Chargers Backs Will Challenge Bucs in the Passing Game

The Buccaneers have the NFL’s top-ranked rush defense in 2012, and the Chargers’ ground game is tied for just 19th in the league so far.  From that standpoint, it would seem as if the home team will have a significant edge on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium when it comes to the San Diego running backs against the Tampa Bay defensive front.

However, San Diego has something of an equalizer in that battle, and it’s Philip Rivers’ right arm.  When it comes to stopping Ryan Mathews, Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown this Sunday, the Buccaneers’ defense is going to have to do it on the perimeter and in the flat as much as between the tackles.

“I don’t know if we’re still first in the league but we complete more balls to the running back to anybody in the league,” said Rivers.  “So we really ask a lot of them in the passing game as receivers and as pass protectors.”

He couldn’t be more right.  San Diego throws to its running backs more than any other team in the league, and with greater accuracy than any other team.  Among all quarterback with at least 50 passes this year, Rivers ranks first in three related categories: percentage of all of his pass attempts that go to running backs, percentage of all of his completions that go to running backs, and completion percentage on passes to running backs.  Here are the top five in all three categories:

Percentage of Total Pass Attempts That Go to Running Backs

Player Atts. Atts. to RBs Pct.
1. Philip Rivers, SD 263 85 32.3
2. Carson Palmer, OAK 330 96 29.1
3. Ryan Fitzpatrick, BUF 256 67 26.2
4. Drew Brees, NO 342 87 25.4
5. Matt Schaub, HOU 249 61 24.5

Percentage of Total Completions Caught by Running Backs

Player Atts. Atts. to RBs Pct.
1. Philip Rivers, SD 175 73 41.7
2. Carson Palmer, OAK 201 71 35.3
3. Ryan Fitzpatrick, BUF 158 53 33.5
4. Drew Brees, NO 209 64 30.6
5. Brandon Weeden, CLE 185 54 29.2

Completion Percentage on Passes to Running Backs

Player Atts. Comp. Pct.
1. Philip Rivers, SD 85 73 85.9
2. Jake Locker, TEN 16 13 81.3
3. Aaron Rodgers, GB 42 34 81.0
4. Peyton Manning,DEN 41 33 80.5
5. Tony Romo, DAL 50 40 80.0

Clearly, there is a correlation between the first two tables.  The quarterbacks who have a lot more attempts to running backs are also going to have a lot of completions to running backs, assuming they are making those plays work.  But the third chart is quite a bit different after Rivers, and that shows that San Diego is making those plays work more than the other teams that throw to their backs a lot.

The Bucs have already faced two of the quarterbacks on those first two lists, and they have indeed had to contend with some serious RBs-as-receivers issues.  Oakland’s Carson Palmer, for instance, completed 17 passes to running backs in last Sunday’s 42-32 Tampa Bay win, including eight for 95 yards and a touchdown to fullback Marcel Reece.  On the other hand, New Orleans’ Drew Brees completed only four passes for 32 yards to the dangerous Darren Sproles against Tampa Bay in Week Seven, though Sproles also found the end zone.

According to this chart on FootballOutsiders.com, the Buccaneers rank 21st in the NFL in pass defense against opposing running backs.  Tampa Bay is giving up an average of 47.1 receiving yards per game to backs.

Keeping the San Diego backs in check in the passing game could be a critical part of Sunday’s outcome.

“We’ve got a nice mix at running back going with [Mathews] and Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown mixing in there, with Le’Ron [McClain] there at fullback.  It’s a nice group back there in the backfield.”

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