Wilhelm era ready to start

Matt Wilhelm received his third start of the preseason against the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks, and his strong play helped explain why Donnie Edwards is being shopped so ardently – the Chargers believe the Matt Wilhelm era is ready to commence.

"I am happy to be in this situation," Wilhelm admitted. "Sure, the pressure builds but you just can't get lost in all of that and have to play your game."

Wilhelm is a more physical defender than Edwards and he showed it against the Seahawks. An example of this came with just over nine minutes left in the first quarter when Matt Hasselbeck pitched to Shaun Alexander on a sweep right. Wilhelm diagnosed the play immediately, used his hands to work down the line, then turned his shoulders and shot into the backfield where he wrapped up Alexander for a one-yard gain.

The 6-foot-4, 245 lb. Wilhelm has the size to fend off opposing offensive lineman, the speed to run from sideline to sideline and the athleticism to sort through the trash and get to the ball carrier. These attributes allow him to make plays near or behind the line of scrimmage, which is key, because one of the reasons Edwards is on the trading block is too many of his tackles were made downfield.

"We have to have a killer instinct," Wilhelm said of himself and the rest of the defense. "We feel like if we play our style of football and execute, we are going to come out with the victory."

One area where Wilhelm is still working to be as good as Edwards is in pass coverage. Wilhelm has the speed to make deep pass drops and the hands to snag interceptions (as noted by his two career picks despite limited playing time), but he is not yet able to anticipate where the quarterback will go with the ball as well as Edwards does.

An example of this came early in the second quarter with Seattle facing a third-and-14. Hasselbeck threw a comeback route to Nate Burleson near the left sideline, and Wilhelm was a step slow in providing inside help to Antonio Cromartie. Had he been able to better anticipate the throw, it would have been an easy interception going back the other way.

Even though his coverage skills are not as advanced as Edwards', Wilhelm is a superior player in other respects. He is stouter against the run than Edwards and shows more power as a pass rusher. That ability to penetrate was on display midway through the first quarter when he and Marlon McCree blitzed Hasselbeck, forcing him to abort an attempted screen play and throw the ball away.

"He has stepped up and made some plays," head coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "I am pleased with his ongoing development."

Wilhelm is inarguably an ascending player with great potential. He is also in the last year of his contract, so the team will need to sign him to an extension if he is to represent the future at the position. Hopefully, the recent extension signed by Stephen Cooper will provide some groundwork for an eventual deal with Wilhelm.

"There is a different feel this year," Wilhelm added. "We understand what kind of players we have."

Next week, as the Chargers travel to San Francisco for their preseason finale, we will analyze the performance of running back Ray Perkins.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net

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