San Diego Charger Diagnosis: Shane Olivea

Even with a tough loss this past weekend, the 2004 NFL draft is turning out to be one of the best for the San Diego Chargers in recent memory. Coming into this season one the glaring needs was improvement of the offensive line. The Chargers were expected to make a big splash in the draft but did not pick any offensive lineman until the 3rd round, and finally decided to take a tackle in the seventh round.

Needless to say very few people expected a player like Shane Olivea to contribute early, but the Ohio State University star has turned out to have one of the biggest impacts of any offensive line rookies this year.

Many fans and gurus are currently asking themselves, "What took so long?"

It was no secret amongst scouts and commentators that Olivea projected to be a guard on the next level, but there was also concerns regarding his weight. What surprised many people initially was that Olivea fell to the seventh round. Most pundits projected him as high as the fourth but more realistically around the fifth round. He fell to the Chargers in the seventh, who quickly seized the opportunity to select him. But before A.J. Smith and his team start receiving too much approbation, how did such a technically sound player slip that far?

The drafting of Olivea was probably due to more luck than it was superior scouting, but regardless, the Chargers are the team that pulled the trigger and are reaping the benefits for doing so. The concerns about his weight turned out to be unfounded as he undertook a serious weight loss program that got him in shape and allowed him to project nicely to right tackle.

"It was beneficial as I saw my body fat dropped and I was getting leaner," says Olivea. "I was seeing major gains and Sunday was that little lift for the next week. After seeing the gains I made, the sky was the limit."

And consequently, Olivea is a mirror image of the complete overhaul done to the offensive line. The Chargers are starting five new players on the line, and aside from Toni Fonoti (who was having troubles of his own), no one was considered to be a player with much of a future.

But six games into the season Drew Brees has only been sacked eight times and has one of the highest completion rates in the NFL. In a small ironic twist it seems the Chargers have had a tougher time creating holes for LaDainian Tomlinson than protecting Brees. Despite the poor rushing performance against Atlanta the play of the Charger offensive line has been nothing short of amazing.

Olivea came into the Falcon game against his toughest challenge yet. Patrick Kearney, one of the NFL leaders in sacks, was waiting with much enthusiasm to test his skill against the unproven rookie. Olivea more or less shut him down keeping him from obtaining a sack throughout the game.

Atlanta has one of the toughest run defenses in football, but the dominance in time of possession reveals the Charger line was having its way with the Falcon defensive front for most of the game. By mixing in short passes and tough rushing yards the Chargers were able to string together numerous effective drives. The main Achilles for San Diego, though, proved to be costly penalties, but as the game film will show the offensive line had very little to do with collapse.

During the first quarter, San Diego had to deal with tough field position and a costly interception. The Chargers tried to get something going early on with a series of reverses and short passes but fell short. It was the Falcons' defensive team speed that proved to the biggest difference maker in the early match up. Yet the tough play by Atlanta was not able to set the tone for the game. Both teams went into the second quarter scoreless, and just as Atlanta jumped ahead by seven the Chargers strung together what will no doubt be one of the their most impressive drives all season. And the success of this drive was apparent through the steady play of their rookie right tackle.

It is no secret when the Chargers run the ball between the tackles it will be behind the big guard Fonoti. But in this sixteen play, sixty-eight yard surge the entire offensive line worked as a cohesive unit constantly chipping away at yards. In this drive Tomlinson rushed the ball eight times. Never did any carry exceed seven yards, but the success of the ground game paid off in the passing attack. The Chargers ran the majority on first and second down creating enough wiggle room to complete needed passes on third down opportunities. This drive was capped by a fourth and one touchdown, and many could argue it was Tomlinson's second touchdown of the drive.

This drive set the tone for the rest of the game, and even though the Chargers lost in the end it was due to poor decisions by the quarterback, holding penalties from the receiving core, and the defensive's inability to contain Michael Vick.

During the entire game Olivea did an outstanding job in his pass protection assignments, and also did very well driving the defensive players off the line of scrimmage. Atlanta came into this game as one of the best teams against the run and played their cards accordingly. They stacked the line of scrimmage forcing Brees to beat them with the pass. Any time a run was called, Olivea did an excellent job driving Kearney back. Against a tenacious defense like Atlanta if a team can average three to four yards per carry between the tackles then they should do a solid job setting themselves up for the play action pass, and have a high completion percentage for short passing routes.

On the specialty assignments, Olivea has shown he is up to the task as well. On reverse plays and pitches to various backs, Olivea does a good job getting off the line of scrimmage creating running lanes outside the tackle box. If the defense stacks the line there is not much Olivea can do at such a young age. As he gains experience he will be able to pick more effective assignments rather than just keying in on a body and driving him back. Olivea also does a solid job getting down field for screen passes and quick dump offs. Tomlinson continues to be an effective receiving threat out of the back field and the offensive line should be given at least some credit for corroborating his efforts.

Diagnosis for next week: After coming off a good week against a very good defensive lineman, Olivea will be further tested against arguably the best defensive front in football. Carolina will focus on stopping the run because too many teams still feel that Brees can not beat them with the passing game. As Brees continues to defy opposing defenses, it is up to the offensive line to continue to give him enough time to make important reads and maintain his high completion rate. As San Diego proves it can be effective through the air, the line will continue to be given more opportunities to focus on creating rushing lanes and driving the defensive line off the line of scrimmage.

Diagnosis for season: It might be a surprise that the game in Carolina is winnable but it is no surprise the game is a must win. San Diego is coming off a very tough loss, but if the Chargers can return home next week by splitting the road trip the playoffs are still achievable. Carolina is very much a pivot game for the young line because if Olivea continues to be an effective pass protector (as the others) more teams will begin respecting the Chargers' passing attack. After this week the Chargers have two very winnable games at home. If they can go into the bye week either 5-4 or 6-3, the division will still be in play. The most interesting thing to observe, however, is how young players such as Olivea respond to what clearly was the toughest loss of the season to date.

Byran Martin can be reached at

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