San Diego Chargers Diagnosis: Lorenzo Neal

To say the San Diego Chargers underwent a facelift is an understatement. In the off-season the Chargers cut ties with some very big names and bigger contracts. It was clear they were trying to shed themselves of troublemakers and create a new identity that would exemplify the word "team".

In the past two years the Chargers have spent their money unwisely and it was time to rectify the situation. One free agent, however, that was the exception was fullback Lorenzo Neal. Many speculated he too would get the axe, but to the contrary he survived and has been an instrumental part of the offense.

Despite making numerous "all-joe" teams and being a three-time All-Pro (including last season), Neal has always been viewed by various organizations as expendable. If this were not the case then he would not be with his sixth team in eight years.

Neal has been extremely productive at every organization he has played for. He has helped contributed to the 1,000 yard seasons of some of the biggest names in football, and to his credit (which he is seldom recognized for), Neal has helped some unknowns have break-outs for career years. Neal is primarily looked upon as one of the best blocking fullbacks in football.

With his low center of gravity, Neal often delivers crushing blows turning what would be three-yard gains into six or seven yard scampers. He has been a consistent force for the Chargers this year, and has contributed greatly to the effective running game despite the injuries LaDainian Tomlinson has sustained. The groin pull Tomlinson endured early in the season greatly affected his ability to cut and shift. Despite this, Neal has done an outstanding job creating holes, and consequently, the Chargers have been able to maintain a very formidable ground game.

In addition to Neal's ability to block he is very effective running the football. He has carried the ball eleven times for thirty-five yards this season. Though stats like these do not seem very impressive, often times his carries are designed to get one or two yards on short yardage situations. The Chargers, more times than not, will rely on Tomlinson to get the tough yards behind Neal's blocking, but Neal has been very productive when called upon.

This has been consistent with his overall career, for Neal has never carried the ball more than thirty times in one season. Next to his hard running, Neal has been close to perfect in his ball handling. Though his fumble against Oakland over a week ago proved to be costly it was his first slip-up in nine years!

Not only does Neal have sure hands but he has soft hands as well, which is reflected in his receiving statistics. In his career Neal has made 143 receptions for about 800 yards. Neal has also proven to be a viable fourth or fifth option for Drew Brees this season. He has more receptions than carries this year, and if history is an indicator he should end the season with about the same ratio. The dish off in the flat to the fullback has been successful play this season when executed properly. If Brees can lead Neal with his pass the play usually achieves its objective.

Problems have occurred, however, when the pass is thrown behind him. Though Neal has glue-like hands he is extremely slow turning his body around. Often the ball bounces around behind him (which could have been disastrous against Denver), or if he makes the reception, by the time he turns his body up field there is a linebacker or safety waiting to make the tackle.

The Chargers, however, are intent on using him in their passing attack. And to be fair to Neal, most of the problems this season have been due to poor throws and not Neal's ability to catch the ball. But on the flip side, Neal must do a better job of not committing himself one way or the other. There is always the danger the opposition could sniff the play out early, intercept the ball, and return it for six the other way. Catching the ball and being dropped for no gain is obviously better than some of the other alternatives.

Above everything else, the most valuable attribute Neal adds to this young team is his experience. Only a handful of players on the team have ever gone deep into the playoffs, and Neal is one of them. At the beginning of the season the prospects of the Chargers being a playoff team seemed absurd, but now they are two games up in the division with just four left to play. Many teammates will turn to players like Roman Oben and Lorenzo Neal for advice in anticipation of what could and should be the first post-season experience for the vast majority of them. Neal has lead by example thus far with his consistency and hard play. But as the season comes to a close, Neal's role and value will not only increase but also continue to compound every week.

Diagnosis for next week: Now that the Chargers have shed the eight-win monkey off their backs they can all but wrap up a playoff birth with a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next week in Qualcomm. Unfortunately the Buccaneers are playing very good football. They are 5-3 since their dreadful start and are coming off their best week to date. With such a young team could San Diego be inline for a letdown? There is where Neal's role is extremely important. He has experienced the highs and lows of the NFL. It is vital for the few veterans on the team to maintain an emotional equilibrium throughout the week of practice. Some of the players will be turning to Neal as an example, and it is up to him to be a consistent presence for the others to feed off of.

Diagnosis for the season: The Chargers are one of the top rushing teams in football. Though the next four games present unique challenges in their own way, if San Diego can maintain its ground domination they will win at least two or three of their next games. The Chargers have taken pride in their pass first - run second - mentality. But with injuries, fatigue, etc., the teams that can run the ball late in the season are the ones that finish strong. Neal needs to punish every linebacker or safety he faces paving the way for long runs by Tomlinson. The success of the dump-off to Neal in the flat has been sporadic at best and it is a play the offense needs to master in the next four weeks. If the Chargers can continue to put themselves in third (or second) and short situations, then the potential for big gains off play action pass will remain high. San Diego has to dominate the third and fourth quarters on the ground, and if Neal's play falters, piecing together victories will be extremely difficult.

Byran Martin can be reached at Byran@sandiegosports.net

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