Michael Lombardo: The impact of Merriman's season-ending knee surgery cannot be overstated. Look no further than San Diego's Week 2 matchup against the Denver Broncos, when Jay Cutler dropped back to pass more than 50 times and was sacked just once. The Chargers sorely missed Merriman's disruptive presence and his ability to draw attention away from his fellow defenders.
The Chargers still boast some talented edge rushers. Shaun Phillips has 20 sacks over the last two seasons and added one more last week. Jyles Tucker contributed two sacks last week and netted three in his last game against the Oakland Raiders. Marques Harris and Antwan Applewhite round out the rotation; both are gifted athletes who are better against the pass than the run.
Merriman will be missed in the locker room, as well. He is a fiery leader who charged up his teammates with pre-game pep talks and in-game words of encouragement. The Chargers have a number of veterans ready to step up and fill the leadership void, but there is no way to replace a Shawne Merriman.
MW: LaDainian Tomlinson has had some of his best games against Oakland but has only 190 yards through the first three games this season. What has held him back and what will it take to get him going against the Raiders?
RB LaDainian Tomlinson
LT sat out practice on Wednesday but fully participated in Thursday's practice. Although he won't be 100 percent by kickoff on Sunday, he'll be in the best shape he's been in since the Season Opener. That should push his rushing average closer to his career norm of 4.5 yards, as opposed to this year's pedestrian average of 3.3 yards.
Tomlinson should be in line for a big game against the Raiders, so long as the Chargers aren't forced to play from behind. However, don't expect many more monster performances like he put on over the last two seasons. Not only is LT starting to show his age (29), but he's losing some of his carries to electric change-of-pace back Darren Sproles.
MW: There's been so much talk about Philip Rivers and LT, but how much has Sproles impacted the offense?
ML: Sproles emerged as an explosive weapon in the second half of last season and has taken his game to another level in 2008. He is no longer a one-trick pony who does all of his damage on screen passes. He has become a strong runner between the tackles and is surprisingly effective near the goal line.
What makes Sproles so dangerous is his ability to make something out of nothing. He is the best check-down option in the NFL because no linebacker has the speed to run with him. His size (5-foot-6, 181 pounds) is actually a huge asset. He is hard to find behind his massive offensive linemen and he's difficult to bring down because of his low center of gravity.
MW: Oakland's running game has been among the League's best since line coach Tom Cable installed the zone-blocking system. How will the Chargers combat that and can they shut down the Raiders on the ground?
NT Jamal Williams
Jamal Williams, 32, is playing on two bad knees and is no longer an immovable force in the middle of the defense. Without him commanding double-teams and keeping his linebackers clean, the Chargers no longer resemble the elite run defense that ranked in the NFL's top-seven three of the last four seasons.
The best way for the Chargers to slow Oakland's rushing attack is to be efficient on offense. If Rivers maintains his torrid pace from the first three weeks and Tomlinson returns to form, the Chargers should put big points up on the board. Theoretically, that would force the Raiders to play catch-up and put the ball in JaMarcus Russell's hands.
MW: What role has Norv Turner played in the development of Rivers?
ML: Turner has been under the microscope in San Diego because the Chargers have suffered some untimely upsets since he came onboard, but his ability to develop quarterbacks cannot be questioned. Rivers was fantastic over the second half of last season and has been even better at the start of 2008, leading the NFL in touchdown passes (9) and passer rating (124.8).
To me, there is no stronger proof of Turner's ability to develop quarterbacks than his work with Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. In Turner's one year as offensive coordinator of the 49ers, Smith completed 58.1 percent of his passes while tossing 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. In Smith's two seasons without Turner, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and 15 picks.
MW: San Diego has scored 110 points but given up 94 points. What has been wrong with the defense so far?
ML: Unfortunately for San Diego, there are so many problems on defense that it's hard to isolate one problem area. The rushing defense ranks in the bottom half of the NFL, which means opposing offenses are not facing as many third-and-long situations as they used to. That makes life harder on the pass rush, and by extension, the pass coverage.
The other issue for the defense is cohesion, as there have been a lot of personnel changes since last season. Tucker is starting in place of Merriman; ILB Derek Smith in place of Cooper; and FS Eric Weddle in place of Marlon McCree. The defense is making progress, as evidenced by the big win over the Jets (three sacks and four takeaways), but it remains a work in progress.
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.