The Primary Problem in the Secondary

The Chargers have done everything possible to load their secondary with talent. They spent the fifth overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft on cornerback Quentin Jammer. In 2003, they spent their first three picks on cornerbacks Sammy Davis and Drayton Florence, and strong safety Terrence Kiel. In 2004, they traded for Jamar Fletcher, another former first-round selection. Then prior to this season, they made free safety Bhawoh Jue their lone free agent acquisition.

What's been the result of this four-year talent infusion? The league's 27th-ranked pass defense. Inexplicably, secondary coach Brian Stewart is still employed by the Chargers.

It's hard to see why the Chargers hired Stewart in the first place. In 2003, Stewart was an assistant secondary coach for the Houston Texans, and that team ended up with the league's second-worst pass defense. In 2004, the Chargers hired him anyway, and for the second consecutive year Stewart helped coach up the league's 31st-ranked coverage unit.

Rather than firing Stewart after his disappointing debut, the Chargers gave him a contract extension before the 2005 season, as they tried to promote continuity across their coaching staff. Now with three weeks left this season, the Chargers' pass defenders are yet again ranked in the league's bottom half dozen.

"The defense has got to go out and do their job despite the adversity we run into," safety Terrence Kiel said.

Optimists may claim that these stats are misleading. It can be argued, after all, that because the Chargers' run defense is so stellar, opponents attack them through the air more aggressively. The numbers support this notion, as the Chargers' defense has faced more passes than all but two teams so far this year.

But therein lies the problem. The Chargers have the league's best run defense, so they force opponents to throw. Then they harass opposing quarterbacks, as they are ranked in the top five in sacks, as well. But when the ball is in the air, the Chargers can't seem to make a play on it. Their starting cornerbacks have yet to snag a single interception this season.

The Chargers can explain their secondary woes in one of two ways: either they don't have the talent to get it done, in which case they need to spend ample amounts of money and/or draft picks to fix the problem; or Coach Stewart has simply failed to get these talented players to live up to their potential, and should be replaced because of it.

Here's a noble idea. The moment the season ends, the Chargers should fire Stewart and begin their search for a replacement. It shouldn't be long before that search leads them to Torrian Gray, the assistant defensive backs coach with the Chicago Bears. The former Vikings safety has been working with the Bears for the last two seasons, where he works with a unit known for their ball-hawking capabilities and game-changing interception returns.

The big difference between the coverage units in San Diego and Chicago isn't ability - it's attitude. It's that elite level of confidence that is absent in the Chargers' secondary. Due to that fact, the Chargers need to cut ties with Stewart and bring in a more capable coach, be it Gray or someone else of equal caliber. Because while the Chargers' starting cornerbacks have yet to enjoy a turnover, their position coach should not expect to be so lucky.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net


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