San Diego Charger Diagnosis: Ben Leber

The San Diego Chargers got off to a rocky start Sunday but managed to scrape together a victory none the less. Sunday's performance was a role reversal of the Chargers' play last week against Atlanta. Regardless of the sloppiness, the players had a comfortable ride back to San Diego.

No doubt, however, when they return to the practice field on Wednesday the team will have their work cut out for them. Many of the defensive players seemed out of position and struggled throughout much of the game. The Chargers are depending on players like Ben Leber to make the 3-4 transition if they are to have any hopes for postseason play.

When making the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 Leber was a key ingredient to having a successful defense. The coaches where hoping that he could maximize his speed as an outside linebacker and become a legitimate pass rushing threat. But through seven games, Leber has zero sacks and ranks last in tackles amongst the four starting linebackers. Despite the slow start, Leber is a very intelligent player whose ability is a rarity even in the NFL. But it takes more than athletic ability alone to compete and Leber's struggles were apparent in the Carolina game.

The defense knew that Carolina was going to be very physical. After all, they are one year removed from the Super Bowl, and if it wasn't for their rash of injuries they would probably be one of the top teams in the league. Despite this, Carolina had more steady success running the football against San Diego than any other team this season. Curtis Martin and Dominick Davis had great first half's against the Chargers, but were more or less shut down after the defensive adjustments. It comes as a surprise that the virtual no name Brad Hoover gave the Chargers' tenacious rushing defense fits all afternoon long. These difficulties were apparent in Leber's play as much as anyone else.

The biggest highlight for Leber was the very first play from scrimmage. Leber blew around the left side making a solo tackle on the running back. The play resulted in little or no gain. After that, however, things became very difficult for Leber and the rest of the front seven. Hoover blew through the line for a fourteen yard gain taking the Panthers beyond mid field. The drive ultimately resulted in three points for the Panthers, but Carolina certainly had their shots to score.

The fumble of LaDainian Tomlinson on the Chargers' first drive set the tone for the first half. The offense was more or less ineffective and the defense was giving up ground, but made the plays when they had to. Carolina was in great position to score, but San Diego toughened up. Leber was in on the plays as well, but more for the piling on effect than making the key tackle. These two drives epitomized the "bend but don't break" style of defense in the first half. Carolina never put any points on the board afterwards, but had numerous opportunities to make the conversions. It would be a series of big plays that won the game for San Diego rather than a dominating presence anywhere on the defensive side of the field.

One of the biggest concerns for the Chargers this season, and which was evident in the game against Carolina, is the lack of a pass rush. The 3-4 is inherently designed to stop the run but often times a speedy outside linebacker can make a name for himself with his pass rushing ability. The Chargers were hoping that Leber would fill this role. Instead, Steve Foley is the team leader in sacks and has been more of the consistent threat on the outside than Leber has. What is also disheartening is that the nose guard Jamal Williams has found his way to the quarterback more times than Leber.

To say the next two games are make or break for Leber is an understatement. This past week Leber was constantly dominated at the point of attack. He was either blocked out of his lane forced to attempt a useless arm tackles, or completely away from the play altogether. And because Leber was constantly out of position, he found himself wrapping up more mis-tackles than tackles (five total, including four solo). Leber was shuffled around all over the field to offset these problems. He played both outside linebacker positions but never found his footing anywhere on the field.

If Leber does not improve over the next two weeks, look for Shaun Phillips to gain more reps. Phillips has done an excellent job filling in as a backup. He played extremely well against Carolina, gaining a sack, and was also more astringent against the Panthers' ground game. Phillips made huge contributions in the third and fourth quarter with his fresh legs and got at least some pressure in the backfield. Phillips saw most of his action on third down which might give the fan base a glimpse on whom the staff trust more to pressure the quarterback.

Diagnosis for next week: It is no secret the Chargers are better against the run than they are the pass. Consequently, expect Oakland to come out slinging the ball. They will probably pass more on first and second down than any other team the Chargers have faced this season. It is vital for Leber to do two things. First, he needs to be more of a presence in the pocket. The Chargers are probably going to implement a variety of blitz packages to take some pressure off the defensive backs. And second, Leber needs to maintain consistency in covering Kerry Collins' third and fourth passing options (the tight ends and running backs). If Leber can help keep these players contained, than the Chargers should be able to compete with Oakland's offense, and at the very least, keep them in third and long type situations all day.

Diagnosis for the year: As mentioned previously, the next two games before the bye week will make or break the Chargers' season. Oakland and New Orleans will be two tough tests for San Diego due to the recent success each team has had passing the ball. Both teams have their backs against the wall and will view the Charger game as winnable. The time is now for players such as Leber, who might be still young but is a veteran compared to most of the team, to step up. Though Phillips has done a good job it might be risky to throw him into the fire right away; but certainly if he continues to play at the level he has, and Leber continues to struggle, it might happen regardless. Finally, it is important to note that Leber is too gifted to relegate to a back up role just yet. A possible move inside might be worth looking into.

Byran Martin can be reached at

SD Super Chargers Top Stories