Make No Mistake About It: The San Diego Chargers Are for Real
Entering the season, there were some pretty serious questions surrounding the San Diego Chargers. Was last year's late playoff run an aberration? Do they know/care what defense is? Is Ryan Mathews composed of styrofoam?
Considering the Chargers had to open against one of the league's best defenses, the defending Super Bowl champs, and an East-Coast team on the road in an early kickoff, they would need to answer those questions quickly. Otherwise they could have easily found themselves at the bottom of the barrel in what was shaping up to be a very competitive AFC West. There's always 2015, right?
Well, the Chargers answered the bell with a vengeance. After wins over Seattle and Buffalo, it's time to ask: Is San Diego legit? The answer is a resounding yes, but let's look into the numbers that show why that's true.
Philip Rivers: Walking Man-Crush
The last time I wrote about Philip Rivers, the Chargers' sub-reddit took notice of my creepy infatuation with the man. Reddit is truly beautiful, as is our main man Philip. His proficiency with efficiency has leaked over into 2014.
To quantify his tastiness, we'll use numberFire's Net Expected Points statistic. This tracks the number of expected points added on each and every play of the game based on the situation under which the play occurred. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
Through the first three games, the Chargers have the highest Adjusted Passing NEP per play (adjusted means it accounts for the strength of an opponent) this year at 0.34. This does receive a fairly significant boost from the Seahawks, but the Chargers handled the Legion of Boom well, so that assistance is warranted.
To provide some perspective, the record-setting 2013 Denver Broncos finished the year with an Adjusted Passing NEP per play of 0.36, the fourth-highest total since 2000. Let me make blatantly clear that I don't think San Diego will keep this pace up. Nah, bruh. But they did finish second last year at 0.28. Replicating that this year would almost assure them of a playoff push.
This hot start out the gate for the Chargers comes despite a sluggish sophomore campaign for Keenan Allen. As a rookie, Allen finished sixth in the league in Reception NEP per target among receivers with at least 50 targets at 0.94. This year, he sits 58th among receivers with at least 10 targets at 0.49. It wouldn't be some crazy to expect regression for Allen. However, cutting your per-target efficiency in half is not normal. That should bounce back up at least a bit as the season progresses.
So what's to account for the gross stats for the passing offense as a whole? Obviously having Antonio Gates chugging piggishly from the fountain of youth doesn't hurt. They've also gotten contributions from another aged asset in Malcom Floyd.
Previously, I said that Keenan Allen ranks 58th in Reception NEP per target among receivers with at least 10 targets. Floyd has fared a bit better than that. In fact, the only person to top Floyd's mark of 1.07 is Stevie Johnson. Of course this is a small sample size product, as Floyd has only been targeted 11 times, but he's made the most of those chances. If Floyd can stay healthy, having him back after only playing two games last year won't hurt at the very least. The "if" is the key part of that sentence, though; Floyd hasn't played a full 16-game slate since I was in high school (2009).
Unfortunately for the Chargers, there's more to football than slanging touchdowns all over the field. Sad day. The good news here is that the whiplash rate of defensive backs watching receivers streak to the end zone has gotten better this year.
In 2013, the Chargers ranked 26th in the league in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. This year, they've been able to tighten things up a bit to rank 15th in the category. Once again, this is weighted for strength of opponent, and the Chargers haven't exactly faced any aerial assassins this year. But that doesn't mean they've seen a bunch of slouches. In fact, San Diego's three opponents, Seattle, Buffalo and Arizona, rank 14th, 15th and 16th respectively in passing on a per drop back basis. Go figure.
Part of this could be due to the chaos the Chargers have created with their pass rush. Dwight Freeney missed all but four games his first season in San Diego, and he has already recorded a pair of sacks this year. Corey Liuget was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after the Buffalo game. This can help mask any holes the team may have against the pass if they can make life difficult for the opposing signal-caller.
After spending a first round pick and a whole lot of free agent dinero on the secondary, this is exactly what the Bolts were hoping for. And they'll have even more time to get all of these new parts gelling to the max.
The Road Ahead
If the scheduling powers were cruel the first three weeks, they are downright benevolent for the next three. This Sunday, Jacksonville comes to town. Blake Bortles may have magical powers, but unless he can also cover the slot, this one's a win.
The following week, the Jets come to town. They clearly don't enjoy winning and will do whatever it takes to avoid it. Another week where the Chargers should be a sizable favorite.
After that, it's the Raiders. Neat! In the span of three weeks, the Chargers will face three of the bottom five teams in our Power Rankings. If they were to win all three of those games (far from a given, considering the NFL hates consistency), they would be 5-1 entering back-to-back big divisional games with Kansas City and Denver. By then, Mathews should be healthy and able to provide a big boost to the backfield. Gucci.
With this combination of a top-tier passing attack, competent defense and a relatively easy upcoming schedule, the Chargers are in prime position to make a run. If you get a guy like Philip Rivers into the playoffs, just like last year, he can carry a team. This is a squad to keep an eye on as the season progresses.