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LBs will be key to defense

Discussion in 'Latest Chargers News & Headlines' started by robdog, Aug 10, 2005.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

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    <strong>August 10, 2005</strong>
    Source: <a href="http://insider.espn.go.com/nfl/trainingcamp05/news/story?id=2109501&action=login&appRedirect=http%3a%2f%2finsider.espn.go.com%2fnfl%2ftrainingcamp05%2fnews%2fstory%3fid%3d2109501">ESPN</a>

    Quarterbacks
    Drew Brees' performance last season was nothing short of spectacular, but it also was more than a little surprising. The biggest change from 2003 came in his ability to make better decisions and minimize mistakes. His 27-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio illustrates his improved ability to throw balls away, instead of forcing them into coverage.

    A good run game, shockingly effective blocking from the offensive line, a conservative passing scheme made up of low-risk throws and a record-breaking year from tight end Antonio Gates all were instrumental in rescuing Brees' career. But after cashing in on his fantastic season (thanks to the franchise tag), can Brees back it up?

    Waiting in the wings is '04 first-round pick Phillip Rivers, who was late getting to camp last season and actually helped open the door for Brees' breakthrough year. Rivers has good physical tools and tremendous makeup, but needs game reps to speed up his development.

    CFL alum Cleo Leman steps into the No. 3 role vacated by Doug Flutie. Leman has size and poise, but his accuracy and decision-making need work. San Diego needs to get Rivers plenty of preseason reps, because unless Brees has another lights-out season, and Rivers stumbles badly in August, Brees probably will have a new home and Rivers will be San Diego's new starter in '06.

    Running backs
    Regardless of the players surrounding him, LaDainian Tomlinson provides instant legitimacy to any run game. He probably is the league's best all-around back, and his astounding numbers make that claim hard to argue. In addition to gaining 1,776 total yards and scoring 18 TDs last season, Tomlinson again proved his durability by logging 392 touches and missing only one game, despite fighting a nagging groin injury much of the season.

    He has great natural rushing instincts and is a very good receiver, but he undeniably turned in fewer big plays in '04. His average per carry (down to 3.9 yards from 5.3 in '03) might have been affected by his injury, but that only supports the case for getting him more relief. Backup Jesse Chatman, a stocky and decisive inside runner, is a nice changeup.

    Michael Turner, a good developmental No. 3, has good speed and some power, but needs experience. Fourth-round pick Darren Sproles is extremely undersized but very explosive. He impressed in the offseason and should be in the mix as a nickel back and return specialist.

    Fullback Lorenzo Neal still attacks defenders on lead blocks but, at 35, doesn't consistently hit the moving target or make contact at the second level. Backup Andrew Pinnock doesn't appear ready to play. If the Chargers rotate their backs just a little more frequently, this can be a productive unit and Tomlinson should be fresher and more effective.

    Wide Receivers
    The most productive pass-catchers on this team last year -- tight end Antonio Gates and running back LaDainian Tomlinson -- were not wideouts. Some of that has to do with a conservative offense, and the current unit has a chance to be decent, but there is little margin for error.

    Keenan McCardell, 34, no longer runs many vertical routes, but still is one of the league's craftiest receivers. He has a knack for finding soft spots in defenses, a skill the Chargers' scheme relies heavily on. McCardell takes great care of his body and probably can play another two years.

    Eric Parker has become a very good route runner and, despite his willowy frame and so-so speed, has vertical skills and big-play potential. He can be a good complement to McCardell if Reche Caldwell isn't ready. A former second-round pick, Caldwell was having his best season in '04 when a Week 6 knee injury landed him on injured reserve. He has improved his ability to push off and separate vs. man-to-man coverage, and can be a tough matchup.

    Kassim Osgood, a huge target and good leaper, is an excellent red-zone option. He lacks speed, but can contribute in dime and goal-line packages. Second-round pick Vincent Jackson has eye-popping size and tools, but his small-college background and raw route-running skills could make '05 a developmental year. The good news for this group is that with such potent passing weapons at other positions, the receivers draw mostly one-on-one matchups.

    Tight End
    One of the feel-good stories of last season was the emergence of Antonio Gates, a former undrafted free agent who overcame a limited football background to win first a roster spot, then a starting job and eventually a Pro Bowl berth. He posted huge numbers in '04 and set a single-season record for TDs by a tight end (13).

    Gates became a safety blanket for quarterback Drew Brees and, because of his size and athletic ability, one of the toughest matchups in the league. Not surprisingly, Gates -- a former Kent State basketball star -- goes after high passes like rebounds. He stretches defenses and, for such an inexperienced player, has a great feel for defensive formations and schemes. Just as important for San Diego, the attention he draws makes doubling other Chargers receivers difficult for opponents.

    Backup Justin Peele has excellent hands and actually is a better blocker than receiver, but is limited by mediocre speed and poor in-line-blocking size. Ryan Krause isn't much of a blocker, but is fast, athletic and could become the primary pass-catcher at the position if anything were to happen to Gates. This isn't a powerful unit, but is very skilled.

    Offensive line
    The most influential work done by a position coach last season might have been that of Hudson Houck. He molded a mediocre group into one of the league's better units, one that allowed only 21 sacks and provided excellent run blocking. But Houck has since moved on to Miami, leaving replacement Carl Mauck with only decent talent and quite an act to follow.

    Experienced left tackle Roman Oben wins battles with his feet and positioning, while right tackle Shane Olivea is a tough guy with good feet, who still has some trouble with edge rushers. Backup tackles Leander Jordan and Courtney Van Buren lack range and quickness, but both are strong lock-on players who also can play depth inside.

    Left guard Toniu Fonoti is the ultimate power player, a 350-pound brawler who doesn't run well, but is a run-blocking bulldozer. Right guard Mike Goff is a smart, consistent veteran, but his athleticism is less than ideal. Reserve guards Bob Hallen (experienced but limited) and Kris Dielman (a power player and pretty good athlete who is on the rise) provide adequate depth.

    Second-year center Nick Hardwick is quick, agile and already one of the league's better position blockers. Backup David Brandt is functional. The Chargers drafted three linemen in the late rounds -- tackle Wesley Britt, guard Wes Sims and center Scott Mruczkowski -- so there are developmental prospects here. The $60,000 question: Can this unit accept a coaching transition and play as well as it did in '04?

    Defensive line
    In coordinator Wade Phillips' first season in San Diego, the Chargers switched to a base 3-4 defense and improved in most areas, including a huge leap from 25th to third in the league in rushing defense. The key is nose tackle Jamal Williams, who has outstanding strength at the point of attack and whose ability to play two-gap or one-gap techniques gives the defense great flexibility. He can handle double teams, control opponents' interior run games and penetrate or bull rush on pass plays.

    The Chargers used one of two first-round picks to draft Luis Castillo, who will back up Williams, but also has the quickness to play outside in a 3-4. Rising star Igor Olshansky is quick, penetrates effectively for a two-gap end and is difficult to handle when he is on the move. End Jacques Cesaire is active and efficient but has limited power.

    Adrian Dingle, who has some pass-rushing prowess, and Quincy Scott, a quick one-gap penetrator with intriguing inside pass-rush skills, are the reserves at end. San Diego has an unusual three-man front in that most of the linemen get by on quickness and penetration, rather than bulk and power, as usually is the case in this scheme. This group is at its best twisting, stunting and penetrating.

    Linebackers
    This unit is the foundation of the Chargers' defensive improvement, and is chock full of playmakers who don't need a great deal of protection from their defensive line. Veteran Donnie Edwards made the successful transition from the outside to inside linebacker last season, and was a tackling machine. He has a knack for slipping blocks and making plays in space. He still is excellent in coverage and has great range.

    The other interior starter is Randall Godfrey, another smart search-and-flow linebacker who needs to avoid short-area power situations. Stephen Cooper, a good special teams player, is the top interior backup. But the Chargers hope run-plugging Carlos Polk (15 games missed in '04) can stay healthy, because Edwards and Godfrey both are 32. Outside linebacker Steve Foley (10.5 sacks) isn't the most gifted edge rusher, but has a great feel for blitzing and rarely makes mistakes.

    Ben Leber, the other outside starter, is steady and sound vs. both the run and pass. San Diego is most excited about first-round pick Shawn Merriman. Fast, athletic and rangy, he should become a playmaker and sack artist soon enough. Matt Wilhelm and Shaun Phillips are good enough perimeter reserves, and Phillips will be especially valuable as a situational edge rusher. An excellent unit.

    Defensive Backs
    Though the Chargers finishing next to last in passing yards allowed last season, the secondary played better than the statistics indicate. Starting cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence have good potential and excellent man-to-man cover skills. But Jammer hasn't provided the consistency or number of big plays expected of a former first-round pick.

    Sammy Davis, another former first-rounder who began last season as the starter, could push Florence. He hasn't made enough plays for a player with his talent, but at least should help the Chargers match up well in nickel and dime packages. Reserve corner Jamar Fletcher is small, but fluid and savvy. A safety likely will be used instead of a backup corner in subpackages for more physical matchups.

    Strong safety Terrence Kiel is an in-the-box tackling machine, but his diagnose skills and stiff hips limit his range in coverage. Free safety Jerry Wilson is aging and seemingly in decline. Free agent Bhawoh Jue, formerly a reserve cornerback in Green Bay, could beat out Wilson in training camp. Jue isn't a perfect fit, but his range and feet would be an upgrade. Clinton Hart and Hanik Milligan are much better special-teams cover guys than safeties at this point, but both will play in nickel and dime schemes.

    Special teams
    This unit certainly performed acceptably in '04, but what might be remembered most from the season is kicker Nate Kaeding missing a potential game-winning field-goal attempt in the playoffs. It has been a long offseason for the young kicker, who is exacting and very hard on himself, but the coaching staff seems to have faith in Kaeding.

    As a rookie, he was a respectable 20-for-25 on field goals, but missed some chip shots along the way and his kickoffs are just average. With a little more consistency and focus, he can become a very dependable player. Punter Mike Scifres is coming off a great year and seems headed for big things. He has a very strong leg and gets outstanding hang time. Only one-third of his punts were returned last season.

    Rookie Darren Sproles -- explosive, fast and elusive -- seems born (and certainly was drafted) for NFL return duties. He will get a shot at both jobs. If he struggles, Eric Parker can competently handle punt returns and Drayton Florence likely would return kickoffs. The Chargers believe in building through the draft, so they naturally have a number of quality young reserves to build good kicking game cover teams.

    Coaching
    Players know what to expect from head coach Marty Schottenheimer. An old-school coach who preaches fundamentals and abhors mistakes, he leaves no gray areas in terms of what he wants done. Mostly, the Chargers made their coach happy last season, ranking third among NFL teams in turnover margin (plus-15), leading the league in red-zone offense and committing the fewest number of interceptions.

    San Diego plays with a quiet but intense efficiency that is a reflection of its coach. The team is fiscally conservative and gets more out of developing its draft picks and mid-level free agents than most teams. On offense, Schottenheimer preaches ball security and seeks to control the clock and wear down opponents.

    Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips favors an attacking 3-4 scheme that delivered a meaty 33 takeaways last year. The front seven is active, thrives off penetration and range, and effectively protects a secondary that is a work-in-progress. This is a young team with talent, strong coaching and a game plan for success that it follows through on.
     

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