of Alabama, but he has been missing time from a concussion. The other tackle, King Dunlap, also left the game last week from a concussion. Fluker should return but Dunlap's status is up in the air for Sunday. Moving inside, the guards are Jeromey Clary, who moves over from right tackle, and Chad Reinhart. Clary has struggled to be effective throughout his career and also has a shoulder injury, and Reinhart is making his return from ankle issues that severely limited him in 2012 and now has a toe injury. The anchor in the middle will be Nick Hardwick, who is attempting to rebound from a down year. The Chargers could be playing on Sunday with a patchwork line.
At tight end, the Chargers have veteran Antonio Gates, who is one of the better men to have ever played his position. Although time is starting to slow down Gates, he remains a weapon that Rivers will rely on. Ladarious Green will also see action at tight end. The other key targets will be wide receivers Eddie Royal, Vincent Brown, and rookie Keenan Allen. Danny Woodhead will also serve as a safety valve out of the backfield. He will split time at running back with Ryan Mathews, who has been a disappointment so far in his career, but the Chargers have yet to find a replacement to take his slot.
The Chargers defensive line is not as potent as the ones Dallas has faced recently. At one defensive end, San Diego has Corey Liuget who accounted for seven sacks last season. He is paired with Kendall Reyes, who accounted for an additional 5.5 sacks. In the middle is nose tackle Cam Thomas, a first year starter, who is a space-eater at 330 pounds. Former Cowboy and BTB favorite Sean Lissemore, Kwame Geathers, and Jarius Wynn should also see time in the rotation.
With the loss of Melvin Ingram to an ACL injury, the San Diego front office brought in Dwight Freeney to help provide some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In the final stages of his career, Freeney is not the player he used to be, but he can still strike fear in to a passer on occasion. The San Diego defensive scheme, a hybrid 3-4, better suits Freeney's game than did the scheme that the Indianapolis Colts used him in during 2012. Opposite Freeney, the Chargers have Jarret Johnson, who is primarily a run stopper in the same mold as Anthony Spencer was during his early career. Moving inside, the Chargers have Bront Bird, a 2011 UDFA out of Texas Tech, and Reggie Walker, a converted outside linebacker to fill the middle. Donald Butler should also see some time in the rotation, especially on early downs; he is a dedicated run stopper. Rookie Manti Te'o has not seen the field since the first preseason game due to injury.
The stand out piece in the Chargers secondary is stud free safety Eric Weddle. He will be joined in the middle by converted cornerback Marcus Gilchrist, who is undersized for his position. He also suffers from a lack of coverage skills, which prompted the move from corner to safety; he was torched frequently last season. The corners will be Johnny Patrick, a third year player out of Louisville, and Derek Cox, whom the Chargers signed away from the Jacksonville Jaguars during free agency. Crezdon Butler and Richard Marshall should see some situational action as well.
Place kicking duties will be handled by Nick Novak, who was 18 for 20 last season. His two misses were both from beyond 50 yards; he was 2 for 4 from that range in 2012. Mike Ceifres will be the San Diego punter. Last season he was 12th in the league with a 40.6 yard net average. He was also seventh in the league for punts inside the 20 yard line. San Diego scored twice on kick returns in 2012; however, Michael Spurlock, the return man on each kick, was allowed to leave during free agency.
An improving Cowboys offensive line and a less than dominating pass rush from the Chargers should allow Tony Romo a chance to exploit a questionable secondary. With the Cowboys depth at receiver (if Miles Austin plays), he should be able to find open down field targets and Jason Witten should also be a factor. If Dallas is willing to commit to the run again this week, Murray has an opportunity to turn in another solid performance even though the Chargers have a couple guys who are good run stoppers.
On the defensive side, the Dallas pass rush has another chance to turn in an impressive performance. In particular, DeMarcus Ware should own the face-off against King Dunlap if he plays. The biggest challenge will be for the Cowboys to shut down the controlled passing game that Mike McCoy has instilled for Rivers. If his receivers and tight ends can find the gaps in the Dallas-2 on a consistent basis they have an opportunity to put up some serious numbers. On the other hand, if the defense can jump some pass routes, they have an opportunity to cause Philip Rivers to suffer flash backs to 2012. This is a game that Dallas should win, as long as they avoid playing to the level of their competition.