Chargers show off young guns

In their victory over the Chiefs last Sunday, the Chargers' defense played one of their best games of the season. They kept the Chiefs' potent rushing attack in check -keeping them under 100 yards on the day - and sacked Trent Green four times.

With veteran starters like Steve Foley, Randall Godfrey and Drayton Florence missing the game due to injury, rookie first-round picks Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo stepped up and carried the team to victory.

"When the first line goes down, the second line stands up," Merriman said. "It looks good now and for the future."

The Chargers used their two first-round picks in this year's draft on Merriman and Castillo in hopes that the rookies could help generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On Sunday, they didn't just spark a pass rush, they were the pass rush, accounting for 3.5 of the team's four sacks.

"The focus of the game turned to stopping the pass and I am glad I got to contribute in that area," said Castillo.

But the impact of these rookies went beyond their impressive sack numbers. Merriman totaled five tackles on the day, and forced a Trent Green fumble that was recovered by Shaun Phillips deep in Chargers territory. Castillo also recorded five tackles, and more importantly tied up blockers so that the makeshift linebacking corps behind him could excel as they did.

More impressive still is that both of these players missed substantial time during training camp with assorted injuries. Castillo missed time early in camp with a foot injury, and Merriman missed most of camp and the beginning of the regular season with hamstring and knee injuries. Sunday's game was only the eighth of the season, and Merriman and Castillo were arguably the most dominant playmakers on the defense.

"I was heartbroken that first game when I could not play," Merriman admitted.

Ironically, the same injury bug that delayed the development of these young stars also has allowed them to shine as the season has worn on. Castillo got his first starting assignment as a result of an injury to Igor Olshansky, and Merriman was able to have his best game as a pro this weekend against the Chiefs because he received many of the pass-rushing assignment normally given to Steve Foley.

The funny thing is, when the Chargers drafted these two, both picks were viewed by many as draft day disappointments. The thinking here was that the team's offense needed only another threat at wide receiver to reach elite status; then Merriman was taken two spots after Mike Williams, and Castillo was selected one spot after Roddy White.

As it turns out, the draft couldn't have turned out any better for the Chargers. While wide receivers win fantasy leagues, defense wins championships. And because of the stellar play of both Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo, the Chargers are still in position to defend theirs.

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