Michael Lombardo: The Chargers miss Merriman a great deal and are still learning how to generate a pass rush without him. The results were disastrous in the first game sans Shawne, as Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler dropped back to pass more than 50 times and was sacked only once. However, the pressure has improved in the subsequent weeks, as the defense netted three sacks in Week 3 and six sacks in Week 4.
The Chargers have two talented replacements in Jyles Tucker and Marques Harris, who have combined for four sacks over the last two games. However, Tucker is questionable this week with a hamstring injury. If he can't go, first-year player Antwan Applewhite would step into a significantly thinned rotation.
NT Jamal Williams
ML: The Bolts are battling a number of issues on defense. It starts up front, where three-time All Pro nose tackle Jamal Williams has been limited by chronic pain in both knees. Without Williams commanding double-teams and keeping his linebackers clean, the Chargers have fallen to No. 22 in the NFL in average yards allowed per run.
Another problem is the inability to protect the middle of the field, as opposing tight ends have pummeled the Chargers on a weekly basis. Through four weeks, starting tight ends have averaged 5.5 catches for 74 yards and 1.25 scores against the Chargers. The matchup between Anthony Fasano and returnee Stephen Cooper will be one to watch.
AP: How much of a difference will the return of ILB Stephen Cooper from his suspension make?
ML: Cooper will provide a significant boost to a defense that has struggled to get consistent play from its inside linebackers. Veteran Derek Smith made zero impact plays while starting in Cooper's absence, while Matt Wilhelm struggled at the other inside ‘backer position. Wilhelm is quickly losing minutes to Tim Dobbins, but Dobbins remains a liability in coverage.
Cooper is the most complete linebacker on the Chargers' active roster. He led the team in tackles last season with 108 while chipping in two sacks and two interceptions. More importantly, he's the only inside linebacker on the team with the speed necessary to get deep drops and properly protect the middle of the field.
AP: Antonio Cromartie looked after last season like he was ready to become one of the best in the game, but he's been mediocre so far this year. What gives?
CB Antonio Cromartie
Also, as was reported after Week 2 when Cromartie let Brandon Marshall ring up 18 catches for 166 yards, Cromartie has had some off-the-field distractions. In that game against the Broncos, Cromartie's mind was with his son, who lives in Houston and was threatened by Hurricane Ike.
AP: Just how dangerous a kick returner is Darren Sproles?
ML: Sproles is dangerous enough to be named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month. Sproles is a game-changing weapon when he gets the ball in space, which is almost always the case on kick returns. In Week 2, he helped the Chargers did out of an 18-point hole with a 103-yard kickoff return. Last week, his 63-yard kickoff return in the final three minutes of the game set up San Diego for the go-ahead points.
Sproles is not in the same class as Devin Hester, mostly because Sproles is no where near as effective on punt returns as he is on kickoffs. Nonetheless, his quickness and sudden acceleration make him a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball.
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.