San Diego Charger Diagnosis: Nick Hardwick

The recent bout against the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders was characterized by missed opportunities from both teams. The Raiders had plenty of opportunities to take the lead and the Chargers had their fare share of chances to put the game out of reach. The one consistency, however, throughout the game was the effectiveness of the Chargers' rushing game and proved to be the deciding factor as well.

The contribution of the rookie center from the University of Purdue, Nick Hardwick, was in part, an essential role in the Chargers' victory in a very sloppily played game.

It was no secret in the off-season the Chargers were going to revamp the offensive line. But in a surprise move the first offensive lineman selection for San Diego was a relative unknown center opposed to a guard or tackle. Most pundits figured San Diego would address the tackle or guard position in the draft and that the center position was relatively stable. The drafting of Hardwick, though, provided a deeper glimpse of the direction the administration was heading. The Chargers were more concerned with the attitude and character of the team. It was clear in training camp that two-year starter Jason Ball was more of a detriment to the team, despite his solid play.

Like so many other players on the team, Hardwick's overall football experience is something that would turn off most organizations. Hardwick tried out for the Purdue football team due to his fascination with Drew Brees, and had no delusions of grandeur about being a starting center in the NFL just a few short years later. In terms of physical skills Hardwick is a specimen. As coaches would say he certainly passes "the eyeball test". But what would surprise many is the consistency and tenacity he has played with throughout the season. The center position is arguably one of the most complex positions in football. Hardwick has not only handled it extremely well, but his play suggests that he has a very bright future in this league.

Although the Oakland defensive line is one of the oldest in football they are also one of the more talented. The Raiders were looking for vindication after the embarrassing defeat just a few weeks prior, and in the first half of the game appeared to be winning the "trench war". Ted Washington and Warren Sapp were giving Hardwick all he could handle early on. Oakland appeared to be containing Tomlinson and was applying enough pressure to Brees to break up the rhythm of the offense. If it was not for the early remarkable play of both Brees and Antonio Gates the potential for a loss seemed imminent.

The Chargers anticipated the line play early by running a series of sweeps and misdirections. The initial duties of the offensive line seemed simple enough, for they were challenging Washington and Sapp with a series of double teams. Oakland recognized the strategy, and consequently, began countering with "delayed" blitz packages from the linebackers and safeties. In the "delay" the linebacker or safety maintains his position until the offensive line has already committed to their initial assignment. He then tries to shoot the gap to sack the quarterback, or at worst, flush him out of the pocket. When this happens the lineman must recognize it, break from his original assignment, and pick up the blitzer.

The result exemplifies the success Hardwick has had this season. Though Brees was pressured a little more than he is used to, Oakland came away from the game with zero sacks. To counter, the Chargers utilized a quick passing game. Hardwick had enough intuition to break from his original assignment allowing Brees to look for his secondary options when needed. Oakland now had to compensate both for the quick strikes and for Brees' secondary options (many times Antonio Gates). This allowed the Chargers to be successful running the ball in the third and fourth quarter when they needed it the most. It is clear this "give and take" happened by design for San Diego because Tomlinson had twenty two carries in the second half and fewer were of the toss sweep variety.

Though Hardwick plays the mental aspects of the game like a veteran physically he still has room to grow. Hardwick is quick off the snap but often gets overpowered at the point of impact. In the third offensive series of the game Hardwick pulled on a toss sweep to Tomlinson. He displayed quickness by rolling to his left to provide blocking for Tomlinson, but ran into a brick wall. The Oakland defender practically knocked him back into Tomlinson breaking up what had been an effective play in the first two series of the game. Currently the Chargers still only have one offensive lineman who can pull with success in Toniu Fonoti, but as Hardwick gains more upper body strength and knowledge his ability to be more effective will burgeon.

Washington (the player not the team) might prove to be the toughest opponent Hardwick plays this season. The bye week came at a perfect time for the Chargers, because if it was not for the improved health of Tomlinson the momentum of this young team might have been derailed. The Chargers did an excellent job playing within themselves. They are yet to the level of dominating the opposition and because of this decided to run numerous sweeps, delayed hand offs, and fake reverses to break up the initial interior dominance of the Oakland defensive front. In the coming seasons, Hardwick will grow as a center and will be able to rely more on strength and prowess than misdirection. Hardwick held his own against Washington, and his play against Oakland will only continue the nascence of a long and possibly All-Pro career.

Diagnosis for next week: The Kansas City Chiefs are a much tougher opponent than their record indicates. The defensive woes from last season have carried over and plagued them this season as well. Kansas City has the talent to beat anyone in the NFL. Hardwick will face this team for the first time. Instead of basing his expectations on this year, Hardwick must realize that Kansas City has a history of dominance against the Chargers. And the fact this game will be played at Kansas City will only intensify the challenge ahead. This game is clearly the biggest one of the season to date.

Diagnosis for the season: Easily put, Hardwick needs to continue the course. He will have a full to-do list this off-season (mainly increasing his upper body strength), but in the interim, Hardwick can still develop his technique and knowledge of the game. Luckily for him he is under the guidance of one the greatest offensive line coaches in football. Tangent to his development, Hardwick needs to learn when taking a penalty is warranted. He lucked out against Oakland over a "no-call" tripping penalty allowing Brees to score. Penalties such as these can be devastating to a drive. Since the play happened on second down it could have crushed the Chargers' momentum at a very critical juncture in the game.

Byran Martin can be reached at Byran@sandiegosports.net

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