Charg­ers may win over fans with of­fense

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Mike DiGio­vanna

In their “Fight for L.A.,” the slo­gan they adopted af­ter mov­ing to Los An­ge­les from San Diego this sea­son, the Charg­ers could have a leg up on the Rams. And one pro­lific arm, a pair of churn­ing feet and at least six sets of sure hands.

Win­ning will be the most im­por­tant thing in the bat­tle for the hearts and minds of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s foot­ball fans, the at­ten­tion of its me­dia out­lets and the ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing dol­lars of its cor­po­ra­tions.

But it’s also im­per­a­tive to en­ter­tain, and in that area, the Charg­ers — with an es­tab­lished and ac­com­plished veteran quar­ter­back in Philip Rivers, an ex­plo­sive run­ning back in Melvin Gor­don and a deep and tal­ented fleet of re­ceivers and tight ends — could have a dis­tinct ad­van­tage over the de­fen­sive-

minded Rams.

“We’ve got some work to do to get fans to come into this sta­dium,” Charg­ers of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ken Whisen­hunt said of StubHub Cen­ter, the team’s cozy 27,000-seat home for three sea­sons, “and part of that could be helped by hav­ing some of the ex­plo­sive plays like we did last year.

“We were one of the best in the league in 25-yard plays, so when you think about that in an en­vi­ron­ment like this, it’s ex­cit­ing. Hope­fully, that will help us.”

The Charg­ers ranked seventh in the NFL with 35 pass plays of 25 yards or more last sea­son. With 36 runs of 10 yards or more, they ranked 20th over­all in “big plays.”

The Rams, who opened 2016 with lack­lus­ter veteran Case Keenum at quar­ter­back and closed with strug­gling, scram­bling (or more like run­ning for his life) rookie Jared Goff, ranked 31st in big plays, 27 of them pass­ing and 26 rush­ing.

Though the records of the Charg­ers (5-11) and Rams (4-12) were sim­i­lar, the Charg­ers were com­pet­i­tive un­til the end of most games, suf­fer­ing too many fourthquar­ter melt­downs, whereas the Rams were of­ten blown out. The Charg­ers ranked 21st in av­er­age scor­ing mar­gin at mi­nus-0.8 points; the Rams were 30th at mi­nus-10.6 points.

Rivers, 35, a six-time ProBowl se­lec­tion, is back for his 14th year af­ter throw­ing for 4,386 yards and 33 touch­downs last sea­son.

Even with­out first-round pick Mike Wil­liams, the Clem­son star wide­out who has a her­ni­ated disk in his lower back, Rivers will have six stand­out tar­gets in re­ceivers Keenan Allen, Tyrell Wil­liams, Travis Ben­jamin and Don­trelle In­man and tight ends An­to­nio Gates and Hunter Henry.

And Gor­don, who rushed for 997 yards and 10 touch­downs and caught 41 passes for 419 yards in 2016, is a pass­catch­ing threat out of the back­field.

“It’s an ex­cit­ing group, a deep group,” Rivers said. “We have five or six re­ceivers, three or four tight ends, three or four run­ning backs who can all con­trib­ute. … We’re go­ing to need to be pretty dang good be­cause I do be­lieve [the AFC West] may be the tough­est di­vi­sion in foot­ball.”

That Whisen­hunt is back at the helm of the high-pow­ered Charg­ers of­fense for the sec­ond straight sea­son and third year over­all is a bit of an up­set.

Most new head coaches clear out the pre­vi­ous staff and hire their own as­sis­tants, but the first thing An­thony Lynn did when he got the Charg­ers job in Jan­uary was re­tain Whisen­hunt, who spent eight years as a head coach with Ari­zona (20072012) and Ten­nessee (20142015) and four as an of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor with Pitts­burgh (2004-2006) and San Diego (2013).

“I thought it was very im­por­tant, be­cause you don’t want Philip, at this point of his ca­reer, learn­ing a new sys­tem,” Lynn said. “When you look at the most suc­cess­ful quar­ter­backs in the league, they’re not play­ing for dif­fer­ent co­or­di­na­tors ev­ery year, they’re in the same sys­tems. I want to win now, so you can put all that other stuff aside and make this thing work.”

The Charg­ers ranked ninth in the NFL in scor­ing last sea­son with an av­er­age of 25.6 points per game, eighth in pass­ing (262.4 yards per game) and 14th in to­tal of­fense (356.8 yards per game), but there is plenty of room for im­prove­ment.

“The red zone is an area we have to be more ef­fi­cient in — even though we scored a lot of points, we have room to grow there,” Whisen­hunt, 55, said. “And even though we were pretty good on third downs, we want to get bet­ter; that al­lows you to sus­tain drives, keep time of pos­ses­sion and score points.

“But prob­a­bly the big­gest thing we have to do is cut down turnovers. We just turned the ball over too many times last year.”

The Charg­ers led the NFL with 35 turnovers — 21 in­ter­cep­tions, a ca­reer high for Rivers, and 14 fum­bles lost. They were 21st in red­zone ef­fi­ciency, turn­ing 32 of 62 pos­ses­sions in­side the 20yard line into touch­downs. They ranked 11th with a third-down ef­fi­ciency of 42.5%, con­vert­ing on 85 of 200 third-down plays.

Through seven games, Rivers com­pleted 162 of 245 passes for 2,018 yards, with 13 touch­downs and four in­ter­cep­tions for a 102.4 quar­ter­back rat­ing. The Charg­ers won three of those games.

Over the last nine games, in which the Charg­ers went 2-7, Rivers com­pleted 187 of 333 passes for 2,368 yards, with 20 touch­downs and 17 in­ter­cep­tions for a 77.3 rat­ing.

“We had a num­ber of in­juries down the stretch, we played with a lot of of­fen­sive line com­bi­na­tions, and we had a num­ber of re­ceivers who were banged up,” Whisen­hunt said. “Philip was miss­ing some weapons, and when that hap­pens, and you want to win so bad, you have the ten­dency to press some­times.”

The Charg­ers look very good at the skilled po­si­tions. For their of­fense to click, they’ll need bet­ter play from the line, a task that grew more dif­fi­cult when pro­jected right guard For­rest Lamp, a sec­ond-round pick out of Western Ken­tucky, suf­fered a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury last week.

“There were too many times we missed op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause we didn’t do a good enough job in pro­tec­tion or run block­ing,” Whisen­hunt said. “We have to pro­tect Philip bet­ter and do some things run­wise where we don’t have as many neg­a­tive plays. We have to play bet­ter as a unit up front.”

K.C. Al­fred San Diego Union-Tri­bune

KEN WHISEN­HUNT has Philip Rivers, a six-time Pro-Bowl se­lec­tion, lead­ing his Charg­ers of­fense.

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