Remade Defense Not Yet Ready for Prime Time

The Chargers look forward to capping their preseason Thursday, finishing up against the visiting San Francisco 49ers. But in unearthing nuggets from the preseason, quarterback Philip Rivers might have said it best, as the team had to rally to beat the Cardinals Saturday night.

"Really, I think it was good for us to not have it go so smooth," he said. "If everything had gone perfect in this game, we would have floated into that first game, kind of. Now it will really make everybody (know) we've got to bear down. It's perfect."

After missing the playoffs last year and showing but one postseason win in three seasons, the Chargers tinkered with their roster. Not so much on offense, as the Chargers scored the second-most points in the league in 2010.

It's the defense that got the makeover, with five new starters likely taking the field Sept. 11 when the curtain rises against the Vikings at Qualcomm Stadium.

And to some degree, it shows.

The biggest shakeup has been at inside linebacker, with the signing of veteran Takeo Spikes. While the other starter inside will undoubtedly be talented and full of potential, there's some finger-crossing that goes with plopping two players who've never taken an NFL snap to start opposite him. Donald Butler and rookie Jonas Mouton are those two Chargers, and it's clear Butler has won the job.

But he's yet to win over all observers, having been out of position and getting snookered too often in trying to anticipate plays instead of staying at home and providing solid resistance.

Another newbie is veteran Bob Sanders, the 2007 NFL defensive player of the year, who has played in only nine games the past three seasons.

Sanders has looked stiff and has overcompensated as well with his eyes in the backfield while the team gets beat downfield. The good news is he is healthy and most are confident he'll be fine when the regular season rolls around.

"We obviously have a number of new players and backup players playing on defense," coach Norv Turner said. "And we are not as consistent as we need to be."

Some see the Chargers' recent preseason performance in Game 3 as a blessing. Instead of getting an inflated view of their play, the Chargers realize there is much to clean up before Sept. 11, when the regular season begins.

The starters will play very little against the 49ers on Thursday. That makes the coming days of practice critical for a team looking for a rare fast start in regaining its status as an elite NFL team.

The offense doesn't get a free pass, despite Philip Rivers looking keen this summer. The running game -- and that includes the run-blocking -- has yet to find any consistency.

Rivers is a star, but he needs some offensive diversity to remain upright.

Ryan Mathews, who had yet another fumble Saturday, has 109 yards on 19 carries -- nifty, but 48 yards came on one carry.

Mike Tolbert has a 2.8-yard average and no touchdowns this preseason; Mathews has a rushing score.

But Turner, on the surface, isn't panicking.

"It's hard to evaluate your running game until you get to go for four quarters and play an entire game," he said, of the top two backs. "I thought we had some good runs; thought we had some breakdowns."

TE Gates shaking off rest-caused rust


TE Antonio Gates
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Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates finally saw his first game action since Dec. 5, as he slowly works his way back from plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

Among Gates' two catches for 18 yards against the Cardinals was one good for five yards and a score.

"It was good, man," he said. "It was like riding a bike again. There's still a lot of rust, but I think the best thing is just going out there getting the repetitions and see how I feel being in a live game."

--DE Corey Liuget, the team's top pick, continues to impress. After showing well against backups in the first two preseason games, he saw plenty of action against first-stringers and played well against the Cardinals. His forced fumble in the second half helped fuel the Chargers' rally.

--WR Bryan Walters caught the go-ahead touchdown pass against Arizona and might have overcome the long odds of earning a roster spot. Walters also had a 103-yard kickoff return this summer and has shown some reliable hands.

"Every day I'm learning something new and now I go back to practice and learn from this game," said Walters, a Cornell product. "I know I did a lot wrong things out there too; just keep learning every day. You got to take advantage of every opportunity you get. You just got to keep playing hard."

--DE Darryl Gamble is another undrafted prospect looking for a job. And after playing well earlier this summer, he was the one recovering the fumble for a touchdown late in the game. "It's easier to do my job when I got great talent around me," he said. "My first NFL touchdown, it's overwhelming. When guys get healthy I will still be fighting for reps but I still got to show my talents on special teams."

--The Chargers hope backup QB Billy Volek never sees the field during the regular season. But he proved again in bringing the Chargers back for a thrilling victory over the Cardinals that he's ready if called upon. That's a great luxury the Chargers have; not many other teams have such a viable option if their starter went down. "You have to continually work to get better," said Volek, who clicked with Walters for 14 yards in the closing seconds for the win. "I don't care if you are Peyton Manning or Cam Newton." And about his showing on Saturday? "It's definitely fun and you have to take advantage of it," he said.

--FS Eric Weddle is likely looking at a fine after being flagged for unnecessary roughness on a hit.

--Dante Hughes and rookie Marcus Gilchrist have battled for the No. 3 cornerback role. It appears Gilchrist will be the first backup, with Hughes serving as the nickel back.

--The Chargers' defense took its share of lumps against the Cardinals, allowing Larry Fitzgerald to haul in an 80-yard scoring pass in splitting CB Antoine Cason and Weddle, and ILB Donald Butler not staying at home on a 34-yard scoring reverse. Philip Rivers also got hit with a pick-six when Patrick Peterson returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown.

"We went out and gave up two big plays on defense," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "When you turn the ball over for a touchdown, you dig yourself a big hole." But despite the miscues, the Chargers didn't hang their heads in winning the game in the final 3 seconds. "I liked the drive to get us back in it," Turner said.

--San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders has started staff meetings in forming a plan to tie a proposed new Chargers stadium downtown into a concept for an entertainment district and expanded convention center. Sanders faces an uphill battle in convincing voters to send tax dollars to the project. The Chargers remain among the candidates to move to Los Angeles, if a venue is ever built up there.

PLAYER NOTES

--ILB Stephen Cooper was thought to be headed to IR with a torn biceps injury. But he talked the Chargers out of ending his season and he is trying to play through the setback. It remains to be seen if he can do it, but the Chargers are expected to make a determination early in the season.

--RB Jordan Todman, a sixth-round pick, has shown enough in running the ball and other roles that he will likely make the team.

--RG Louis Vasquez, it appears, has held off Tyronne Green for the starting role. Vasquez took most the reps with the first team in the game against the Cardinals.

--OLB Larry English has battled a chronic foot problem which derailed the majority of his camp. He was briefly fit, but now has a hamstring issue. This former first-round pick continues to be a huge disappointment.

--WR Vincent Brown was out for most of training camp with a quad injury; he did see game action on Saturday. Brown has a lot of ground to make up, but as a third-round pick, he'll be given every chance to do just that.

--OLB Shaun Phillips continues to be slowed by a strained hamstring; he missed the past two games and likely won't play Thursday.

--OLB Travis LaBoy has been nursing a groin injury and didn't play Saturday. The injury isn't believed to be significant.

--WR Patrick Crayton underwent surgery last week to remove bone spurs from his ankle. But the team thinks he will be ready for the opener.



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