Chargers Review: LB

The loss of Junior Seau was said to be a big blow to the San Diego Chargers. They lost his veteran leadership, his play and his energy on the field. The Bolts did not miss his play as they received production from several linebackers, but they sorely missed his unquestioned energy on the field – a spirit that lifted everyone around him.

Donnie Edwards moved back to the weakside after playing in the middle a year ago. The star of the defense simply improved on his Pro Bowl 2002 season by adding 33 extra tackles to his stats. The weakside is where Edwards has made his name known through the years and ideally where he is best suited. Only twice all season was he not the leading tackler in a game.

He was named Defensive Player of the Year by his teammates and passed 100 tackles for the seventh consecutive season.

His 6.5 stuffs was tops amongst the linebacking group as he was a force at the point of attack. All except one half stuff came with the Chargers winning, a testament to his leadership ability and will to win. The problem was the gaping holes left by the defensive line were tough to cover and the help from the middle did not come in time. As the defensive line was whipped, it left a blocker to move out in front and take Edwards out of the play. Often he had to shed blocks three yards downfield when ideally he should be pressing the ball carrier and not have to worry so much about the offensive linemen leading the charge.

Edwards again showed he is one of the better cover linebackers in the league. Edwards had nine passes defensed and two interceptions on the year. He also tipped another pass that was intercepted.

One of the few problems of Edwards' game was the lack of big plays. With so many holes through the rest of the defense, he was unable to key on the ball carriers and did not come up with game altering plays. Considering the compensation Edwards had to deal with, it is hard to blame him. He forced one fumble on the season.

Ben Leber began his second season entrenched on the strong side. Leber seemed to regress early on as often he would disappear for weeks at a time. In six of the sixteen games he played, Leber registered three or fewer solo tackles.

In the first quarter of games, when opponents were racking up the score, Leber was at his worst. He posted just 12 tackles in the first quarter and inside the Chargers twenty, Leber was non-existent.

Leber also had a tough time in pass coverage. A liability last year covering tight ends, Leber was victimized again this year. He does not have the ability to quickly identify routes and turn his hips fluidly.

His biggest problem seemed to be shedding blocks at the point of attack. As the defensive line was moved out of the way and the blockers made it to the second level, Leber could not free himself from blockers and tackles instead went to the cornerbacks and safeties.

The few times the defensive scheme was able to free him up, Leber took advantage. He had three sacks and five stuffs on the year.

After a promising rookie season, Leber admitted he was not where he should be. He has the talent to play and get better, but will need to be put in a better position to make plays. As the season progressed, Leber seemed to get a better feel for the game and the scheme and began to make plays. Now he will be challenged with a new system to learn.

Zeke Moreno earned the starting job out of training camp after grading out well in the preseason. Moreno had the tough task of replacing his childhood idol, Junior Seau.

Entering the season, Moreno was known for his big play ability, albeit in limited time. It seemed every time he was on the field, he was forcing turnovers.

This year, as the first time starter, Moreno became known for his slow feet and tackles four yards down the field. In the eyes of many, and rightfully so, Moreno's tackles were often around the ankles of his opponents – as they ran past him. The net effect was running backs being tackled five yard down the field as they dragged Moreno on their forward progress.

The third year linebacker had a decent year that rivaled what Seau put up in Miami. His 95 tackles were second on the team and he added two sacks, six stuffs, two fumble recoveries, one forced and four passes defensed.

Moreno came up with his best performances when the game was close, which wasn't often. Most of his big plays came in situations where the Chargers were still in the hunt to win. After they fell behind, Moreno may have been trying to do too much. His play on third down was enough to make the coaches replace him later in the season with a faster player.

Not blessed with sideline-to-sideline speed really hurt the team this year. With the ends opening up lanes inside the tackles, and a defender on each of the outside linebackers, Moreno could not close the gaps. Whether he was slow in recognition of the play, getting held up by playing too close to the line, taking bad angles in pursuit or not seeing a hole to burst upfield, Moreno failed to prevent the big plays that many middle linebackers would. In that sense he became a liability.

Moreno could be replaced this upcoming season as the team looks to gain a man in the middle with speed.

Stephen Cooper provided a nice spark on special teams and was thrown into the fire more and more as the season progressed, specifically playing more on third down coverage situations because of his speed.

In limited time on the field, Cooper had eight tackles, one sack and one interception. The interception was clearly the highlight of his season as he snared a tipped pass thrown by Brett Favre.

The undrafted free agent was placed on the field before the likes of Polk and Wilhelm because of his speed. Cooper is able to make plays based on his athleticism and his role could expand, especially if the team goes to a 3-4.

Carlos Polk continued his role as the special teams maven. A season after earning Special Teams Player of the Year, Polk came in second in tackles on the special teams unit. He has a knack for making the play and anticipating the action.

Unfortunately, Polk did not stand out on the field in the "big" package. Playing a reserve role, Polk saw most of his action in short yardage and finished the year with just six tackles, all but one coming in wins. He did add 1.5 stuffs all coming on first down and goal.

Polk is a little slow and has some trouble sliding off blocks to make plays. Three years into the league, it may be hard to justify bringing him back.

Matt Wilhelm didn't have much of an impact as a rookie, seemingly endearing himself to the doghouse early on. As a result, Wilhelm saw some action on special teams, missed a tackle and was inactive for the rest of the way. Wilhelm is expected to have a bigger role in the defense next year.

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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