Chargers Review: S

The play of the safeties in the San Diego Chargers secondary was nothing short of alarming. If not for the late season emergence of Terrence Kiel, this unit would likely be nominated for worst in the modern era. Luckily, the future may be bright for this unit with Kiel and Hanik Milligan.

When an eight-year veteran is starting for the first time in his career, there is trouble brewing. Jerry Wilson started all 16 games playing free safety. His main responsibility was lending over the top support to the cornerbacks.

Wilson had 82 tackles, good for third on the team. The problem with many of those tackles was the catches allowed. He was generally a step late in maneuvering to the ball.

When the ball was placed behind the corners, in a zone that should have been covered by Wilson, he would get there but allow the catch. A step away from a play is still a step away. The biggest advantage to that was the three forced fumbles he caused, by no means amnesty from his sluggish play.

As Gary Molyneux so eloquently said, "One of the warning signs for a last place finish is if players like Jerry Wilson are starting for you."

Terrence Kiel, shot three times before the season began, expectantly came back a little rusty. Despite the setback, Kiel played in all 16 games and took over as the starting strong safety when Lassiter went down.

His play on special teams, where he had nine tackles – good for third on the team – led him to an increased role on defense. After such a traumatic experience it was a way to ease him back into the game.

Early in camp Kiel had made enough strides to warrant talk of him starting. He got his chance late in the season and provided some nice run defense. Lending credit to that statement, he led all defensive backs in stuffs with 2.5. His 58 tackles were one less than Lassiter and tied Davis, in less time on the field than either of them.

His two interceptions came in wins, continuing the overwhelming trend of all the defensive backs. He did have some struggles in support, but he has a quiet air about him that says he will eventually become the leader of the secondary.

Kwamie Lassiter went on injured reserve in November. Lassiter played 10 games at strong safety after spending the bulk of his career at free safety. It proved to be a challenge for the veteran.

Lassiter had command of the defensive secondary on the field. The main problem was Lassiter was playing a position he did not know. To have him in charge of communication left him in a difficult situation. With Lassiter not knowing where he should be on the field, how was he to help the young cornerbacks?

With the team playing man early on, Lassiter had the job of recognizing run plays and providing help over the top of the corners. Most of his tackles on runs came five yards downfield, not ideal for someone who is diagnosing a play for the rest of the defense. Worse was his support in the passing game. More than once, Lassiter was not in position in the secondary and touchdowns became the result.

Expect Lassiter to move back to free safety next year and battle with Milligan for a starting role. Kiel will not be giving up strong safety anytime soon.

Vernon Fox played in twelve games. He finished season with 22 tackles and two passes defensed, with eight tackles coming in one game. Fox is considered a run stuffer as his height, 5-9, limits his effectiveness in pass defense.

His two passes defensed came in a win against Detroit. At no other time, playing as a third safety in the dime package, did he come up with any plays. Even his run defense was suspect.

At this stage of the game, the Chargers will have a tough time keeping him on the roster, especially with Milligan back next year.

Tony Okanlawon was signed to the active roster when Kwamie Lassiter went to IR. He saw action in just one game, converting from cornerback to safety. He did not post any stats.

Hanik Milligan was placed on injured reserve before the season began with a torn pectoral muscle. Milligan shined on special teams in preseason and was just beginning to take an active role on defense before the injury. He is a physical presence in the secondary and may surprise in '04.

Milligan reports himself as healthy, a nice sign for next season:

"I think I am 100 percent," Milligan said. "The goal is just to get stronger, faster, smarter and just prepare myself as much as possible to help the team as much as I can next year and get the Chargers a Championship."

Jerton Evans gets an incomplete after signing with the Chargers on January 8th, 2004. He will head to NFL Europe this spring.

Denis Savage can be reached at

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