Continuity on O-line carries Chargers into playoff chase
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By DAN GREENSPAN
COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) Philip Rivers knows what it is like playing behind a patchwork offensive line, something the Los Angeles Chargers quarterback has done all too often in recent seasons.
The Chargers are enjoying an unusual patch of good health up front this season, one of the main reasons they have won six of their past eight games to put themselves back in the playoff chase after an 0-4 start.
"I think it's been a big key if you see where we are in the numbers sack-wise in comparison to, shoot, the rest of the league, really, and what we've been in years past at this point," Rivers said Wednesday.
The Chargers (6-6) have allowed a league-low 13 sacks. Rivers has been sacked three times in the past five games, drawing a direct line between continuity on the offensive line and success in protecting the passer.
Left tackle Russell Okung, center Spencer Pulley and right guard Kenny Wiggins have started every game, while left guard and right tackle have been manned by two players apiece. Rookie Dan Feeney has started the past five games at guard after Matt Slauson tore his biceps in a home win over the Denver Broncos. Turf toe sidelined Joe Barksdale for four games, with Michael Schofield stepping in.
Still, the Chargers have started some combination of those seven linemen in every game. Their next opponent, Washington (5-7), has played 21 different groupings at some point in a game this season.
"I don't know what the difference is, why we're all healthy. It's been a breath of fresh air, though," Wiggins said.
Now in his fourth season with the Chargers, Wiggins is surprised to find himself as the franchise's longest-tenured lineman. Barksdale and Pulley have spent three seasons with the team, while Okung is in his first season after signing as a free agent in March. The lack of familiarity among the group makes their play all the more impressive.
Rivers makes it a point to join the offensive line for meetings and film study during the week, which has helped accelerate their development. As they have grown more comfortable playing together, Rivers and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have been able to tap into the line's growing institutional memory to make subtle adjustments on plays or audibles. It was a development that has Rivers harkening back to some of his most productive and successful seasons.
"Guys can handle more and more and more when you've got the same group together," Rivers said. "You almost felt like you could just call any play that you ran. It didn't matter if it was in the game plan. `Oh yeah, they'll be fine.' It allows you flexibility to make adjustments on the run because you know that it's not a lot of guys that just got here this week or they're shuffling in and out of the lineup."
The Chargers are averaging 5.8 yards per play, which ranks sixth in the NFL. However, their scoring production is lagging because of inefficient red-zone execution. In a 19-10 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, Los Angeles went inside the 20-yard line four times and managed one touchdown.
Getting more out of those scoring chances this month could be the difference between making or missing the postseason.
`Whoever has been here the last two years, they haven't had a very meaningful December game the last few years, so here we are," Rivers said. "I think it's good to acknowledge that and talk about it, because it is different. It is different and it's exciting and it's wild. You spend all offseason to get into December and have a chance. I think we are all focused on Washington and what's ahead this week and that challenge that they present."
Wiggins doesn't foresee any letdown from the offensive line, even against Washington defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who has nine sacks.
"I've said it all year: If all five of us and Phil and the backs are on the same page, we can block anybody," Wiggins said.
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Updated December 6, 2017