One key point of emphasis early on the for the San Diego Chargers in 2014 has been improvement in the red zone. While the Chargers were the fifth best offense in the league in terms of total yards, the team was only the 12th best scoring offense. Additionally, the offense ranked 23rd in red zone touchdown percentage at 51.52 percent. The team found the endzone only about half the time they entered the final 20 yards of opposing territory. And even though Nick Novak was outstanding in 2013, he led the league in field goals (13) from between 30-39 yards. Clearly the Bolts have to get better at finishing drives.
When breaking down the numbers, it’s apparent the Chargers ground game is the limiting factor in the red zone. Philip Rivers was a magician inside the 20-yard line last season. The Chargers front man had 22 touchdowns to only one interception in the red area during 2013, and with Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green looking like a deadly combo entering next season, the passing game should be the Chargers best bet to cross the goal line. The team only managed eight red zone rushing touchdowns last season ranking in the bottom half of the league. So what can the Chargers do to improve in 2014?
It starts with the backs. Ryan Mathews had a brilliant 2013 and finished seventh in the NFL in rushing yards. Unfortunately, he was the only back ranked top 10 in rushing to have less than seven touchdowns. The numbers got worse for Mathews in the red zone. The Chargers breakout back averaged 2.6 yards per carry and only scored five touchdowns within the opponent’s 20-yard line. Fans will most notably remember the debacle in Washington last season where the Chargers failed to score a touchdown after 1st and goal from the 1 in the waning moments of regulation. After settling for a field goal, the Bolts lost in overtime. And while Mathews wasn’t at fault late in the game, he was part of the Chargers’ inability to find a go-to red zone player.
Enter Donald Brown. Brown averaged 3.9 yards per carry in the red zone last season and scored the same amount of touchdowns as Mathews (five) on 17 less carries. Those numbers may appear less than impressive in comparison to normal YPC values, but remember most of the time these backs only need a yard or two to find paydirt. Additionally, consider the Chargers averaged 2.4 yards per carry in the red zone as a team last season. Brown has a nose for the endzone and will help the team inside the 5-yard line.
Outside of the backs, the Chargers interior line has to improve for increased red zone success. While the Chargers were the top ranked team in the NFL running to the left side of the line according to Football Outsiders, they ranked 12th running up the middle. The Chargers run up the middle 60 percent of the time — more than any other offense except Buffalo — and the addition of Chris Watt could be a key in the running game. If Watt can earn his way into the starting lineup, the Bolts should be better on the inside during 2014. The recent news revealing Jeromey Clary played with an injury in 2013 could also pave the way for improved line play this coming year. Most importantly, the line has to stay healthy this season as the unit rarely had an opportunity to gel together last year with countless injuries across the board.