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Things of that nature: The Gates-less Chargers

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Football is finally here. Let's talk about the San Diego Chargers' passing attack in the absence of the team's star tight end.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

August is my least favorite month of the year. When the Detroit Lions start training camp every summer, I'm immediately juiced by the fact that the regular season is just around the corner. Then, I look at the calendar, realize that said "corner" is actually about six weeks long, and try to temper my excitement. I do not succeed. As a result, the ensuing weeks turn into the mental equivalent of pacing around an empty room--starved for football, brimming with energy, but lacking any real outlet for it. So, I watch the Matthew Stafford mic'd up clip against the Cleveland Browns three times a day. I read human interest piece after human interest piece. Inevitably, my fervor inspires my brother (with whom I watch games) to say things like, "Look, Chris. I know we both love the Lions, but maybe the fourth quarter of a Week 2 preseason game isn't the healthiest time to get angry enough to audibly swear around strangers." He's right, of course. But I can't help myself. August is straight garbage.

But all that is over. Now, finally, thankfully, we're free to shake off the doldrums of Offseasonal Affective Disorder and return to that glorious time of year when things like "appropriate public behavior" and "personal and professional obligations" become mere abstract concepts. Football's back, guys.

If you read "Things of that Nature" last year, thanks, and welcome back! If not, here's a quick explanation of the column: If you've ever listened to Jim Caldwell speak, you probably get the title. If not, randomly select a transcript of a Caldwell press conference and count the appearances. Every week, I'll either speculate about the Lions' upcoming matchup, or focus on something the Lions have done well (or poorly) recently. Add in a few bad jokes along the way, and there's your column. With that out of the way, let's talk about the San Diego Chargers.

The Lions caught a huge break back in July when the NFL levied a number of suspensions that included one to Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. Gates has been a fixture in the Chargers' offense seemingly since the beginning of time, and if he's not the most dangerous piece in San Diego's offense at this point in his career--although he very well could be--he's certainly the most reliable. Gates still does work all over the field for San Diego, but his ability to get open between linebackers and safeties down the seam, and then adjust to the ball in flight, remains as good as just about anyone's. It feels like we've been watching this play for the past decade (because we have):

Gates

No big deal, just a crucial 15-yard pickup on third-and-long against the best defense of the past five years. The chemistry Gates has with Philip Rivers is unreal.

So, with Gates out, who do the Chargers use to try and exploit that area of the field? The natural first choice is Ladarius Green, San Diego's second tight end. Green is an athletic freak, but so far in his career, he's been unable to convert that athleticism into production, posting sub-Eric Ebron numbers in 2014. Granted, Green has never been relied on to be the third, or even fourth, receiving option on his own team the way Ebron was supposed to. But that's also kind of the point: Green isn't even the third or fourth receiving option on his own team. And, as I write this, he's currently being evaluated for a concussion, and questionable to play on Sunday. Let's rule him out.

My next thought was that the Chargers would supplement Gates' production by using one of the team's top two holdovers at wide receiver from 2014, Keenan Allen or Malcom Floyd. But, watching San Diego's offense last season, there wasn't much action over the middle for Allen, Floyd, or even the departed Eddie Royal. Their route trees seemed to consist largely of deep comeback, corner, and fade routes. Any work in the middle, when it came, seemed to come on shallow slants or the occasional deep post, but nothing in that intermediate zone up the seam in which Gates has made his living.

SD Routes

Of course, these were all preliminary, anecdotal observations based on watching maybe four or five Chargers games from last season. But, looking at the splits between where Chargers WRs were targeted last season, the numbers seemed to back up those impressions, particularly for Floyd and Royal.

Floyd Allen Royal
Left 35 54 46
Right 41 41 31
Middle 15 25 16

This isn't out of left field. Teams tend to throw to their WRs outside the numbers already. Teams that have Hall of Fame­-caliber tight ends just tend do it even more. But, unless Mike McCoy installs entirely new route combinations in his offense for the first four games of this season, I don't think a team without its starting two tight ends is going to be equipped to attack the gaps in the middle of the field. So what does that mean for the Lions defense in Week 1? If anything, it should ideally have positive implications for Glover Quin.

Quin had himself a season in 2014, and a lot of his success (and interceptions) came as a result of his ability to break to the sideline and undercut deep routes. With the Chargers likely lacking the personnel needed to consistently attack the middle of the field, and thus presumably going to Allen/Floyd down the sideline, Quin needs to be free to employ that skill on Sunday. In the past, this was easy, because the Lions' defense had a rangy, seam route-covering monster on the field for literally every play.

Bears 1

Whenever possible, I try to avoid the terrible game film from Soldier Field, but this play is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. The Lions show a Cover 2 Man Under look here, with Quin and James Ihedigbo (who bails deeper at the snap) each occupying a deep half of the field, while the linebackers and cornerbacks play man coverage underneath. It's a coverage choice for obvious passing situations, and the Bears are down late here. DeAndre Levy is matched one-on-one with Martellus Bennett (90 catches, 916 yards in '14) up the seam.

Bears 2

Levy runs with Bennett and stays over top of him as the tight end gets up the seam. With Jimmy Clausen stepping up to throw, Quin can already see Bennett isn't getting the ball. That extra half-second allows him to break on the deep route to Alshon Jeffery. He undercuts the throw, collects the interception, and Matthew Stafford takes a knee. Game over, playoff spot clinched.

Of course, we don't even know if Levy will be playing on Sunday, now that the nature of his injury has been brought to light (though its severity remains unclear). So, given his absence (or at least limitation) on Sunday, the Lions won't necessarily have that reliable presence up the middle of the field. If I had to guess, I'd say the Lions compensate for his absence in non-nickel situations by dropping their linebackers deep in the middle of the field and the safeties' responsibilities pushed more toward the sidelines:

Cover 2

Doing so may very well open things up underneath for Danny Woodhead, who makes his living leaking out late and picking up small chunks of yardage, but you can live with that. Woodhead averaged 8.0 yards per catch in 2013 before missing most of last season with an injury. That's a full 1.5 yards less than Joique Bell averaged last season. I don't think anyone focuses on keeping the ball out of Bell's hands when game planning for the Lions. (Sorry, Joique.)

With all that said, the wildcard in this equation is Stevie Johnson, who signed with the Chargers in the offseason and projects to do a lot of work out of the slot. With four preseason catches to his name, we don't necessarily know what his role will look like. He's listed as the No. 2 wide receiver on San Diego's depth chart, so I'm not sure what that means for Floyd's responsibilities. If the Chargers stay true to form, hopefully we'll see GQ come through with another one of his ridiculous sideline grabs on Sunday.

Football's back. Go Lions.