What We Learned
Three things we know after the Chargers' 27-10 victory
Updated: Monday October 22, 2001 9:37 AM
SAN DIEGO -- After getting mixed results in the soft, early-season portion of their schedule, the San Diego Chargers stamped themselves legitimate playoff contenders Sunday with a decisive 27-10 defeat of visiting Denver. Here are three observations from the game:
1. When it comes to assigning the job of calling defensive signals in San Diego, maybe the third time is the charm.
The Chargers' defense issued a vote for permanency on the behalf of Mark Banker, who debuted Sunday as San Diego's interim defensive coordinator. The Chargers have had three different men in the defensive coordinator position this season, but none have performed as admirably as Banker, a third-year assistant who never before had called defensive plays in the NFL.
Banker, who was the team's cornerbacks coach, replaced Jim Vechiarella this week after Vechiarella resigned Monday amid criticism that his conservative calls played a key role in San Diego's 29-26 overtime loss at New England last week. Vechiarella, the team's linebackers coach, had himself been serving on an interim basis in the place of Joe Pascale. The Chargers' fifth-year defensive coordinator is out indefinitely after undergoing three different back surgeries in the past two months.
Banker, 45, entered Sunday not having called defensive signals anywhere since 1994, when he resigned after 14 seasons as Cal State Northridge's defensive coordinator. Thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight in a key division game, and asked to match wits with one the best offensive coaches in the NFL in Denver head coach Mike Shanahan, Banker acquitted himself quite well, thank you.
His Chargers forced three turnovers, including two Brian Griese interceptions, which help set up 14 San Diego points. In addition, the Chargers sacked Griese four times, held him to a long gain of 18 yards passing, and harried him into a 64.3 quarterback rating. Denver was limited to just 263 yards of offense -- it came in averaging 332.6 -- including a modest 21-carry, 81-yard rushing performance (47 yards fewer than its season average).
Afterward, Chargers defensive stalwarts such as linebacker Junior Seau, defensive end Raylee Johnson and cornerback Ryan McNeil all sang Banker's praises, endorsing his smart, but aggressive style that featured frequent blitzing and created steady heat on Griese. With a lead to protect, Banker did not make any of the safe-but-sorry mistakes that doomed the tenure of his predecessor, Vechiarella.
In San Diego, it's Banker. Now more than ever.
2. Hey, Broncos fans, it's not time to panic about your starting quarterback's shoulder problems. Yet.
Griese is no doubt playing in some discomfort. At times Sunday, he looked like the precision passer that he is. After starting sluggishly and overthrowing several receivers -- he was just 3-of-7 for 32 yards and an interception in the first quarter -- he settled in and started picking the Chargers secondary apart.
Griese was 17-of-21 in one stretch of the second and third quarters, and had his Broncos in position to overcome San Diego's 13-0 first-half lead. But there were some troubling indications that his game might be impacted all season by the effects of his third shoulder injury in the past three years.
For one, Griese's long game was missing. He threw several deep balls, but Denver's longest gain in the passing game went for 18 yards, to receiver Rod Smith. In the fourth quarter, when he usually does his best work, Griese was a ho-hum 6-of-12, for 57 yards, two sacks, and one interception on a tipped pass. All told, Griese was 26-of-41, for 212 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, four sacks and a 64.3 rating.
After throwing just four interceptions in 336 attempts last year, this year Griese already has tossed seven in 190 attempts. We're not saying his arm is definitely bothering him, but five of those picks have come in the past two weeks, in big division losses at Seattle and San Diego.
Griese's brief track record says he's headed for a stint on the sideline at some point. He has lost playing time to shoulder injuries in each of the past two seasons, never really returning last year after spraining his AC joint in an huge Monday night victory against Oakland in early November. That's one reason why the Broncos decision to sign him to a lucrative long-term contract extension this past offseason was questioned in some circles.
For now, Griese appears in no immediate jeopardy of giving way to backup Gus Frerotte. But this much we know: In Denver, Terrell Davis' knees aren't the only long-running injury saga to keep track of.
3. The Broncos defense gave up 379 yards in San Diego, but it proved one thing: You can take away LaDainian Tomlinson if you really want to badly enough.
Denver shut down the talented rookie running back like nobody else has been able to do so far this season, limiting him to 58 yards on 25 carries (an average of 2.3). Take away one 20-yard run that Tomlinson was able to log, and the former TCU star had just 38 rushing yards on his other 24 attempts. He also caught one pass for 11 yards.
Entering Sunday, Tomlinson was second in the NFL in rushing, with 486 yards and seven touchdowns on 127 attempts (3.8 average). But he was a virtual non-factor against the Broncos, who consistently walked strong safety Kenoy Kennedy up into the box, giving them an eight-man defensive front against the rush.
Tomlinson said he wasn't frustrated, just flattered. Before Denver, nobody had paid him as much attention as the Broncos. Still, he said the Chargers must not abandon the running game in situations like Sunday, in order to keep an opponent honest. His 20-yard run came in the second half, after the Broncos' strategy had limited him to 21 yards on 12 first-half carries.
Denver, of course, won the ground battle and lost the war through the air. Unable to run, San Diego's passing game clicked for 272 yards, with quarterback Doug Flutie finding seven different receivers for completions. For the rest of the season, that might be the blueprint for both the Chargers, and defenses around the league.