Chargers lean on...?

The team features offensive stars, including possibly the best two at their respective positions: running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. Throw in a marquee name like quarterback Philip Rivers and one of the game's most productive wide receivers in Keenan McCardell and the thinking is the offense drives this team.

But that's only partially true.

What's become clear after two weeks, and with the Chargers heading into the bye week, is there's a dynamite defense calling San Diego home.

The Chargers strung together a team-record seven consecutive quarters of keeping an offense scoreless.

The unit has come together under the direction of Wade Phillips, who is in his third year in San Diego. While the players get the majority of headlines, they stress not to overlook what the son of Bum is doing in his 30th NFL season.

"He doesn't get overlooked around here," said Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman of his defensive coordinator. "We all realize what he does. Not just for the defense but for the organization because he is such a great coach and he has been doing it for so long."

Defensive end Luis Castillo said Phillips is the master of the mismatch. His maneuvers allow players to exploit their rivals' weaknesses.

"You have to give credit when you got a coach like Wade," Castillo said. "He understands the differences in his players and he puts us in a scheme to let all his guys use their abilities to make plays."

The Chargers have long had a nasty run defense; they finished No. 1 in the league last year. But there wasn't the balance on the unit like there is now, as the secondary finally grew tired of being the weak link.

Among the reasons for the flip is the addition of veteran free safety Marlon McCree, who's brought considerable leadership along with his ball skills.

Plus, the pass rush is relentless. It's led by Merriman and Shaun Phillips, the two outside linebackers who are quick off the edge.

But it all goes back to 59-year-old Phillips, the soft-spoken former head coach who never yells and never loses faith in his charges. He distributes the game plan in a language which has no generation gap.

"It's his ability to express his ideas in a way that is readily understood," said coach Marty Schottenheimer, who doesn't allow his assistants to speak with the media. "That is the core of it: the players understand what he is talking about.

"I wouldn't call it simplistic at all; there a lot of nuances to it in my view. He is an excellent teacher and he gives the player an opportunity in the system we use here to go play the game and not have to wonder what (they're) suppose to do. That's the real cornerstone of his success."

The Chargers' defense has turned the corner, allowing but seven points in eight quarters. And they believe it's only the beginning of a drive which will allow them to reach the playoffs.


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