San Diego Chargers Diagnosis: Toniu Fonoti

The contest between the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders can easily be described in one word: domination. This young Charger team has certainly come a long way. The journey has had it series of valleys and peaks with some worse than others. But things are looking up, especially for offensive guard Toniu Fonoti whom at one time was considered to be on the hot seat.

Toniu Fonoti is entering his third season as a Charger, and if the Oakland game is any glimpse into his future, he could be one of the more dominant offensive linemen in the NFL.

The struggles of Fonoti are well documented amongst the fans. When drafted he was one of the youngest players to ever play the game. He started right away and had a good rookie season despite his youth and inexperience. But after his first full year Fonoti had a difficult time adjusting to the struggles of the NFL both on and off the field. There is no question Fonoti could be one of the most talented offensive linemen to ever play the game, but there were serious qualms whether his lack of maturity would end his career before it really had a chance to begin.

After being placed on injured reserve last season, Fonoti showed up in camp almost four hundred pounds. Coming off a season where the Chargers were thought to have arguably the worst offensive line in football they were depending on a healthy and in-shape Fonoti. In one of the first moves of his career that showed signs of majority, Fonoti took additional steps in the off-season to get his weight under control, even if he missed a mini-camp to go to Houston. And both the Chargers and Fonoti are now reaping the benefits in a major way.

Fonoti has had a dominant beginning to the 2004 season. This start was foreshadowed in his performance in the first preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. It was clear when Fonoti ran out of the tunnel with his fist pumping he was ready to make an impact. Since that moment he has played an essential part in one of the most surprising stories of the NFL, and the game against Oakland proved to be no different. For most of the afternoon Fonoti was matched up with Warren Sapp, who might be aging, but is still considered a force around the league. If Fonoti's play against Oakland is any indicator of his career, the Chargers might have found themselves the best offensive guard since Larry Allen.

In his rookie season, Fonoti usually graded out very well for run blocking, but pass blocking was a different story. Fonoti has improved tremendously in this department. Even though the Chargers ran a double team against Sapp, Fonoti had the duty of picking up any inside blitz. Since the Chargers ran a couple bootlegs, Fonoti had the job of pulling to the opposite side of the field to pick up any oncoming rushers. He won this foot race every time. This particular design also shows the superior talent Fonoti possesses. Generally the linebacker has a straight shot to the quarterback, although he might lean initially in the opposite direction of the bootleg. Fonoti has to pull across the field and provide the only protection for the quarterback. To say the OLB hit a moving brick wall every time is an understatement.

The Chargers are running plays such as this because Fonoti is devastating when he pull-blocks. Throughout the game Fonoti dominated his opposition at the point of attack. LaDainian Tomlinson and Jessie Chatman had wide open holes on both the left and right sides of the line. Consequently, Oakland could not contain the Chargers offense all afternoon. Aside from a fumble, the Chargers scored on their first six possessions.

On most rushing plays, the Chargers gear the design around Fonoti. There are very few players in the NFL that can match Fonoti's brute strength, but it is his combination of size and speed that gives even the best defensive lineman headaches. Against Oakland, and the other seven teams San Diego has played, Fonoti has consistently driven his opponents back. A play that gives insight to the dominance of Fonoti's initial surge is the dish off to fullback Lorenzo Neal. This play is often run on third and short and generally only yields a couple of yards at the most. But against Oakland Fonoti cleared the way for a seven yard gain.

Finally, the vast improvement of Fonoti can be seen in his down field blocking. On various swing passes and reverses Fonoti hustles down field knocking anyone over that gets in his way. These types of plays have been vital in the success of the Chargers' offense this season. Because of Fonoti's agility the Chargers have been able to convert plays that they could only have dreamed of last season, and consequently, are a legitimate playoff contender.

Diagnosis for Next Week: New Orleans is very winnable and a must win. It is vital that this team does not transcend its confidence into over-confidence. New Orleans has their backs against the wall and is coming for a fight. New Orleans' defense has not been very strong this year, and as long as the Chargers maintain a high level of intensity and focus the team should have no problem moving their offense. Fonoti is coming off one of his best performances of the season and needs to find a way to avoid a letdown. Fonoti is still very young so there is concern he could be susceptible to reading too many of his own headlines.

Diagnosis for the Season: The Chargers are in a position they have not seen themselves in almost ten years. They are no longer the underdogs but one of the frontrunners. In this position the Chargers must stay focused and handle each game as it comes to them. The media has dubbed them the surprise team in the NFL, but there is still enough time for this train to derail. Fonoti's first year was marked by a second-half season letdown. This experience always needs to be present in the mind of Fonoti, yet not dominant enough to create a morbid self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a lot to ask one of the youngest players in football (especially one with a history of maturity problems), but if Fonoti wants to establish himself amongst the elite he must step up mentally as well as physically.

Byran Martin can be reached at Byran@sandiegosports.net

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