Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Lions II

Our experts, Nate Caminata of and Michael Lombardo of, analyze Sunday's game between the Lions and Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Let's wrap up this two-part series with six questions from Nate to Michael.

Nate Caminata: After a slow start, the Chargers have won three games in a row (and seven of their last nine) and seem to be catching steam at just the right time. What explains this team's resurgence?

Michael Lombardo: The defense is the primary catalyst for the improvement. Back in September, the Chargers allowed 30-plus points in three consecutive games and lost each of those outings. Since then, the Chargers have held seven of nine opponents to 21 points or less and are 7-0 in those games. Only two teams topped 21 points against San Diego since October, and the Bolts lost both of those games.

Especially key for the defense is its ability to generate turnovers. The Chargers lead the league in interceptions (22) and are third in turnover differential (plus 13). The Chargers are 7-0 when they win the turnover battle and only 1-5 when they lose it.

NC: San Diego caught flak both during the offseason and into this regular season after the dubious firing of Marty Schottenheimer and the hiring of Norv Turner. Perhaps unjustly, Turner was the target of those criticisms. With the postseason now a reality, have those early-bird critics backed off, and has Turner demonstrated enough to prove himself as a valid NFL coach?

ML: Turner knew what he was getting into when he agreed to take over a 14-2 team and fill the shoes of one of the winningest coaches in NFL history. The players, fans and media all expected to see a dominant product on the field and when the team struggled to a 5-5 start, the criticism was both expected and justified.

Turner needs to win a playoff game to validate himself to his team and its fans. General Manager A.J. Smith's only preseason goal was to win one playoff game, something Schottenheimer never accomplished in his five seasons with the Chargers. If Turner can deliver such a win, it will validate Smith's decision to hire him. If not, those early-bird critics will continue to chirp.

NC: San Diego will be without linebacker Shawne Merrimann in Sunday's contest. How will that affect the Chargers game-plan, and what does Merriman bring to the table that his backup might not?

ML: The Lions are extremely fortunate to catch the Chargers without Merriman, as "Lights Out" has been on a tear, netting six sacks in his last three games. Merriman would have no doubt padded those stats against a team that attempts nearly 37 passes per game. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell won't change the game-plan much, other than giving Merriman's inside blitz assignments to Shaun Phillips.

Third-year linebacker Marques Harris will start in Merriman's stead. Harris is an effective speed rusher off the edge, but he won't bull rush an offensive tackle like Merriman. Harris is 27 lbs. lighter than Merriman, and it shows in his run defense. He struggles to shed blocks and chase down plays on the backside.

NC: The Chargers are typically recognized for their offensive brilliance, but the defense has turned in some solid performances as well (allowing 19 points per game). Is there a weakness that the Lions might be able to exploit?

ML: There are a few weaknesses in San Diego's defense, and the Lions seem well built to exploit them. San Diego's starting safeties (Marlon McCree and Clinton Hart) have sub-par range and are prone to giving up big plays up the seams. That should allow Calvin Johnson and Mike Furrey to find big plays over the middle of the field.

Another problem with San Diego's defense is the inability to get off the field on third-and-long. Cottrell rarely rushes more than four players in those situations, preferring to drop extra bodies into coverage. This helps San Diego create some turnovers, but it also helps opposing offenses dig out of deep holes.

NC: Philip Rivers has been erratic this year, yet as evident in last Sunday's win, seems to pull through when this team needs a play from its signal caller. Has Rivers finally "arrived," and is he poised enough to push San Diego through the postseason?

ML: I believe it's premature to say Rivers has "arrived." He is obviously very talented and has shown flashes of greatness, but he makes too many mistakes (20 turnovers this season) to be an upper echelon quarterback. What he did on that final fourth-quarter drive against the Tennessee Titans was impressive, but he had a chance to do the same thing three weeks earlier against the Jacksonville Jaguars and instead threw an interception to Sammy Knight.

I believe Rivers has the talent to win in the postseason, and I expect him to lead his team to a win over the Jaguars in round one. However, if the Chargers are to go to the Super Bowl, he will have to go on the road and out-duel Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Rivers is simply not in their league at this point in time.

NC: Is LT the fuel to this Chargers offense, and if so, does stopping him necessarily equate to controlling San Diego's offensive fortunes?

ML: There is no stopping LaDainian Tomlinson. Teams have found ways to contain him on the ground, but his contributions in the passing game make him impossible to "stop." However, containing him does not guarantee victory. The Chargers have a winning record this season when Tomlinson runs for 90 yards or less.

I believe the Lions will have a very difficult time slowing Tomlinson, even with his escort (FB Lorenzo Neal) out with an injury. The Chargers are running the ball very well right now (LT averaged more than 160 yards rushing over the last two weeks), and Tomlinson is always a beast in December; he boasts a career average of more than 107 yards rushing in the month of December.

Click here to read Part I of this series, where Nate examines the impacts Kevin Jones, Calvin Johnson and Shaun Rogers will have on Sunday's game.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.

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