Judging by his last two seasons, it is hard to believe that San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is playing so well. The former first round pick is on fire through four games this season and will provide a serious test for the Oakland Raiders defense this Sunday.
Rivers has already thrown 11 touchdowns in 2013. He is completing a remarkable 73.9 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,199 yards. In his previous two seasons, Rivers has been a turnover machine with 15 interceptions and seven lost fumbles in 2012 and 20 interceptions and five lost fumbles in 2011. This season, Rivers has only two interceptions and zero lost fumbles. He is leading the Chargers passing attack averaging 291.3 yards per game, good for 6th in the NFL.
“Yeah, his release looks even quicker than it has in the past, and that’s hard to do because it was very quick in the past,” Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said of Rivers. “He’s playing well. He’s diagnosing defenses well. He’s taking advantage of matchups they’re creating with the offense. I think they do a good job of creating matchups with the players that they have, so our ability to win our matchups, especially in certain situations is one of the keys to the game this week.”
Because the Chargers running game will not scare defenses, they rely on the pass. As a team, San Diego is middle of the pack in the NFL averaging 105 rush yards per game and their offensive line is banged up. Ryan Matthews is their lead back, but he has struggled for the better part of his career. He is having a so-so year this season with 226 yards, but zero touchdowns. The Raiders have done a decent job against the run and have the ability to shut down that phase of the Chargers offense and force them to be one dimensional.
Rivers spreads the ball around, but has three weapons the Raiders will have to account for. Tight end Antonio Gates is having a resurgence this season catching 25 balls for 364 yards and two scores. Wide receiver Eddie Royal got off to a hot start with five touchdowns in two games, but has cooled since. Running back Danny Woodhead has 22 receptions and caught two touchdowns last week.
“He’s a great little route runner,” Tarver said of Woodhead. “That’s why that weapon is so valuable; Gates is a good route runner as well because of his big body. He leans on you and goes the other way or leans on you and goes across your face, stutters you because he’s so big. That’s what they’re doing, they’re using their personnel well, which is the key. You have to know your personnel and you have to use your personnel for what they can do. That’s what we are doing to the best of our ability on defense and that’s what they have the ability to do on offense.”
The Raiders defense has yet to record an interception. They have pressured the quarterback well in the first two games with nine sacks, but have only two in the past two games. Defensive end Lamaar Houston will have to take advantage of his match-up and get pressure. Tarver likes to bring safeties and cornerbacks, so watch for Charles Woodson coming along with Usama Young. If the Raiders can get Rivers out of rhythm and holding onto the ball, they can force him into mistakes.
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