Michael Kranzler: No, The Run Defense Will Land Outside the Top Five
San Diego's run defense will undoubtedly bounce back to rank in the top five again in 2008. The Chargers pride themselves on stopping the run, thanks in large part to the tutelage of defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely. As a result, San Diego's run defense has ranked in the top-seven five times since 2000: 2000 (No. 4), 2001 (No. 7), 2004 (No. 3), 2005 (No. 1) and 2006 (No. 7).
After slipping to No. 16 last season, there are several reasons to expect resurgence in 2008. Among them are:
--Massive NT Jamal Williams is physically fit after having both knees cleaned out this off-season. He missed two games last season and was less than 100 percent in several others. His sidekick, Luis Castillo, is also back to form after missing six games with an ankle injury. All six rotation players return from last season, so continuity is another plus.
--The Chargers have better depth at inside linebacker, especially once Stephen Cooper returns from his four-game suspension. Free-agent addition Derek Smith already has five seasons of 100-plus tackles under his belt, while second-year linebacker Anthony Waters looks like a new man now that he's fully recovered from ACL surgery.
--San Diego's schedule features fewer dynamic backs in 2008. Last season, the Bolts played seven games against teams that ranked in the top-10 rushing the ball, including contests against the best running teams from each conference, the Minnesota Vikings and the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2008, 11 of San Diego's 16 games are against teams that did not rank in the top-12 running the ball last season. San Diego only plays one game against a team that ranked in the top five running the ball (Week 11 at the Pittsburgh Steelers).
As great as the Chargers' defense is from front to back, finishing the year in the top five in rushing defense will be a very tall task. Just look at the schedule.
The Carolina Panthers come to town to open the season with questions at quarterback and two strong options at running back in DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart. Look for the Panthers to pound the ball as Jake Delhomme feels out his recently reconstructed throwing elbow.
The Falcons, Steelers and Raiders welcome new stud running backs to their teams in Michael Turner, Rashard Mendenhall, and Darren McFadden, respectively. The Steelers and Raiders both had top-six rushing offenses last year before adding elite talents, and the Falcons will rely heavily on the run next year to ease Matt Ryan's transition to the pros.
Denver always has a strong running game behind its zone-blocking scheme, and the Chiefs will look to rely heavily on Larry Johnson to help their rebuilding effort with very limited options at quarterback.
The talent is there for the Chargers, but with a dominant secondary that led the NFL in interceptions last year, opposing offensive coordinators may look to keep the ball on the ground more.
Injuries also can play a major role. When Adrian Peterson had his record-breaking performance against the Bolts last season, a little-recognized fact is that he got the vast majority of his yards in the second half when Luis Castillo, Quentin Jammer and Shaun Phillips were all out with injuries. Jamal Williams is also on the last (surgically reconstructed) legs of his career.
If the unit can stay injury-free, then there is a chance for it to prove me wrong. But based on the schedule the Chargers will face next year and the makeup of the roster, I find myself predicting that the unit will be closer to top 10 than top five.