The AFC West has been ripe with pass-rushing talent for quite some time, and today, the division has some of the best in the game. Kansas City’s Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have been in the league’s upper echelon of pass-rushers for much of the past ten years while Von Miller’s a game breaker for the Broncos.
Oakland’s Khalil Mack and San Diego’s Joey Bosa are two of the youngest stars in the league that make their name hunting down quarterbacks, while there’s a host of other notable names that the division boasts in the defensive front seven.
The San Diego Chargers have been dealing with their division opponents’ brutal pass-rushers twice a year every year, and are well aware of the dangers that each team presents them. And yet, the Chargers have been insistent on trusting their five offensive linemen to take on all challenges, a decision that’s paid off dividends in the run game while hindering the passing offense.
After a 2015 season in which the offensive line’s only 16-game starter was right tackle Joe Barksdale, the Chargers have been plenty happy with the fact that the same five offensive linemen they started the 2016 season out in Kansas City are the five that started last Sunday’s game in Denver.
The streak of consistent health has done wonders for the offensive line’s production in the run game, springing Melvin Gordon to a bounceback sophomore year and a tie for the league lead in rushing touchdowns. The line has been particularly effective in goal-to-go situations, where most of Gordon’s scores have originated from.
But the league’s largest offensive line hasn’t been without its issues, and those issues have been magnified in the past couple of weeks as San Diego’s taken on some of the premier pass-rushers the league has to offer. Against Atlanta, Rivers was sacked four times, two of them by speedster Vic Beasley Jr., who dominated Barksdale with a quick get-off and was able to wreak havoc in the San Diego backfield with consistency.
Atlanta’s early lead over the Chargers was padded by a defensive touchdown stemming from a Beasley-forced fumble, as Barksdale was left alone against Beasley and couldn’t get out of his stance in time to get in front of the Falcons pass-rusher.
San Diego was able to overcome the 17-point deficit the Falcons’ defense stacked on it, but the Chargers didn’t have the same luck against Denver at Mile High. Von Miller only closed the deal on a sack of Rivers once, but the Denver defense had their way with the Chargers offensive line on the edges the entire day, forcing Rivers to step up in the pocket earlier than he’d want to and make himself vulnerable to the interior rushers. The Broncos knocked down two of Rivers’ passes on the day aided by his movement up in the pocket and still tallied four sacks of the Chargers quarterback.
An offensive line can’t expect to be perfect, and San Diego is still light years ahead of where they were last season in the trenches. But there needs to be an added emphasis moving forward on giving San Diego’s tackles some help, whether it be with chip blocks by Gordon before going out for a check down route or giving Hunter Henry more playing time over Antonio Gates moving forward.
Gates is only a few years away from getting a bust in Canton, but Henry is the better of the two when it comes to providing blocking help, and the Arkansas rookie needs to be worked into the fold as an aid for the line more often in pass protection. He’s such a strong receiving threat that the Chargers love to work him into the downfield passing game, but against rushers like Beasley and Miller, San Diego needs to sacrifice the extra route to give Rivers a couple extra seconds.
Already at 3-5, San Diego’s playoff hopes are dimming. But with a revived Gordon and a defense that’s been playing their best football as of late, the Chargers will be competitive in every game they play down the stretch. When they’re able to do the little things that open up opportunities for big plays, the Chargers can walk out of many of those games with wins. In this case, the little thing San Diego needs to do is start helping its big guys.