Chargers drop game to Ravens, doomed by passive play calls

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Photo from 'D Dirk' via Flickr

Photo from 'D Dirk' via Flickr

You gotta play hurt.

At least that was what should have been the Chargers motto heading into their game yesterday against the Baltimore Ravens.

Without running back LaDainian Tomlinson who missed the first regular season game of his career due to injury, and without center Nick Hardwick and guard Louis Vasquez, it was not terribly surprising that the Chargers had trouble running the ball on offense. Nor was it surprising that their defensive line struggled for much of the game, what with nose tackle Jamal Williams out for the season and the newly acquired Travis Johnson out with a groin injury.

Not that any of that was paramount to why they lost a close game, 31-26, to the Ravens. What was surprising was the un-aggressive play calling from head coach Norv Turner. While Turner did push the envelope a bit, evidenced by the dominant passing numbers of the Chargers, he became callow and conservative at the worst of times.

Now, quarterback Philip Rivers threw for a career high 436 yards, so on the surface it certainly doesn’t seem like the play calling was overly conservative. However, it wasn’t the number of passive play calls that hurt the Chargers, just the untimely nature of them.

Most memorable, of course, was Turner’s call for a run play on 4th and 2 with 33 seconds left in the game when the Chargers were at the Ravens 10 yard line. Given that they were only able to muster 53 total yards rushing for the game and had been lighting the Ravens up through the air, why call a run on the most crucial play of the game? On 3rd down maybe you give it a try, but 4th down? Stick with what was working. Predictably, Darren Sproles was hammered in the backfield for a 5-yard loss by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, effectively ending the game.

Afterwords, Turner tried to explain by saying, “We threw the ball on third down and I felt we could get the first down by running.” He intimated in his comments, that because the Chargers had been heavily leaning toward the pass in their play calling, that he thought a run would achieve the first down. Bad call.

It’s easy to sit here and play armchair quarterback, but the reason the play calling was weighted so much toward the pass was because it was working. The call for Sproles backfired and was a microcosm of the Chargers’ day.  It was symbolic, in that the Chargers repeatedly could not convert their trips into the red zone (20-yard line or closer) for touchdowns. Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding kicked four field goals, all when the Chargers were in the Ravens red zone.

On a play that turned out to be almost as crucial as the 4th down that ended the game, Turner curiously called for a Nate Kaeding field goal on 3rd down with 11 seconds left in the second quarter. There was surely enough time for an attempt at a touchdown. If it doesn’t work out, fine, kick the field goal, but why not wait to kick it until you absolutely have to (4th down)? In both instances, Turner took the ball out of the hands of the game’s biggest playmaker, Philip Rivers.

During the postgame press conference, Turner said of the third down field goal right before halftime, “I’ve been in a situation where the…ball ended up in the other team’s hands. I was gonna make sure we got the points there.”

WTF?, I say. Because in some old game, some fluke play happened, you are going to go ultra-conservative at crunch time and hide behind that excuse? Lame.

Photo from 'SD Dirk' via Flickr

Photo from 'SD Dirk' via Flickr

Rivers had a career day and, I’ll mention it again, threw for 436 yards. Just for reference, that easily has been the highest number of yards thrown in a single game by an NFL quarterback this season.

Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson continued to show why he is fast becoming an elite receiver. He produced six catches for 141 yards and a touchdown.

While the passing game thrived, the running game was horrendous. Between Darren Sproles and Michael Bennett, and a few rushes from Rivers and fullback Jacob Hester, the Chargers gained a paltry 53 yards on the ground.

The Chargers struggled at the line of scrimmmage, both offensively and defensively but, as noted earlier, that was to be expected. They struggled early to stop the run, with Baltimore running backs Willis McGahee and Ray Rice running mostly at will for the first half. Still, the Chargers recovered adequately in the second half, particularly the 4th quarter when the defense came up with some big stops.

In total, the Ravens rushed for 130 yards. Offensively, the Chargers struggled all game to run the ball, yet Rivers was mostly brilliant in throwing for the most yards of any NFL quarterback over the weekend.

After the game, Turner summed it up by saying, “We had some errors that we gotta eliminate.” I can only hope, in his line of thinking, that he included himself.

Ultimately, the Chargers did play hurt and rather admirably, but the players can only play the cards they’re dealt, and when the coach deals a bad hand, the players are left SOL.

The next Chargers game is at 1:15 this Sunday, September 27th, at Qualcomm Stadium against the Miami Dolphins. According to Chargers officials, there are about 4,000 tickets still available for the game.


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