Tight End Carousel: We’ve know some for some time now that Antonio Gates will not play in the Chargers first four games this season. But, now his replacement Ladarius Green could miss Sunday’s opener against the Detroit Lions. Green was a full participant in practice on Wednesday but the Chargers announced after practice he was being evaluated for a concussion. On Thursday, the team confirmed his diagnosis, but Green returned and practiced fully on Friday. The Chargers re-signed veteran John Phillips, whom the team cut after the final preseason game. If Green doesn’t play, the Chargers will be without their top two tight ends for their first game, which will undoubtedly throw a wrinkle in the team’s game plan against Detroit. Green, who’s shown flashes of brilliance over the past few seasons, was expected to take on a larger role in the offense during Gates’ four-game absence. Phillips, along with incumbents David Johnson and Kyle Miller, are not nearly as effective as pass catchers compared to Gates or Green. Look for the Chargers to lean even more on new wide receiver Stevie Johnson and the rest of the wide receiving corps.
Defensive line domination: The Lions defense was tops in the NFL last season in average rushing yards allowed per game (69.3) and yards per carry (3.2). Although Detroit lost tackle Ndamukong Suh to the Dolphins, they acquired tackles Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker inside. The 6-foot-4, 345-pound Ngata missed all of training camp and all four preseason games, but should play Sunday. Whether his health will be a factor remains to be seen, but if healthy, the two-time All-Pro could give opposing linemen – and the running backs — some fits.
Running back by committee: Melvin Gordon’s NFL debut comes with high expectations. The Chargers first-round pick was less than stellar during the preseason, albeit with limited opportunities. Obviously, adjusting to the NFL is a process for all rookies. Expect Gordon to get the majority of the carries, but there’s no question Danny Woodhead, who missed 13 games last season, and Branden Oliver will be very much in the mix. Additionally, the Chargers essentially have four new starters on the offensive line, and the unit struggled to open running lanes in the preseason. It wasn’t very good in pass protection either; another reason Woodhead and Oliver will get snaps against the Lions.
Lions on the attack: Three Pro Bowlers anchor the Lions offense: Quarterback Matthew Stafford and receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. New to the group is rookie running back Ameer Abdullah, a second-round draft pick who – like Melvin Gordon – will be looking to make an impact. Abdullah joins Joique Bell, who ended the 2014 campaign with 34 receptions for 860 yards. Stafford, entering his seventh season, passed for more than 4,000 yards last season and finished the year with 22 touchdowns and an 85.7 passer rating.
Get after the quarterback: The Chargers pass rush was impressive in the preseason, particularly outside linebacker Melvin Ingram. Whether or not San Diego can build on that heading into the regular season is a real question mark for this team. Lions quarterback Mathew Stafford has a big time arm and isn’t afraid to move outside the pocket. Putting pressure on him will be imperative for the Chargers if they’re to “contain” wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
Corner concerns: This game is a test for San Diego’s secondary. Cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers should have their hands full with wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Johnson caught 71 passes for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014, while Tate notched career highs — 99 receptions, 1,331 yards and four touchdowns in his first season with the Lions.
“There’s a lot of great receivers in this league,” Flowers said. “He’s one of them. It doesn’t matter who we play. We want to step on the field and do what we’re supposed to do … He’s great when the ball is in the air. He can do everything, that’s why he’s respected the way he is. We just have to compete, challenge him and may the best man win. It’ll be a good test.”
PODCAST: Annie Heilbrunn & Andrew Burer discuss the probability of Ladarius Green playing on Sunday versus the Lions, plus a complete breakdown of the important matchups and what you should be looking for.