San Diego Chargers Diagnosis: Igor Olshansky

No NFL axiom holds more truth than for defenses to be successful the first priority is stopping the run. Last season the San Diego Chargers had one of the worst rushing defenses in all of football. In the off season they took big steps in the draft to address this problem. And it comes to no surprise that the highly touted second round pick from the University of Oregon, Igor Olshansky, found his way into the starting lineup.

Unfortunately for Igor Olshansky a tremendous amount of pressure has put on his shoulders. If the Chargers hope to succeed this year it is obvious the defense has to keep them in the football game. If the defense will have any success accomplishing this then the rush defense from last season obviously has to improve tremendously. The switch to the 3-4 helps take some pressure off the defensive line and there is little doubt that the linebackers are the strength of this squad. But, it is up to the lineman to fill in the gaps eliminating any running lanes an elusive running back could take advantage of.

Many queries loomed in the minds of the Charger faithful while taking this trip to Denver. True, the Broncos lost their star running back from last year, but when has their ever stopped them in the past? The cold fact is Denver has maintained its prolific rushing offense due to the dominance of their offensive line and a keen eye for running back talent. The game on Sunday posed an intriguing match up because the youngest offensive lineman for the Broncos, George Foster, got to square off against the Charger's rookie starter Olshansky.

The Chargers dominated outright in the first series of the game. Wade Phillips anticipated that Denver was going to test the line early and sent a running blitz. This set Denver up with a third and long which eventually resulted in a punting situation. This success, however, was short-lived because Denver was able to come back and score on the next two possessions. Even though Denver's running attack was not dominant in these series it was good enough to keep the defense honest. Garrison Hearst was able to rush for thirteen yards on two plays setting Denver up for their touchdown pass. The lackluster play from the defense was evident in Olshansky just as much as anyone.

Coming out of college no scout doubted Olshansky's strength or potential. The biggest knock on him, though, was his use of leverage and his tendencies to play too upright. Maybe in the Pac-Ten Olshansky can get away with brute strength, but in the NFL the play is too precise and disciplined for him to out muscle anyone. And early on, Foster was eating his lunch. There is no secret that Denver is one of the best zone blocking teams in the league, which in short, is when the offensive line blocks a region of the field opposed to driving the lineman off the line of scrimmage. If done correctly the lineman is able to "block/guide" the tackle in the direction they want opening up rushing lanes.

For most of the first half Foster had very little trouble leading Olshansky to his right. Foster not only took him out of the running plays, but also provided Jake Plummer with more than enough time to pick the secondary apart on passing plays.

Even though Foster played very little last season, he has had a year to digest the various techniques that consistently makes Denver one of the best ground teams in football.

To try to offset this, the coaching staff took a couple of approaches. Too keep Olshansky and the other tackles fresh, the coaches remained consistent platooning the defensive line. The starting front of Olshansky, Jamal Williams, and DeQuincy Scott was replaced every third series by Jacques Caesar, Jason Fisk, and David Ball.

The Chargers also tried a variety of blitz packages hoping to create gaps in which the defensive lineman can shoot. One type of blitz was bringing in Ben Leber from the outside. In a perfect world, Foster would pick up Leber leaving a clear path to the quarterback for Olshansky to take. The one wrinkle, though, is Olshansky has to penetrate the gap quick enough before the right guard, Dan Neil, breaks off his double team (to the nose guard) and picks up the assignment. The danger for these types of blitzes is that they often leave the middle of the field open for an easy ten yard slant.

Denver's veteran offensive line was able to handle these schemes with relative ease as Olshansky was driven out of position yet again, but now by the right guard opposed to the right tackle. For the first quarter and a half, Olshansky was playing with little tenacity. He was not able to effectively use his upper body strength, and consequently, was often knocked off the play outright on passing downs and/or driven from the line opening up holes for running back Quentin Griffin.

Football, however, is indeed a game of inches as the old saying goes. On the Charger's fifth defensive series Olshansky made one small adjustment that not only allowed him leverage on Foster, but helped the Charger defense hold the Broncos to only thirty-seven rushing yards. Before hand, Olshansky was lining up six inches or so off the line of scrimmage. As soon as the ball was snapped Foster was able to get under the young tackle standing him up. Because Olshansky is very raw he will be prone to this all season. And because of this, Foster was able to use his low center of gravity to push Olshansky out of the way with relative ease. After the adjustments, however, Olshansky started lining up anywhere between eighteen inches to two feet off the line of scrimmage. When trying to defend a zone blocking scheme such a little move makes all the difference in the world for a young player.

By doing this, Olshansky gave himself an extra step to explode off the line in the direction he wanted to (which was usually inside eliminating any or all running lanes) opposed to being tangled up by the offensive line and driven away from the play. With all the lanes between the tackles collapsing fairly quickly, Griffin was forced to try to the bounce the ball outside where the Charger linebackers were awaiting with much alacrity*. From the middle of the second quarter on, Denver was only able to score a field goal off a turnover and a touchdown from a forty yard "jump ball" on fourth and long. Never was Denver able to create a consistent running game, and they found themselves in third and long all afternoon.

Diagnosis for next week:

Next week Olshansky has another tough challenge. He needs to concentrate on using what he has learned to cover his gap and allow the linebackers to make the tackles. Olshansky did a good job once his adjustments where made, and even though he was only credited with one tackle, he was usually in position to pile on once the initial contact was made. Olshansky needs to be very aware of the type of schemes he is trying to defend. Though Chris Brown is not a household name, he runs awfully hard, and depending on how the Tennessee Titans use various blocking schemes, Olshansky could very well find himself having fits all day. Realistically, Olshansky will be out of position and struggle early on. The coaching staff did a good job guiding him in the direction he needed to go, but Olshansky will face a seasoned veteran in Fred Miller who probably is looking forward to exploiting the rookie all day. He needs to be patient and it might take more than one adjustment or two before he is able to stand his ground.

Diagnosis for the season:

First and foremost Olshansky has to keep up his sedulous play. He was brought in to stop the run, and as long as he does this, he is meeting his short term expectations. As the season progresses, though, Olshansky has to learn to create separation from the offensive lineman. Far too many times against Denver, Olshansky made a good interior push (even once knocking Foster into Plummer) but never separated himself from the pile as Plummer was forced out of the pocket. Plummer iced the game for Denver on a play very similar to this. Separation is also key because there is no reason why Olshansky should not block numerous passes this year considering his height and large wing span. Also, during various blitz schemes Olshansky needs to do a better job making an interior push, especially if tackle blocking him picks up the blitzing linebacker. If the only player left to block Olshansky is the running back than quarterbacks will get to know him, and quite well.

*Alacrity: Cheerful willingness; eagerness

Byran Martin can be reached at byran@sandiegosports.net

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