During the Chargers' run as the class of the AFC West, one thing that didn't plague them was sacks, as QB Philip Rivers was rarely brought down more than one or two times in a game. However, that hasn't been the case on multiple occasions this season.
Rivers was sacked a career-high seven times Sunday in a 20-17 loss at St. Louis, a team that Chargers clubs of recent memory would have handled easily. But this San Diego squad struggled greatly with protection, giving up multiple sacks yet again. In the Chargers' four losses, they have allowed an average of four sacks compared to just an average of one in their two victories. Rivers' 18 sacks taken is second in the league only to the Bears' Jay Cutler.
Although the return of OLT Marcus McNeill, widely considered a top-notch pass protector, was expected to help, it wasn't apparent in his first game back from a holdout.
"I just wish we'd started faster, gotten a better rhythm going earlier," McNeill told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "A lot of those blitz packages should've been picked up way easier than they were, because we spent all week picking them up."
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The Chargers have had a number of issues this season, most notably their horrendous special teams, which had yet another major gaffe Sunday when PK Nate Kaeding slipped on a field-goal attempt, causing the kick to be blocked. But Rivers has been the one thing holding the entire operation together, as his 334.7 passing yards per game is tops in the league. That's why keeping him upright is so critical.
For the Bolts to have any chance to dig themselves out of their 2-4 hole and catch the Chiefs in the AFC West, they have to make sure that Rivers, not exactly the most fleet of foot QB, doesn't stand in the pocket and get killed time after time. He already has enough problems with his top two targets, TE Antonio Gates and WR Malcom Floyd, both injured and possibly having to miss time. If he has to worry about taking a big hit every time he drops back, he'll be much less willing to air it out deep, something he does as well as any signalcaller today.
While getting better protection from the offensive line, tight ends and backs is the best way to keep Rivers in one piece, getting the running game going also will be essential for San Diego to right the ship. The Chargers are only averaging 92 yards rushing in their four defeats, so getting consistent production from Ryan Mathews is an absolute must for them to take pressure off the passing attack.
There's plenty of time for the Bolts to turn around their season after yet another slow start, as nobody is going to run away with this division. But if they don't begin their rebound in the next couple weeks, their hole might be too deep to dig out of.