Of course, some would quickly dismiss Rivers from the discussion based on the Chargers' 4-5 record and their overall underachievement, but the argument can be made that Rivers is solely responsible for keeping San Diego's AFC West title hopes alive. He leads the league in passing yards (2,944) and touchdowns (19), and is one of only three quarterbacks with a passer rating above 100.
He has been able to post those numbers along with five 300-yard passing games in the team's first nine contests with a host of backups playing key roles.
Any loss in personnel requires an offense to make adjustments, but Vincent Jackson's holdout and suspension coupled with Malcom Floyd getting hurt left the Chargers without an established starter at wide receiver. And even Antonio Gates, who picked up much of the slack, missed Sunday's victory over Houston with a foot injury. Consequently, Rivers took the field against the Texans with Gary Banks, Seyi Ajirotutu, Patrick Crayton, and Randy McMichael. Keep in mind, the team's starting running back (Ryan Mathews) is a rookie.
In looking at how the Chargers have remained the league's top offense without a full complement of weapons available, it is important to note that coach Norv Turner has done a masterful job of crafting game plans that fit the team's current personnel. At the same time, Turner is still accentuating Rivers' strengths: Throwing the deep ball, accuracy and touch. Rivers is at his best when given the opportunity to throw the ball down the field. Turner has cleverly mixed personnel packages and formations to create deep-ball opportunities for Rivers.
Of course, Gates has been the centerpiece of the attack, and Turner's deployment of the tight end has opened up the field for Rivers. Against the Titans in Week 8, the Chargers used a series of motions and bunch formations to get Gates in favorable matchups, and Rivers repeatedly connected with his top target on a variety of intermediate and vertical routes. On their go-ahead connection in the third quarter, the Chargers used the combination of motion and a "rub" concept to get Gates free down the sideline. While the play design allowed Gates to get open, it was Rivers' quick decision-making and accurate tear drop that led to the 48-yard score.
Rivers also deserves credit for tweaking his game to keep the Chargers' offense rolling without all his weapons. He has incorporated more play-action to compensate for the losses of Jackson and Floyd. Both were capable of running past defenders with their sheer speed, but the Chargers' current set of receivers lack the same burst and explosiveness. Rivers, however, sets them up for vertical throws by deftly hiding the ball on play fakes to freeze defenders.
At this point, Rivers is on pace to surpass Dan Marino's single-season mark of 5,084 passing yards. While accomplishing that feat alone is enough to vault him into serious MVP consideration, it is his exceptional leadership skill and poise that has him on the verge of securing the award for the first time.
Rivers has rallied the Chargers from second-half deficits the past two weeks, and has guided his team back into postseason contention after getting off to a disappointing 2-5 start.
With Floyd and Gates set to return after the Chargers' bye and Jackson a week after that, Rivers will soon have a full arsenal available to take aim at Marino's mark and another postseason run. Rivers heads into the second half of the season as the favorite to win the league's MVP award.
In breaking things down, the key to the pressure is the synchronization of Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk executing an overload blitz. The Packers lined up in a 3-3 front with five defensive backs. Matthews is aligned at left outside linebacker with Hawk positioned as a stack linebacker and Woodson at the slot. On the snap, Matthews works up the field drawing the attention of the offensive tackle. Woodson blitzes off the edge, but comes underneath Matthews through the B-gap. Hawk aligns behind Matthews prior to the snap, but shoots through the B-gap, which attracts the attention of the play-side guard. The defensive end helps create a void in the middle by working across the face of the guard to occupy two blockers (center comes over to help the guard) in A-gap. With each of the Cowboys' interior blockers occupied by the orchestrated movement at the snap, Woodson runs unimpeded to the quarterback for a big hit. This blitz led to Woodson's sack and forced fumble in the third quarter, and Matthews' 62-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Nemesis in disguise
Asante Samuel reprised his role as Peyton Manning's biggest nemesis in the Eagles' 26-24 win over the Colts. He has always been a ball hawk, but defensive coordinator Sean McDermott creatively took advantage of Samuel's skills and instincts by switching the corner's responsibilities in coverage during the final stages of the game.
On his clinching interception, Samuel aligned over Pierre Garcon in his customary cornerback position against the slot formation on his side. However, he walked back to a deeper depth prior to the snap, and exchanged responsibilities with Quintin Mikell upon the snap. Samuel played over the top as a half-field safety with the Mikell and nickel corner Joselio Hanson playing trail technique underneath Garcon and Blair White. Manning read the man coverage over the slot, and floated a pass down the middle to White. Samuel, however, is reading Manning's eyes and quickly races over to pick off the pass before White can make a play on the ball. Samuel's awareness was on full display here, but it was McDermott's deployment of Samuel in a hybrid two-man look that led to the critical turnover.
Key to resurgence in Oakland
If you're looking for a key to the Oakland Raiders' surprising surge, then you should set your sights on the vastly improved defensive line. The unit, which features tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly and ends Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy, is a collection of athletic freaks that dominate at the point of attack.
Seymour spearheads the attack with his power and quickness, but it's his relentless effort that sets the tone. Kelly acts as the hammer on the inside, and his ability to function as a run stopper eliminates the ground game between the tackles. Houston and Shaughnessy are stout players on the edges with the quickness to seamlessly transform into rushers in passing situations.
Coordinator John Marshall has helped the unit by mixing in a handful of blitzes with OLB Kamerion Wimbley or a variety of defensive backs coming off the edges to create one-on-one matchups for the defensive line. Seymour, Kelly, Houston and Shaughnessy have produced 16 of the team's 27 sacks.
The battering of the quarterback has not only been effective at snuffing out drives, but it has created an intimidating effect that has altered the way that opponents attack the defense. As a Seattle Seahawks' personnel executive told me, the Raiders' defensive line "bullies" you upfront and dares you to swing back.