Decimated defense still strong

The Chargers will bring the league's No. 2 defense into Cincinnati on Sunday, but they will be forced to leave their No. 1 player behind. Shawne Merriman will serve the second game of his four-game suspension this weekend, and for the first time his absence has a realistic shot of costing the Chargers a victory.

The entire Chargers defense will have to step up to fill Merriman's void. With Shaun Phillips appearing set to return on the weak side of the field, the strong-side position will likely be a platoon gig. Stephen Cooper should get the start and will play with the base defense; Marques Harris will replace him on passing downs; and Carlos Polk will get time in short-yardage situations.

The Chargers group of linebackers is as deep and talented as any in the league. But to think Merriman's absence will not have a profound impact would be foolhardy.

"His suspension couldn't have come at a better time for us, personally," said Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer of Merriman. "But it's still a very good defense. There are still a lot of playmakers. They play well as a unit. They're very well coached and well disciplined. They're a different team with Merriman out there, but they're still a very good defense."

Merriman may not be the only high-profile defender to miss the game. Luis Castillo will miss the game and Marlon McCree has been listed as questionable. Their backups, Derreck Robinson and Bhawoh Jue, appear on the injury report as well.

No matter which defenders take the field on Sunday, they will have to be on top of their games if they hope to come away with a victory. The Bengals offense is among the league's most potent units. Former Pro Bowl selections Palmer and Chad Johnson head an explosive passing attack, while Rudi Johnson gives the offense balance.

The Cincinnati offense has struggled this season, however, and currently ranks No. 18 in the league. Coach Marvin Lewis knows that problem will not be easy to fix against the Chargers, depleted as they may be,

"On defense, they're real physical," Lewis said. "They get after the quarterback. Their secondary does a nice job of staying sound and square in technique. It'll be quite a challenge for our wide receivers this week. They get up on people. They play man-to-man coverage, and allow that rush to get there. Their linebackers are athletic, and can run. They do a good job."

Just how the good the Chargers defense is may be established this weekend. The unit has a reputation for folding late, and will need strong, complete showing in Cincinnati to justify its lofty ranking and to help the Chargers continue their strong push to the playoffs.

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