Friday, October 26, 2012

Here come the mad, mad, mad, mad Chargers

As if the Browns didn’t have enough to be concerned with this week comes this little challenge.

The San Diego Chargers, their opponents Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, will arrive the day before in what can be best described as an extremely belligerent mood.

Not only have the Chargers lost their last two games, they did so in a most humiliating way. They blew leads in both games, one of them in almost historic fashion.

It wasn’t bad enough that the Chargers allowed the New Orleans Saints to win their first game of the National Football League season by blowing a 24-14 third-quarter lead in week five.

They then turned around in week six and raced out a 24-0 halftime lead at home against division rival Denver on national television only to watch the Broncos outscore them, 35-0, in the second half. It was the fourth-largest deficit overcome to win a game in NFL history.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers committed five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) in the fourth quarter that turned into 21 Denver points and handed the Broncos the improbable victory.

Now if that wasn’t bad enough, the Chargers couldn’t get right back out there and try to play away their problems in week seven. No, week seven was their bye week. So they have had all that time to dwell on two tough losses that prevented them from being 5-1 entering the Browns game.

So there’s no telling how high the Chargers’ anger quotient will be once they hit the field on Sunday.

In the week following the Denver game, San Diego coach Norv Turner announced he is buttoning down his offense. The turnovers will stop, he vowed. Fewer downfield shots will be taken.

He wants safer, shorter passes. Low-risk, high-percentage throws. Sounds an awful lot like the west coast offense.

That, it would appear, is what the Browns have to look forward to Sunday. No, the Chargers will not choose to strafe a Cleveland pass defense that ranks 26th in the NFL if Turner follows through.

A quick look at NFL statistics reveals a couple of anomalies with regard to the Chargers. They rank 19th in passing, 18th in the running game, but just 25th overall. Perhaps that’s because they have played just six games, while most others have played one more.

On defense, they are 25th against the pass, second vs. the run (just 71 yards a game) and 16th overall. Again, playing one less game can skew some of the stats.

The Browns, on the other hand, are 27th overall on offense and defense, but are climbing up the offensive standings in the passing game. With Brandon Weeden putting up some strong numbers after his miserable start, they now rank 15th in passing.

So how does all that impact on Sunday’s meeting at CBS?

It’s hard to believe Turner when he says he’s going to dial back his offense. His game is throwing the ball downfield. Strike quickly. Now, all of a sudden, he’s changing tactics? Don’t buy it.

Look for the Cleveland secondary once again to have a busy Sunday. Turner had to have noticed the Browns don’t have much of a pass rush, so why shackle Rivers and turn him into something he really isn’t?

Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, whose vanilla approach in the first half of last week’s loss to Indianapolis proved costly, must take a different, more aggressive tack against the Chargers or else a 1-7 start will come sharply into focus.

Turner most likely will not hesitate to turn Antonio Gates loose. This will be the tight end’s fourth game against the Browns, whom he followed while playing basketball at Kent State University. And he loves playing in Cleveland.

In his first meeting in 2004, his only reception resulted in a 72-yard touchdown in a 21-0 victory at CBS. In 2006, he was held to two catches for 22 yards in a 32-25 loss at San Diego. But in a 2009 victory in Cleveland, he hauled in eight passes for 167 yards, although he did not score in a 30-23 victory.

Cleveland has been good to the Chargers, who have won four in row against Browns and seven of the last eight. They are 8-3-1 overall by the lakefront and haven’t lost there since 2001.

Rivers cannot be taken lightly even though he has thrown just 10 scoring passes this season. He loves to spread the ball around, but Gates is his favorite target. However, his meager running game leaves him slightly vulnerable.

The Chargers’ running game offers no major threat. But neither did Indianapolis’  last week and the Browns surrendered nearly 150 yards on the ground in the loss. If the San Diego offensive line manhandles the Cleveland defensive line Sunday in a similar fashion to what the Colts’ OL did, it’s going to be another long afternoon.

Once again, whichever team wins the battle of the trenches should prevail. The Cleveland offensive line protected Weeden well last week, but failed miserably in the run game. That can’t happen again if they hope to end the first half of the season on a winning note.

But the offense will let them down again. The defense, however, will rescue the offense time and again. The Chargers will spend plenty of time in Cleveland territory following three Cleveland turnovers, but the defense will tighten up.

Nick Novak will be the busiest man for the Chargers as the Browns stiffen in the red zone all afternoon and frustrate Rivers and his men. The placekicker will be called on to kick field goals five times and won’t miss. The last, with less than a minute left, will be the dagger for the Browns. Make it:

Chargers 22, Browns 20

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