In The Know is an ongoing series with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, Eric Williams of ESPN.com, gives insight on the Texans upcoming opponent.*
Coming off the bye week, what is the focus for San Diego heading into these final game at 4-6?
Williams: Well, I definitely think they focus on getting as many wins as they can. (Head coach) Mike McCoy still has a year left in his contract, so it's an evaluation for him whether the organization wants to keep him long-term.
In terms of the team itself, they have a core nucleus of young players that they like. Jatavis Brown, the inside linebacker, has played well for them. They have some guys on offense that are playing well right now. Melvin Gordon, No. 4 in the league right now in terms of rushing. He has rebounded really nicely off a rookie season where he didn't score a touchdown. He has 11 total touchdowns this season.
(Philip) Rivers was playing well until the last game heading into the bye week. He threw four interceptions in the fourth quarter. Of course, you can't do that. You can't turn the ball over, and they ultimately lost that game. They struggled going into the bye week at 4-6, so we'll see if they can get things turned around on the road in Houston.
Philip Rivers has had his ups and downs this year. He sets a passing record and then, in Week 10, throws four interceptions, but also for over 300 yards and three touchdowns. What's been the story line for Philip Rivers this year? It seems like his name comes up every year as one of those elite quarterbacks or on the cusp on being elite, but what's held him back this year?**
Williams: Well, I think losing some of his playmakers early on this season set him behind a little bit. His No. 1 receiver, Keenan Allen, goes down in Week 1 at Kansas City. Keenan Allen was playing really well and they're expecting him to be one of the top five receivers in the league, so that hurt. The next week they lose Danny Woodhead, who's kind of their third-down back and someone Philip really trusts in the end zone. So, losing those guys back-to-back really hurt in terms of Philip having trust in guys on the perimeter that he could go to on a regular basis. Other guys have kind of had to step in and fill the void.
(WR) Tyrell Williams is one of those guys that have played really well, a second year pro out of Western Oregon who was an undrafted rookie last year. He kind of assumed that role that Keenan Allen was going to fill and has done a nice job. Hunter Henry, a tight end who they got in the second round this year out of Arkansas has also played pretty well, in terms of being a guy Philip can get down the middle of the defense. Antonio Gates is still playing at a pretty high level, but obviously he's 36 years old, he's not going to give you the kind of explosive plays he gave earlier in his career. And then (WR) Travis Benjamin, who they got in free agency, has done a nice job of being a vertical threat. But really, it's been the playmakers and missing Allen and Woodhead as Rivers has struggled a little bit, and then the offensive line hasn't played to the potential, so the pass protection has been a little spotty.
When you look back at the Chargers schedule, there are so many close games and 4th quarter comebacks by opposing teams where they've given up some leads late in the game. Is there a common thread among the wins or the losses that, reflecting back on the first half of the season, that you can see has been the common denominator for any of those games?
Williams: I think a lot of it has to do with taking care of the football. This is a team that heading into Week 11 had 22 turnovers, which led the league. When they're able to take care of the football in the final minute of the game, more times than not they can go ahead and hold onto those victories. When they turn the football over, that also leads to losses so I think taking care of the football is kind of a common thread.
Another thing is red zone. Even though they're averaging about 29 points per game, they struggle in the red zone and getting the football into the end zone. I think they're at about 50 percent and they'd like that number to be higher. And then on the flip side, defensively, they want to keep opponents out of the end zone. They're near the bottom of the league in terms of red-zone defense. So those two things, more efficient red-zone performance and taking care of the football were two points of emphasis during the bye week.
Joey Bosa missed the first four games of the year with a hamstring, but he's having a tremendous rookie year. How has defensive coordinator John Pagano used him in that defense?
Williams: They move him all around in that 3-4 defensive scheme. Base defense, he plays defensive end for them and then they'll move him out to outside linebacker at times and in third -situations they go to more of a four-man front and he's their defensive end, kind of edge-rusher.
As you mentioned, he has played pretty well. He had four sacks through the first three games, tailed off a little bit and hasn't had a sack in the last three games, but still has been a playmaker for them on defense and a guy they can count on to make plays to make that defense go. This is a defense that's giving up just 85 yards per game, that's No. 5 in the league, so they've done a nice job against the run. That's helped them get into more manageable third-down situations where they can come in and sack or get after the quarterback.
So far Bosa has played pretty well. I'm sure they would've liked to have had him for those first four games, maybe they'd have a couple more wins now.
How about Derek Watt, the fullback and younger brother of J.J. Obviously, people in Houston are a little bit curious about him, he's going to make his debut at NRG Stadium. What's his rookie season been like and that whole transition to the NFL?**
Williams: I think it's been solid. He was a sixth-round pick so he certainly wasn't guaranteed a roster spot, but he was able to earn that starting fullback role during training camp. He's played about 100 snaps and about ten snaps a game, they don't use the fullback a whole lot here anymore, two tight ends or three-receiver sets. But, when he's been in there blocking for Melvin, he's done a nice job and he's also done a nice job at catching the ball out of the backfield. They use him in special teams as well.
He was looking forward to playing against his brother, J.J., but obviously that didn't happen with J.J. on IR right now. But, I think he's still looking forward to going down there and playing against his brother's team in the Texans.
Running back Melvin Gordon has 11 touchdowns, and last year didn't even find the endzone. What's been different for Melvin Gordon this year?
Williams: First of all, in the offseason he made more of a commitment to getting better, and that actually started down in Houston when he went down with Adrian Peterson and worked out there during the offseason to try to figure out why Adrian Peterson has had such a successful NFL career. But, I think kind of the work ethic and the mindset of being great, he was able to kind of glean some things from A.P. in his offseason work. He's healthier. He had offseason surgery, he had microfracture knee surgery going into the offseason and was able to work as hard as he needed to get ready for training camp.
Then, the offensive line has been better in front of him. He's actually getting some running lanes and not getting hit in the backfield as much as he was his rookie season, and he's a more decisive runner. He knows the offense better, he can anticipate where the running lanes are going to be pre-snap, and is able to hit the hole quick, get to the second level and I think the talent has always been there. I don't think there was any doubt that he was a quality running back and now you're kind of seeing that on a week-in, week-out basis now that he's more confident in what he's doing offensively.
What's the latest update with the Chargers possibly relocating to L.A. or securing a new stadium in San Diego.
Williams: The vote didn't pass here. It got 43 percent, they need to get two-thirds due to the regulations here in California and, obviously, that's a high bar to reach in terms of the voting public.
Right now, Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos has said he's going to wait until the end of the season to determine what they're going to do, whether that's go back for another vote in San Diego on a new stadium or move to Los Angeles and share the stadium in Inglewood there. They already have a deal in place with Rams owner Stan Kroenke, so right now it's kind of just wait and see what's going to happen.
I think they're kind of moving forward on both fronts. They're looking to Los Angeles in terms of places where they can have a practice facility and possibly play in the interim, whether it's the StubHub Center or sharing the Coliseum with the Rams. And then, I think they're also going to take a close look at the possibility of building a new stadium and what it would take to get a successful vote here, whether it's a downtown stadium project or going back to Mission Valley, which currently houses Qualcomm Stadium.
So, it's kind of like how it's been the past two or three years, we don't have any clarity on the issue and we're going to have to continue to wait at least another month and see what happens.
Check out some of the best shots from Wednesday's practice as the Texans prepare for the Chargers on Sunday.