Chargers take care of depleted Bucs defense to stay in playoff hunt

Originally Published: December 23, 2008
By Ned Macey | Football Outsiders

Three weeks ago, it seemed certain that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be in the playoffs and the San Diego Chargers would not. Three Tampa Bay losses and three San Diego wins have changed the outcome entirely. After struggling on defense again, the Bucs now need help to make the playoffs, while the Chargers are the favorites in what is essentially a one-game playoff with Denver.

The Chargers' offense -- especially their passing game -- has been among the league's best all season. Philip Rivers is the league's top-ranked passer in traditional quarterback ratings and ranks third in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings. (DVOA is explained here.)

Rivers was exceptional in Week 16, continually working the ball down the field. Vincent Jackson continued his ascension into a legitimate No. 1 receiver with 111 yards. The passing performance against a stout Tampa Bay defense was truly impressive.

The key for the Chargers, however, was the jump-starting of their running game. LaDainian Tomlinson is having the worst season of his career, but he was freed for 90 yards on 21 carries. The 4.3 yards per carry were Tomlinson's best since Week 8 and his fourth-best this season. The Chargers' inconsistent running game has held the offense back from being elite. If Tomlinson can gain consistent yardage, the Chargers are among the most potent offenses in football.

Tomlinson found sizable holes throughout the Buccaneers' defense. Tampa Bay was among the league's best run defenses in football through Week 9, ranking fourth according to DVOA. Since then, they have been a woeful 25th. The low point was the Week 14 Monday-night humiliation at the hands of Carolina that started what is now a three-game losing streak. Struggles had happened before, but the rest of the Buccaneers were able to pull out a win. Adrian Peterson gained 85 yards on 19 carries in Week 10. Rookie Kevin Smith gained 86 yards on 16 carries in Week 11. They held the Saints in check on 18 carries, but the Panthers exploded the next week, followed by 152 yards for Michael Turner against Atlanta.

One key reason has been missed time by safety Jermaine Phillips, who excels at run support. He missed the Minnesota, Detroit and San Diego games, as well as a game against Kansas City in which the Bucs gave up over 150 yards to the tandem of Jamaal Charles and Kolby Smith. Phillips is now on injured reserve with a broken forearm.

Phillips played against Carolina and Atlanta, but the team was limited up front in both those games. Starting defensive tackle Jovan Haye did not play against Carolina, and only played sparingly against Atlanta. The other starting defensive tackle, Chris Hovan, missed the Atlanta game. Quite simply, the Buccaneers' defense has been unable to compensate for their absence.

On Sunday, the damage was not devastating, but Tomlinson consistently got to the second level. Linemen could break the line and get a body on tackling machine Barrett Ruud. While Ruud was occupied, nobody replaced Phillips as a force near the line of scrimmage.

Tampa Bay is simply not built to play without a dominant defense. Jeff Garcia remains fearless and an above-average quarterback even at this stage of his career, but he can only do so much. The Bucs have almost no running game. Garcia excels at finding open targets underneath and then hitting a few big plays a game to Antonio Bryant. Through three quarters, the plan had worked to perfection, and the Buccaneers led 24-20.

After San Diego scored to start the fourth, Garcia lost his patience. He forced a third-down throw into traffic for only his fourth interception of the season. Two possessions later, Garcia was intercepted again, and Antoine Cason's return touchdown made a close contest look like a blowout.

The interceptions were much-needed for a defense that has struggled all season to create turnovers. The Chargers' defense has improved somewhat since the elevation of Ron Rivera to coordinator, but the team lacks a consistent pass rush. Without the pass rush, opposing quarterbacks are making fewer mistakes than they did a year ago. After intercepting a league-high 30 passes last season, they have only 13 this year. The good news is that six have come in the past three weeks.

They will need their opportunistic defense for this week's winner-takes-all AFC West title game against the Broncos. The Broncos are a more extreme version of the Chargers, with an offense that is even better and a defense that is even worse. Their one weakness is Jay Cutler's tendency to force passes. If the Chargers can come away with a pair of picks, they might finish their unlikely run from 4-8 to the playoffs. The offense, particularly Rivers, is certainly up to the task.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, now needs help to reach the playoffs. If the Cowboys beat the Eagles, Dallas goes to the playoffs thanks to its 13-9 Week 8 win over Tampa Bay. The Bucs should end on a good note, with a theoretically easy home contest against Oakland remaining. Their late-season inability to stop the run might very well cost them a playoff berth and lead to an offseason in which developing defensive depth will be crucial.

Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.