The San Diego Chargers do a lot of little things right. Sometimes, those little things amount to very big things. A few weeks ago, the Chargers headed into a big game vs. the Cowboys in Dallas. The game might well have been a prelude to the Super Bowl. The Cowboys have demonstrated this year that the December Jinx is over. After a surprising 24-0 shutout over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cowboys are set up to break the 13-year hiatus between playoff wins. The Chargers won a close game by doing little things. Here’s a glimpse.
Dallas opened the game with a 41 yard kickoff return by Felix Jones. The Cowboys then began a long, powerful 10-play, 41-yard drive into the Charger red zone. The drive consumed more than 6 minutes at the start of the game. FOX showed LaDainian Tomlinson sitting on the sidelines as if he were collecting dust waiting to get into the game. The Cowboys were intent on spreading the Chargers out, but remaining balanced. On six of those first 10 plays, Dallas was in a shotgun formation. On three of those plays, they ran the ball with Marion Barber. The drive bogged down as Romo was unable to hit a receiver in the end zone. Dallas kicked a field goal and led 3-0.
For quite some time, the Dallas defense has been playing at a very high level. On the subsequent kickoff, Dallas kicked deep and was able to pin Darren Sproles back behind the 20 yard line. The drive began for San Diego on their own 16 yard line. On first down, Philip Rivers completed a short pass to his fullback. The play lost two yards. On the next down, LT was stopped for no gain by DeMarcus Ware. So, with 7 minutes gone in the first quarter, the Chargers were facing a 3rd and 12 deep in their own end. Moreover, they were facing the prospect of handing Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys a short field. Compounding all of this was the fact that the Charger defense had been on the field for all but 1:18.
3rd down, 12 yards to go from the 14 yard line.
The Chargers line up in a three wide formation. The Cowboys counter with 4 linemen, 2 backers and 5 defensive backs.
The defense is set up to allow the Chargers to complete a short yardage pass, but to make it prohibitively difficult for them to complete a pass for more than a 10 yard gain.
In the previous picture, Malcom Floyd (Charger WR) is matched up in man coverage with Dallas’ best cover corner, Terrance Newman. Both are out of the picture now, but you can see that one of the Cowboy defenders on the line of scrimmage has dropped into coverage with a Charger back. The Cowboys are only bringing 3 rushers. Philip Rivers is standing on the 5 yard line and needs to get the ball to the 26 yard line for a first down.
The job of the Dallas defense is to either deflect or intercept a pass, or make a tackle between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker. Malcom Floyd is well beyond the marker. The first down could be had at the 26 yard line. Floyd is on the 38. Dallas has a linebacker playing the area in front of Floyd, but he is far too shallow to make a difference in this play. That linebacker is barely in the picture. The closer player to Malcom Floyd is actually Terrance Newman. How did they get so far apart?
Floyd runs a route that appears to be headed inside. Given the down and distance (and the Cowboys coverage), Newman makes an aggressive and logical decision to attack the slant route. Floyd is 6’5″ and weighs over 200 pounds. If Newman arrives late, he might as well not arrive at all because it will be too late to keep Floyd from gaining a first down. Floyd is attacking the defense, here, by forcing the DB to react to his initiative — and he is using what the DB must know about down and distance to his own advantage.
Floyd’s master stroke is not merely breaking this route back to the outside. That happens all the time in the NFL. It is the location of the break that makes this play…and it is what sold the slant move in the first place. You can see #56 (LB, Bradie James) in the frame. He is facing QB Philip Rivers and his zone coverage is supposed to prevent a successful completion at the marker. When Malcom Floyd makes his 24 yard grab, he is ten yards BEHIND Bradie James and Terrance Newman is an afterthought.
Philip Rivers makes a perfect throw to the boundary and Floyd gets his feet down.
This was the Chargers 3rd play from scrimmage and it set them up for the rest of the drive. After this play, San Diego ran a counter-action throw back to their 2nd string tight end, then tried to hit Floyd downfield off of a flea flicker. The play drew an interference call from Dallas and led to an easy red zone score. The Chargers led 7-3 and Dallas, which had mounted a powerful 6 minute drive to start the game was down by 4 points. With better execution, the Cowboys might have led by 14. The Chargers won the game 20-17.
A similar scenario unfolded one week later in New Orleans. The Cowboys were able to get the stops and convert long pass plays and red zone runs into touchdowns. With 5 minutes remaining in the 1st quarter, the Cowboys led 14-0. They held on to win and hand the Saints their first loss of the season.
Perhaps no play was as important as a seemingly meaningless 3rd down conversion early in the 1st quarter. San Diego does the little things that become big things — and they just keep winning.