Lack of Roster Depth Cause for Chargers' Latest Meltdown

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystSeptember 22, 2013

The San Diego Chargers entered Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans a bit banged up.

Four starters missed the game with injury, including wide receiver Malcom Floyd, right tackle D.J. Fluker, inside linebacker Donald Butler and cornerback Shareece Wright. Left tackle King Dunlap suffered a concussion on the offense's last drive and left guard Chad Rinehart was unable to return after suffering  turf toe in the second quarter, forcing some major reshuffling along the offensive line and tentatively bringing the total number of starters out to six.

The lack of roster depth showed, as the Chargers melted down in the fourth quarter for the second time in three weeks, losing on a late Titans touchdown pass, 20-17. The Tennessee defense was able to stop a conservative Chargers offense late and drive 94 yards for the game-winning touchdown with just 15 seconds to play. 

Quarterback Philip Rivers was solid, but the Chargers also took the ball out of his hands late in the game, opting for a ground game to try to kill the clock with just a four-point lead. It was the conservative choice that actually carried increased risk because of the Chargers' lack of production on the ground and a very suspect secondary.

The running game averaged just 3.8 yards per carry behind a makeshift O-line and couldn't grind out the yards necessary to kill the clock when they needed it most. Leading by a touchdown, the Chargers ran the ball twice, burned a timeout, and attempted one pass on 3rd-and-long and had to punt from deep in their own territory. 

On the following Titans drive, the Chargers allowed the Titans to convert on 3rd-and-10 and 4th-and-3 through the air, which resulted in a field goal to cut the lead from seven to four. With six minutes left, the Chargers got the ball back, and the Titans had just one timeout after losing two challenges. 

Their conservative approach was undeterred by the fact that they needed at least three first downs to seal the win. The Chargers ran it seven times in a row, even though the clock stopped because of a holding penalty on backup guard Rich Ohrnberger.

Especially puzzling was the decision to run the ball on 3rd-and-9 on the final drive while still nursing the lead, even though the Chargers knew the Titans could stop the clock just before the two-minute warning. Giving Rivers a chance to convert through the air was the smarter play, with the understanding that he should find a receiver underneath or take off and run before risking the complete pass. Instead, it was a four-yard run by Ryan Matthews and a punt that gave Tennessee possession with 2:05 remaining.

Perhaps impacting that decision was the lack of production from the wide receivers without Floyd (out with a neck injury after leaving last Sunday's game against Philadelphia on a stretcher). Combined, Chargers wide receivers had five receptions for 41 yards in the game. That means 15 of Rivers' completions and 143 of his passing yards went to a tight end or back.

Rivers was efficient, but averaged just 9.2 yards per completion, which just further highlights a struggle to get the ball to wide receivers. Rivers did well, considering the circumstances; this failure points to a lack of wide receiver depth more than anything.

Instead of passing, the Chargers took the ball out of Rivers' hands and put the pressure on their depleted defense that almost predictably imploded on the final drive.

Cornerback Derek Cox shut down Kenny Britt, but the Titans just targeted Nate Washington, who finished with eight receptions for 131 yards. Two big gains by Washington were ruled incomplete, but were both close enough to make the Titans challenge. 

On the game-winning touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Justin Hunter, Crezdon Butler was in coverage. Butler was just signed last Tuesday as Shareece Wright missed the game with a hamstring injury.

Butler was beat, but the far greater concern was the fact that he was on the field at all. Thrusting an unsigned free agent into an immediate playing role—even as a sixth defensive back— is the very definition of a lack of roster depth.

Not all of the depth issues were even the result of injuries or the roster talent coming into the season. As Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego details, the Chargers made a big blunder before the game:

Donald Butler was originally not one of the Chargers' inactives submitted to the NFL on Sunday morning. The inside linebacker, however, determined during pre-game warmups he would be physically unable to play through a groin injury, so San Diego attempted to switch him onto an already submitted inactive list in favor of outside linebacker Tourek Williams. The league declared the switch came too late, costing the Chargers an able player in a 20-17 loss to the Titans. [...]

Where in the chain of command the Chargers misstepped is unclear, but coach Mike McCoy took responsibility, calling the gaffe a "mistake on our part."

Williams surely could have helped. Who knows how a fresh body might have helped the Chargers slow down a Titans running game that rushed for 170 yards on 29 carries, including 90 by running back Chris Johnson and 68 by quarterback Jake Locker.

If the Chargers don't get some players back from injury soon, they could be looking at a long year. Considering how well Philip Rivers has played so far, the Chargers are going to have to put the team on his back. Trusting the running game or the defense at this point is a far riskier proposition than allowing Rivers to cut it loose, even if that does mean risking a few more costly interceptions.