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Vikings vs. Chargers: Why Situational Football Matters

Early - and late- momentum could be a big factor

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Just how the Vikings-Chargers game turns out on Sunday may have a lot to do with how the Chargers are feeling after just being eliminated from playoff contention. The Chargers look good on paper, and have several big name players on their roster, but they’re 5-8 for a reason.

Chargers Look Good on Paper, But...

Looking at the Chargers on paper, they stack up pretty well, particularly on defense. Defensively they’ve ranked 8th in points allowed and 4th in yards allowed. Offensively they’re decent, ranking 18th in points and 10th in yards.

But they’re 5-8 for a reason, and that largely comes down to turnovers and situational football.

The Chargers rank 29th in the league in turnover margin, at -0.8 per game. That makes it an uphill battle when you turn the ball over nearly one more time than your opponent every game. And in the three games before their blowout of the Jaguars last week- who mailed it in- they had averaged 3 turnovers a game. All nine turnovers were Philip Rivers interceptions.

Rivers has 15 interceptions on the year - a 3.2% rate - which is not unusual for him. All but two of them were clearly his fault too - bad decisions and/or inaccurate throws. Rivers has also had 10 throws batted at the line of scrimmage, and 5 more hits as he threw - only 1 of each of those was an INT. He’s also had 7 fumbles this year, losing 2.

Defensively, the Chargers have not generated many takeaways to make up for Rivers’ giveaways. They’re ranked 30th in takeaways, averaging just under 1 (0.9) per game.

Their Situational Football Sucks

The problem for the Chargers - on both sides of the ball really - is situational football. They can drive for show but they can’t putt for dough. They’re good at sustaining drives - 2nd best with 8th best 3rd down conversion percentage - but 25th in the league when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone. They’re only 50% for the season in that metric.

Defensively, while the Chargers have some impressive stats overall, they’re ranked 24th in allowing 3rd down conversions, and 19th in allowing red zone touchdowns.

Add to that the fact that the Chargers, and Philip Rivers, tend to start slow which leads to Rivers playing from behind. Rivers’ passer rating is only 74.2 in the 1st quarter this season, and only 75.2 when trailing. And when trailing with less than 4 or 2 minutes remaining, Rivers’ passer rating drops to about 40. He’s thrown 9 of his 15 interceptions in these situations.

All this paints a picture of a team that’s pretty good at driving the middle of the field in the middle of the game, but can’t finish. I suspect a lot of that has to do with coaching too.

How The Chargers Match-Up Against the Vikings

As I mentioned at the top of this piece, the Chargers were eliminated from the playoffs last week, despite thrashing the dysfunctional Jaguars - who threw in the towel to a disappointing season.

Late Season Team Morale

The question now is how will the Chargers react to having nothing to play for?

Sometimes that situation can take the pressure off a team and that allows them to turn in a good performance. But most of the time it leads to a decline in team morale, a focus on staying healthy and looking ahead to the off-season. And plenty of uninspiring play - as was the case with the Lions last weekend.

For the Vikings, the question is can they start fast and force the Chargers to play from behind?

If the Vikings can start strong and get an early lead, that could go a long way toward securing a victory. The Vikings record when leading at halftime is extremely good in recent years, while the Chargers and Philip Rivers don’t fare well when playing from behind. A strong start and early lead could also break the Chargers’ morale, and push them to thinking about next year rather than the game at hand.

Situational Stats

Philip Rivers’ passer rating is only 81.9 in home games this year, and the Chargers’ home record this season is just 2-4. One of those wins was a week one overtime win against the Colts, the other an easy win over a Packers team that played bad from beginning to end week 9. The Chargers are also only 1-3 following a win this season.

Kirk Cousins’ passer rating is 101.6 on the road this season, and is 3-4 in those games. 3 of the losses were against playoff teams and all in much tougher venues than Dignity Health Sports Park - Green Bay, Chicago, Kansas City and Seattle.

Offensively, the Vikings have averaged about 4 points more per game than the Chargers (26 vs. 22), while defensively they’ve both allowed about 19 points a game.

Situationally, the matchup favors the Vikings rather dramatically in the red zone:

  • The Chargers defense is 24th in the league in the red zone, while the Vikings offense is 2nd.
  • The Vikings defense is 4th in the red zone, while the Chargers offense is 25th.

On third down, it’s more evenly matched, but slightly in the Vikings favor:

  • Vikings’ offense is ranked 10th on 3rd-down conversions, the Chargers’ defense is 24th
  • Chargers offense is ranked 8th on 3rd downs, while the Vikings’ defense is 17th.

In terms of penalties, both teams are about the same. On special teams, the Vikings have the advantage in field goal % made (90% to 75%), net punt yards, kickoff touchbacks (75% to 48%).

Turnover margin also favors the Vikings, who rank 9th with a +0.4 margin per game, while the Chargers rank 28th with a -0.8 per game turnover margin. The Chargers only win when losing the turnover battle was in overtime week one against the Colts. So, winning the turnover battle will be important for the Vikings.

Player Match-ups

When the Chargers have the ball, there will be a few key match-ups.

Vikings Defensive Line vs. Chargers Offensive Line

The Chargers don’t have a good offensive line at any position and the Vikings need to take advantage of that. Philip Rivers will turn the ball over under-pressure, and doesn’t do well when he holds the ball either, so getting him off his spot will go a long way toward stopping the Chargers’ offense.

Stopping the run, as always, will be important - and no reason to think the Vikings will have trouble in that regard, despite a nice running back duo for the Chargers, because of the advantage in the trenches.

The Chargers’ offense is similar to the Vikings’ offense last season - heavy (62%) pass oriented, mostly shotgun, lots of underneath routes, screens. Run game is more effective than the Vikings’ last season, but still bottom third of the league for the same reason the Vikings’ was - offensive line.

Chargers Passing vs. Vikings Coverage

In terms of the Chargers’ passing offense, it’s a kind of live by the sword, die by the sword mentality for Rivers, who has the 5th most passing yards in the league, on only the 15th most attempts, but also with the 3rd highest number of interceptions. He can still make some big-time throws (ranked 11th according to PFF), but is also 5th in turnover-worthy throws. The 38-year-old isn’t as good anymore with his deep passing game- he has only a 81.8 passer rating on deep balls (20+ yards). His accuracy, in terms of ball placement, leaves a lot to be desired at times, and his ball velocity has declined as you would expect for QBs at his age not named Brett Favre.

Rivers’ favorite target is far-and-away slot WR Keenan Allen. But mostly of the short-to-intermediate route variety. Mike Williams is his favorite deep target. TE Hunter Henry and RB Austin Ekeler are his favorite outlets for shorter passes.

If MacKensie Alexander can do a good job on Keenan Allen, who lines up mostly in the slot, and guys like Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith can limit Austin Ekeler and Hunter Henry, it could be a long day for Philip Rivers.

I doubt the Vikings will blitz much vs. the Chargers offense. Rivers handles that pretty well, and also gets the ball out quickly - 2.5” average. When he doesn’t, his passer rating drops quite a bit. Keeping guys out in coverage, particularly to limit YAC and block throwing lanes, makes more sense given the advantage the Vikings have in the trenches.

Vikings’ Offense vs. Chargers Defense

The Chargers have some good players on defense: DE Joey Bosa, CB Casey Hayward, SS Derwin James, and DL Melvin Ingram. Beyond those guys, however, they’re pretty average. The key for the Vikings is to not let those good players disrupt the game too much, while exploiting the others.

Brian O’Neill has faced a lot of good pass rushers this year - and done just fine - so I’m not sure Joey Bosa will prove otherwise. Chipping him on occasion would be helpful if need be. The other thing that could be effective is to run his way. He’s not as good a run defender as he is pass rusher, and running his way would help keep his pass rush in check.

With Casey Hayward, the key is to have more than one good receiver. And with Adam Thielen likely to play against the Chargers, the Vikings will have their deadly combo of Thielen and Diggs back in action for the first time since October.

Derwin James is the Harrison Smith of the Chargers defense, so he’ll need to be accounted for wherever he lines up. He’s a threat to blitz, and is good against both run and pass.

The Chargers play a lot of Cover-3 zone, meaning the two outside cornerbacks (Hayward and Michael Davis) drop to cover the outside thirds of the field, while the free safety (Rayshawn Jenkins) covers the deep middle third. Strong safety Derwin James would take the underneath outside zone on the outside, while linebackers would take the two middle hook zones and the other outside zone underneath against a 2 WR set.

One way to beat Cover-3 is by having Thielen run a curl on one side to occupy the CB, have Diggs run a post on the other side, gaining inside position on the other CB, while having Irv Smith run a seam route past the linebacker in coverage, thus presenting the free safety with a choice: cover Diggs on the post route or Smith on the seam route. Whichever way he goes, Cousins targets the other. Thielen would be another read, along with Cook as a check down in the flat.

Another way is for Thielen to run a hitch route in front of one CB, and Diggs a hitch and go on the other side, with both TEs Smith and Rudolph running seam routes to occupy LBs and the FS - one of which could get free. Depending on the pass protection, Cousins could either go to the quicker route and Thielen, or the deeper route and Diggs.

With play-action, the seam or go routes can be more effective, and with a roll-out or waggle the backside post route (Diggs) could be a winner.

But to make everything work the best, the Vikings need to be able to run the ball effectively. The Chargers have a top 10 defense, but rank 17th in rush yards allowed, and perhaps more insightful: they’re ranked 30th in their defensive tackling grade according to PFF (Vikings are #1). So, they can give up some yards on the ground - and YAC - with some poor tackling. They’re susceptible to an elusive runner like Dalvin Cook, and the Vikings are likely to give him and Alexander Mattison plenty of attempts.

In games where turnovers were even, the Chargers tended to lose against a balanced attack from the opposing offense. In the blowout win against the Packers (which the Chargers were up only 9-0 at halftime), the Packers had only 11 rushing attempts. For whatever reason, the Chargers defense has faced the most passing attempts of any defense in the league this season - despite the fact that they’re a better pass defense than run defense. It’s not like they’ve had big leads either so the opposing offense felt they need to pass to catch up. Go figure. I doubt the Vikings will make that mistake.

Bottom Line

A strong start and an early lead could cause the Chargers to think more about staying healthy for their off-season vacation plans rather than making a comeback attempt. And despite some impressive statistics on both sides of the ball, the Chargers struggle in situational football and are turnover prone, while the Vikings are pretty solid in those key factors.

Maintaining a balance attack offensively, while keeping Philip Rivers off his spot with the Vikings advantage in the trenches would also bode well for a Vikings victory on Sunday.

Poll

The Vikings are 2.5 point favorites on the road against the Chargers. Will they:

This poll is closed

  • 83%
    Win and cover the spread
    (468 votes)
  • 6%
    Win but not cover the spread
    (38 votes)
  • 9%
    Lose
    (52 votes)
558 votes total Vote Now