Once upon a time, there was a team who rode a string of successful seasons. They found undrafted free agents who could play, had Pro Bowlers and All-Pros a plenty, and made the playoffs only to be upended before achieving that championship glory. On the other side of the coin was a team that had talent, but they couldn't put it together. An injury here, a missed draft pick there, and some limited coaching held said team back from reaching its potential.
It almost feels as if the Houston Texans and San Diego Chargers have swapped places, doesn't it? In a lot of ways, I think they have, which goes to show the cyclical nature of the NFL. On Monday night, both teams will begin their 2013 season with one having a "Super Bowl or bust" mentality while the other could land anywhere between five and nine wins. Again, a lot has changed since the mid-2000s.
With no statistics to go off of, because preseason matters little here and last year's Chargers had a different coaching staff, let's look at where the Texans should take advantage of this match-up as it stands on paper.
When San Diego has the ball, I fully expect the Texans' defense to snuff out many, many drives. This expectation starts up front with the line play. San Diego has made improvements to their woeful offensive line with the drafting of right tackle D.J. Fluker and the signing of left guard Chad Rinehart, but this is a line with four new starters in 2013 who get to begin gelling against 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and an incredibly improved Earl Mitchell.
The weak link of San Diego's line may be left tackle King Dunlap, the massive ex-Philadelphia Eagle. Dunlap, who has never started a full season at left tackle, should be better than what San Diego fielded for 2012, but he was penalized seven times and allowed six sacks, speaking nothing of pressure, in 14 games last year. I would imagine that Wade Phillips and his blitz packages will look to take advantage of Dunlap with twists and stunts that could get him off balance and take advantage of his nascent relationship with Rinehart.
The cornerbacking duo of Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson should be able to handle San Diego's banged-up wide receiver corps. The Chargers lost starter Danario Alexander to an ACL injury, Malcom Floyd is coming off a preseason knee injury, and Vincent Brown's penciled in as a starter after missing a significant portion of the 2012 season with a broken ankle. In the slots, Brice McCain and Brandon Harris will draw rookie Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal, the latter of whom is just returning to practice following a bruised lung and concussion suffered in preseason.
Speaking of injuries, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention running back Ryan Mathews and tight end Antonio Gates. The 33-year-old Gates is certainly not what he used to be and should see a healthy dose of linebacker Brian Cushing, safety Danieal Manning, and/or linebacker Darryl Sharpton. As for Mathews, well, BRB already knows enough about him, his injuries, and his general struggles since being drafted. I'll use this to remind people how glad he was that Houston didn't draft him.
I haven't mentioned quarterback Philip Rivers yet, but a quarterback can only do so much if his weapons are hurt and/or aging and his offensive line is a huge question mark. If the Texans can force the Chargers into throwing non-stop and are allowed to bring the blitz consistently, Rivers should do what he did a lot last year: look up at the sky or force bad throws.
With the state of the San Diego offense right now, this is a game the Texans defense can dominate and win. If the defense does its job, staying up late on Monday will be well worth it for Houston fans.
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