Aaron Wilson: Shawne Merriman is having a down year. Is that due to anything that Norv Turner is doing differently? Is Merriman lacking a little "juice" in his game this year?
Michael Lombardo: Schematic changes have something to do with Merriman's struggles. Ted Cottrell runs a read-and-react system that puts more emphasis on coverage than the pass rush. As a result, the Chargers lead the league with 17 interceptions but rank No. 20 in sacks (19) after leading the league last season (61). I believe that the lack of steroids in Merriman's system -- no matter if they got there intentionally or not -- is adversely affecting his play. He still has his quickness off the edge but lacks the sheer power that once made his bull rush so effective.
AW: What is the deal with Vincent Jackson? A lot of people were expecting big things from him as far as providing the Chargers with a solid option downfield. Instead, he seems to have been a disappointment. Do you blame Jackson, Rivers, the offense or all of the above?
ML: I'll check "all of the above." Jackson needs to do a better job of coming back and fighting for the ball. Rivers needs to improve his accuracy -- he missed Jackson for two easy scores during a week nine game against the Minnesota Vikings. Coach Turner deploys Jackson differently, too. Last year, he played essentially like a tight end, lining up close to the formation and blocking linebackers on nearly half of the snaps. This year, he is struggling to gain separation when used mostly outside the hashes. The midseason addition of Chris Chambers hurt as well. Jackson averaged 53.3 yards per game before the trade and 16 yards per game since.
AW: Coach Turner is having a lackluster year. Given the extremely high expectations at the beginning of the year and the lack of results since, what are the chances he will lose his job at the end of the year?
ML: Turner's job status is directly tied to the Chargers' quest to make the playoffs. General Manager A.J. Smith knew a regular-season regression was coming when he hired Turner. Smith's sole objective was to win a game in the playoffs. If Turner can do that, he will be safe for at least one more season. If the Chargers fail to win the AFC West, which seems very possible given the friendly closing schedule of the Denver Broncos, then expect Dean Spanos to make a strong run at Bill Cowher during the offseason.
AW: LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates are having off seasons. Is this because Turner spreads the ball around more than Marty Schottenheimer? Or have the defenses learned ways to control them?
ML: Tomlinson's down year is due to two things: a lack of commitment to the run and offensive inconsistencies. The Chargers rarely keep both FB Lorenzo Neal and TE Brandon Manumaleuna on the field at the same time anymore, even though that is the ideal formation for combating eight-man fronts. Also, the offense's inability to sustain as many long drives as it did last season makes it more difficult to wear down opposing defenses.
Gates is not having an off year, although he is mired in a bit of a funk. He has only eight catches for 90 yards and a touchdown over the last three games. However, he was enjoying a career season prior to that. He is on pace for 10 touchdowns and a career-best 1,166 yards. He is still the best tight end in the game and a lock to shatter all of Tony Gonzalez's records before it is all said and done.
AW: How have injuries affected the Chargers? Have they made San Diego change any aspects of its game plans?
ML: The two injuries that have really hurt the Chargers are Pro Bowl C Nick Hardwick (foot) and DE Luis Castillo (ankle). Hardwick is a brawler who controls the middle of the line of scrimmage. His absence has limited the inside running game and prevented Rivers from throwing from a clean pocket. The Chargers run more pitch-outs and stretch plays with Hardwick out of the lineup. They also look to utilize Tomlinson more as a receiver, as the goal is to get the ball in his hands without a defensive lineman already draped on top of him.
Castillo was the team's best pass-rushing defensive lineman. The current defensive end tandem, Igor Olshansky and Jacques Cesaire, is not a treat to consistently harass the quarterback. This allows offenses to key in on Merriman and Shaun Phillips, the team's only remaining sack threats. The Chargers are will move Merriman around and run some stunts up front to try to generate a pass-rush with smoke and mirrors.
Both Hardwick and Castillo will miss Sunday's game.
AW: Do you attribute the offensive problems to Rivers, the offensive line, or the lack of talent at wide receiver?
ML: When an offense regresses like San Diego's (No. 4 to No. 21), every player must shoulder a share of the blame. The offensive line allows too much penetration, a problem expounded by Rivers' inability to throw under pressure. Rivers has struggled with his reads, often throwing into triple coverage or right into the chest of a defender. The issue of receiving talent was a big problem before the acquisition of Chambers and a small problem when Craig Davis was down with an ankle injury. As it stands now, San Diego's top four receivers (Chambers, Jackson, Davis and Legedu Naanee) form one of the more talented quartets in the league.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.
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