OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates still garner the headlines, but the defense has been the most consistent unit for the San Diego Chargers en route to a 7-4 start in 2014.
The Chargers rank sixth in the NFL in pass defense this season, making them one of the bigger challenges quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ passing game have faced all season. Led by two-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, the Chargers are allowing only 221 passing yards per game and 6.8 yards per attempt from opposing quarterbacks.
“It could arguably be the best safety tandem we’ve played this year,” said offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak about Weddle and strong safety Marcus Gilchrist. “Those two guys are really good players and like quarterbacks back there. They do a great job.”
It’s quite a change from last season when San Diego qualified for the playoffs despite having the league’s 23rd-ranked defense and finishing 29th against the pass. The offseason acquisition of Brandon Flowers has paid major dividends as the 5-foot-9 veteran has the fourth-highest grade of any cornerback in pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Chargers rank 15th against the run in 2014, but Kubiak added that their depth has been a major reason why they’ve allowed only 19.6 points per game, good for fifth in the league. They’ve only collected 18 sacks all season, but veteran Dwight Freeney remains a player to watch despite being relegated to a situational pass-rush role at age 34.
“I think the biggest thing with this team is they’re playing a lot of people,” Kubiak said. “You have Dwight Freeney on your team and he’s playing 25 or 30 snaps a game, it tells you how deep they are. They’re rotating a lot of people [and] a lot of new faces when it’s third down and time to rush the passer. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Another “basketball” tight end to deal with
After doing an admirable job against All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham last Monday, the Ravens will face another challenge at the tight end position with the 34-year-old Gates still creating problems for defenses.
“You’re hoping that he’s going to age out at some point,” said head coach John Harbaugh as he laughed. “We all do at some point, but he hasn’t yet. He continues to adjust his game. He really does a great job of bodying up and making plays as a receiver. He’s still a downfield threat. He’s a go-to guy for Philip Rivers.”
He’s no longer a candidate to be a 1,000-yard receiver, but Gates has nine touchdown catches — the fourth-highest total of his career — and 491 receiving yards this season.
His 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame presents a challenge as he uses his physicality to outmuscle defensive backs and still has the speed to beat linebackers in coverage.
“He’s kind of a basketball player, kind of like how Graham is,” inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “When I’m on him or whenever we cover him, we’ve just got to make sure that we keep our hands on him. The big thing as far as covering guys like him is to just keep our eyes on him. He’ll pop out of the ground and make good plays.”
Koch, Mosley honored to be among Pro Bowl fan vote leaders
The latest Pro Bowl voting update had Sam Koch leading all punters and rookie C.J. Mosley second among inside linebackers.
After seeing teammate Justin Tucker make the Pro Bowl last year, the nine-year veteran Koch has been close before in his career and acknowledged how meaningful a trip to Honolulu would be. He ranks third in the NFL in net punting and seventh on punts inside the 20 this year.
“It would mean a lot,” said Koch, who was also the holder for 2010 Pro Bowl selection Billy Cundiff. “For all the support I’ve had from my family and my kids and all the people here, just going out and almost making it a couple of times, winning the fan vote to one year to becoming an alternate [in 2010], it’s on my bucket list in football.”
Meanwhile, Mosley is sixth in the league in tackles and has graded as the sixth-best inside linebacker in the NFL by PFF.
“It’s an honor and a blessing for people to notice all the hard work I put in and the great coaching I’ve received here,” Mosley said. “At the end of the day, the last thing I want is a Pro Bowl. We all want that Super Bowl and to play in the last game. But when your play is going good, you like to be recognized.”
The fans account for a third of the total voting with players and coaches making up the rest.
Rosburg plays peacemaker
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg found himself in the middle of the sideline altercation between wide receiver Steve Smith and Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro Monday night, which might have created a flashback to the coach’s younger days.
The 59-year-old assistant recalled being a bouncer back in 1976 when asked about his role in breaking up the scrum in New Orleans.
“I was saying the right things,” said Rosburg as he smiled. “I was trying to keep the peace as best I could. It came to me. I didn’t go seek it. It landed on my lap. At first, I defended myself and then I tried to help others.”