Chargers vs. Panthers: Ten Things We Learned

The Chargers have already turned the page on Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers, but SDBoltReport.com believes the story is worth a closer read. Michael Lombardo examines what we learned during the season opener, including notes about Norv Turner's play calling, Antonio Gates' rust and Quentin Jammer's quiet excellence.

1. Norv Turner may have taken the Chargers to the AFC Championship Game in his first year with the team, but that doesn't mean his play-calling is free from scrutiny. One issue is predictability, as Turner dialed up running plays on 12 of the Chargers' first 17 first-down opportunities. Another issue is his decision-making late in games, such as calling for Nate Kaeding to squib kick the ball with more than two minutes left to play. The Panthers started their game-winning drive at their own 32-yard line; last season, teams started on average inside their own 20-yard line following Kaeding kickoffs. Those extra 12 yards won the game for the Panthers.

2. The Chargers have tremendous depth at inside linebacker, but this team badly missed Stephen Cooper on Sunday. The man who replaced Cooper in the starting lineup, Derek Smith, finished with two tackles and zero impact plays. Additionally, on the game's final play, Matt Wilhelm narrowly missed deflecting the pass that found its way to Dante Rosario in the back of the end zone. Had Cooper been playing and assuming his rightful place in the nickel defense, his deep drop and high vertical would have rendered that completion impossible.

3. Antonio Gates, despite leading the team with four catches for 61 yards and a score, is nowhere near 100 percent. Compounding his lingering toe pain is the hip contusion he suffered on Sunday. Gates' routes are no longer smooth and effortless and he's not gaining the separation he's used to. Filed under the collateral-damage category is Gates' fumble, which was returned by Chris Gamble 31 yards for a touchdown. Gates was still shaking off rust after missing the entire preseason due to his injured toe, which explains his first fumble in his last 339 touches.


WR Chris Chambers
Jeff Gross/Getty

4. Unlike last postseason, the Chargers receivers failed to pick up the slack for a gimpy Gates. Chris Chambers caught only one pass, a 44-yard touchdown courtesy a busted coverage. Vincent Jackson came through late, catching three passes for 47 yards and a TD in the fourth quarter, but was shut out for the first 49 minutes of the game. No other receiver registered a catch and former first-round pick Buster Davis was a game-day inactive.

5. One member of the offense who can hold his head high (other than Philip Rivers, whose fantastic performance is profiled here) is Mike Tolbert. The undrafted fullback out of Coastal Carolina proved he can bang with the big boys, helping LaDainian Tomlinson average more than 4.6 yards per carry. Tolbert also showed some explosiveness as a receiver out of the backfield, catching three passes for 35 yards and breaking some tackles along the way. He will become an excellent check-down option for Rivers as the season progresses.

6. Quentin Jammer is a better cornerback than Antonio Cromartie. Although Cromartie brings the sizzle, it's Jammer who knows how to stick. Cromartie played selfish ball on Sunday, getting burnt on at least three occasions when he tried to jump routes and left his safeties out to dry. Jammer, meanwhile, is always in good position and understands how to alter his coverage based on down and distance. Once tackling skills are taken into consideration –- Jammer is one of the NFL's best, Cromartie is a work in progress –- it becomes clear Jammer is the better overall player at this point in their careers.


LB Shawne Merriman
Jeff Gross/Getty

7. The Chargers need to give more playing time to Jyles Tucker. Defensive Coordinator Ted Cottrell can't deploy Tucker for only a few snaps at a time whenever Shawne Merriman's knee acts up, or Tucker won't be able to get into the flow of the game and learn the tendencies of opposing offensive linemen. In the final regular-season game of 2007, Tucker finished with four tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and a touchdown. Against the Panthers, he logged just one tackle.

8. If it's any consolation, the Chargers sported the NFL's most talented inactive list on Sunday. In addition to injured Pro Bowlers Marcus McNeill (neck) and Nick Hardwick (foot), other notables included LB Anthony Waters and NT Brandon McKinney. Waters was expected to push Smith for the starting role during Cooper's absence, but wound up inactive in favor of Brandon Siler, who is more accomplished on special teams. McKinney's inactivity was a bit surprising given Jamal Williams' aching knees. When Williams was forced to the sideline with knee pain in the first half, Ryon Bingham was forced to take all the snaps at nose.

9. If nothing else, the Chargers keep things close. San Diego has only lost three games by more than seven points between 2006 and present. Each of those contests came last season, losing to the New England Patriots by 24 in Week 3, the Kansas City Chiefs by 14 in Week 4, and the Minnesota Vikings by 18 in Week 9. Part of the explanation for that is the Chargers' ability to rally, which was evidenced again on Sunday as the Bolts scored two touchdowns in a span of less than five minutes to retake the lead late.

10. The Chargers have claimed two consecutive AFC West Championships in part because of the mediocrity of the other teams in the division. San Diego won the West by four games in 2007 and by five games in 2006. That trend looks to continue this season, as the Kansas City Chiefs lost to a Patriots team sans Tom Brady, 17-10, and the Oakland Raiders were routed by the Denver Broncos, 41-14. And as for those Broncos? The Chargers will have their chance to bring them back down to earth when they collide in Week 2.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.


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