Once again the San Diego Chargers failed to fulfill expectations in 2011. Every year the Chargers seem to enter the season with the tag of “the most talented team in the league” and every year they fail to live up to it. Last season they finished strong but a mid-season lull of six straight defeats (five of which were by seven or less) made that finish little more than window dressing.
This season, the Chargers are entering the year somewhat under the radar. No one is picking them as a favorite to go all the way, no one is describing them as one of the–let alone the–most talented team in the league. In spite of this, the Chargers front office has still assembled an extremely talented team for Norv Turner to direct in his sixth season as head coach in San Diego.
What can he make of this team? Can he get this team over the hump and delivering on their perennially high talent level? What dark secrets lie in the closet ready to drag this team back into mediocrity for a third year in a row?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) A Full Deck of Riches
A few years ago the Chargers had one of the best pairings of outside linebackers in the entire league with Shaun Philips and Shawne Merriman terrorizing the AFC West and wreaking havoc on the rest of the league. However, injuries have taken their toll on both and Larry English has failed to earn a starting spot, let alone justify his first round selection. Meanwhile, Antwan Barnes is viewed as more of a situational pass rusher. The Chargers fixed that this offseason and now have four weapons at outside linebacker that most teams would be deeply envious of.
In Jarrett Johnson they have the best run-defending outside linebacker in the league. With Philips they have a savvy veteran and talented all-rounder. Counting Barnes they have the devastating edge rusher for passing situations. That makes rookie Melvin Ingram the potential joker in the pack. The only question mark and the fascinating thing to see develop this season will be to see how defensive coordinator John Pagano juggles his personnel to maximize the production from all four of them.
2) One-Two Punch… at Nosetackle?
Most teams these days are looking for a one-two punch at the running back position, a pair of ball carriers who complement each other with differing skill types. Well the Chargers have taken that philosophy and applied it to the nosetackle position. In the imposing forms of Aubrayo Franklin and Antonio Garay, they have a pair of nose tackles who take completely different approaches to playing the position. Franklin is your classic two-gap nose tackle who looks to control the center and occupy the middle of the defense, while Garay looks to physically dominate the center and get into the backfield to disrupt the offense from the heart of the line. Combine that with Cam Thomas who impressed us last season as a run defender and even contributed as a pass rusher and you have an impressive platoon at the heart of the defensive line.
There is talk of the Chargers using Garay as a defensive end which would benefit both their base and sub-package defenses. Garay is the Chargers’ best pass rusher from the defensive line and they have long needed to use him that way. Thomas could also be a candidate for a Vince Wilfork role (stealing a page from Bill Belichick’s playbook) in sub packages. The Patriots keep Wilfork on the field to improve their subpackage run defense, as much as to get after the passer, and the Chargers would do well to use such a tactic having conceded more than 5.0 yards per carry in their nickel defense last season.
3) Lighting Up the Skies
In spite of the loss of their Vincent’s, one to Tampa Bay and one to a broken ankle, the Chargers still have plenty of talent and potential in their passing game. Led by Philip Rivers who finished last season extremely strong, the Chargers should be able to put up big numbers in 2012. In the shape of Malcom Floyd there is still the devastating vertical threat in the offense, Floyd registered nearly 20 yards per reception last season and only dropped one pass. At tight end, Antonio Gates proved that when healthy he is still an uncoverable option over the middle, grading positively as a receiver in all but one of his 13 starts last season. Meanwhile, new addition Robert Meachem brings with him from New Orleans first-round talent, consistent production in a similar down the field role, and a hunger to prove that he can succeed without Drew Brees. The talent is all there, surely this passing game can’t help but come together in an explosive form, right?
4) Free to Roam
Considering the level at which their corners played last season the Chargers needed some sure play in their secondary, and they got exactly that in the shape of Eric Weddle. For the past three seasons Weddle has been one of the elite safeties in the league and there is no reason to think that won’t continue this season. Equally adept as both a run defender and in deep coverage, Weddle has developed from a slot defender at the very start of his career into one of the few safeties that you trust at the back of your defense whatever coverage you run. He can break on the ball well enough to be a threat in a Cover 2 defense while having the range to play as a single high safety in a Cover 1 defense. Weddle offers the Chargers a great deal of flexibility in terms of coverage if the rest of the defensive backfield takes a step forward this season, but is a pivotal safety blanket if they maintain their 2011 form.
5) There to Carry the Load
Throughout the offseason, Ryan Mathews was being touted as a bell cow for the Chargers running game; someone to dominate the carries and grind the clock for the offense as he moved the chains. Well, the injury bug has bitten again and without the versatile Mike Tolbert, the immediate reaction is that things look a little thin in the backfield. Well not necessarily so, there is talent aplenty at this position. The Chargers have a number of players like Jackie Battle, Ronnie Brown and LeRon McClain who have all shown in the past, to varying degrees, to be capable contributors at the highest level of the game. McClain has put some of the weight back on that he lost to play for the Chiefs last season and this is when he is at his best, with good athleticism for a big man. Brown took the start in the Chargers’ second preseason game while Battle was a solid contributor for division rival Kansas City last season. If, as his preseason injury would suggest, Mathews is not capable of taking a heavy workload this season, there are plenty of backs to pick up the slack for him on a Rivers driven team.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Offensive Tackle… What Me Worry?
The offensive tackle, at least on the left side, should have been a strength for the San Diego Chargers but instead we approach the regular season with major question marks. In spite of a pair of terrible seasons, Jeromey Clary is still entrenched at right tackle, ensuring that Philip Rivers is in for another busy season of pressure coming at him from his open side. Clary surrendered 56 total pressures last season, tacked 11 penalties onto that poor pass protection, and failed to contribute as a run blocker also. The Chargers only move to add competition for him at right tackle was to add Mario Henderson who spent 2011 out of football after being cut loose by Oakland for poor performance, hardly identifying a weakness and trying to improve it.
Rivers’ blindside should have been secure. The addition of Jared Gaither late last season was an undoubted success and that should have continued into 2012 with Gaither finally getting his long-desired contract. However, with the recurrence of Gaither’s back injury from a couple of years ago, the left tackle position is now thrown into question as well. We all know how well the Chargers’ backups have fared at left tackle in recent seasons…
2) Secondary Concerns
I mentioned earlier that Eric Weddle was an important safety blanket for the rest of the defense and the performance of his fellow defensive backs in coverage is why Weddle is so important. While Antoine Cason finished strong showing his potential as a corner moving forwards the rest of the secondary didn’t inspire such confidence for the future. The Chargers’ top six defensive backs earned a combined coverage grade of -24.1, when you consider that Weddle on his own earned a coverage grade of +8.8 that tells you just how grave the coverage situation is for the Chargers. Steve Gregory is now plying his trade in New England, so the pressure will be on Atari Bigby to step in and provide an upgrade next to Weddle as a run defender and in particular, in coverage. The question at corner opposite Cason comes down to who is coming through to replace Quentin Jammer? 2008 was the last time that Jammer’s season coverage grade was above zero and last season he bottomed out with a coverage grade of -13.0, in seven games last season quarterbacks targeting his coverage earned a QB rating of 100.0 or above. Can Jammer recover from that sort of a season? Who is coming through to push the 33-year-old aside?
3) Underperforming Ends
Defensive end has long been a weakness and a self-inflicted wound on the San Diego defense. Players have been kept around long past their prime with the Chargers slow to replace them which has has unnecessarily handicapped the team. The nosetackles for the Chargers have long outperformed their counterparts at defensive end and John Pagano must make more use of Antonio Garay’s pass rushing skills by getting these underperforming DEs off of the field more in sub packages. This doesn’t solve the issue of what do in their base defense where the Chargers have cast their lots for the season.
Based on preseason starts, and last year’s snap counts, the Chargers will stick with Corey Liuget and Vaughn Martin as starters. These two combined for a -22.0 overall grade last season and between them contributed 19 total pressures on 527 pass rushes. Simply put, these two have to provide more or once again opposing quarterbacks will have a comfortable pocket to step up into to avoid the Chargers’ edge rushers. If the Chargers do plan on getting Antonio Garay snaps at defensive end, they need to have an extremely short leash on Liuget and Martin if they don’t raise their game immediately at the start of the season.
4) Running Room?
Much as the Chargers may have some talented ballcarriers in the backfield, they need room to work and their offensive linemen didn’t do a great job creating such room last season. The Chargers only had two positively-graded run-blocking offensive linemen last season, Jared Gaither and Brandyn Dombrowski, and unsurprisingly their pass-oriented tight ends didn’t offer a great deal of help to the outside either. You only need to put in the tape of the Chargers’ home loss to Oakland in 2011 to realize that putting Dombrowski on the field isn’t a good idea so it is up to the incumbent starters to raise their game. The real promise inside is that Louis Vazquez forgets how he finished last season (ending the season with an overall grade of -8.5 in the final game) and starts this season as he started last year. However, with Nick Hardwick and Tyronne Green struggling for three years in a row, San Diego’s backfield will likely be working hard for their yardage this season.
5) Will the Passing Game Come Together?
I mentioned earlier that the talent is there in the passing game but as the season approaches and with players entering new roles the nervous anticipation must be building for Chargers fans. Will this new passing attack come together? Will there be a seamless transition? Can Rivers overcome a set of preseason and training camp performances that have been roundly criticized by league observers? He certainly finished last season strongly, but he has a new look receiver corps to bring together in 2012. Can Malcom Floyd step up to take more snaps and more targets while maintaining that same level of production? Can Robert Meachem deliver on his talent in a more prominent role than he featured in for the Saints? Does Antonio Gates have another season in those legs? There is talent enough here for this to be a strength but after the loss of talented young receiver Vincent Brown to a broken ankle there are plenty of chemistry questions for the Chargers to answer in 2012.
What to Expect
The entire AFC West is in flux so expectations, to an extent, are out of the window this season for the Chargers. That old term is going to rear its ugly head again for San Diego as they have the talent to take this division away from the other three, but at the same time, they’ve have had that talent for the last two years. Motivation shouldn’t be a problem for the Chargers this season as Norv Turner is surely feeling the heat after two mediocre campaigns–I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Chargers take the AFC West and qualify for the playoffs. Turner may not get another chance to build from a season around .500 in San Diego.
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