Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Saints I

Our Scout.com experts, Michael Lombardo of SDBoltReport.com and Matthew Postins of SaintsInsider.com, analyze Sunday's game between the Chargers and Saints at Wembley Stadium in London. Let's kick off this series with six questions from Matthew to Michael.

Matthew Postins: Three years ago the Chargers decided to let Drew Brees go and cast their lot with Philip Rivers. No regrets on this end. How about the Chargers?

Michael Lombardo: The Chargers are thrilled with Rivers' play, more so this year than ever before. In 2006, Rivers led the team to a 14-2 record and earned a Pro Bowl invite. He struggled over the first half of the 2007 season as he adjusted to Norv Turner's more diverse offense, but he hit his stride midseason and guided the team on an eight-game winning streak that ended in the AFC Championship Game. This year, despite the Chargers' up-and-down play, Rivers has been stellar and leads the NFL in passer rating (108.5) by a full five points.

The Chargers believe Rivers is better suited to play "championship football" than Brees. Rivers turns the ball over less than Brees, throwing seven fewer interceptions over the last two-and-a-half seasons (36-29). Rivers is also better in the fourth quarter; he led in the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating in 2006 and appears primed to do so again this season with a healthy 107.4. Brees' fourth-quarter rating this season (92.1) is more than 15 points lower than Rivers.

MP: What exactly is the story with LaDainian Tomlinson this year? I mean, I won't say he's been bad, but he's definitely not the LT we know. What are the factors that have produced the slippage in his performance?


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Harry How/Getty

ML: There are a number of factors that go into Tomlinson's sub-par season. The first and most publicized issue is his toe injury. Tomlinson has trouble changing directions and exploding through holes, which is a big reason why his per-carry average (3.6 yards) is nearly a full yards below his career average of 4.5 yards.

There are other reasons for Tomlinson's pedestrian performance. He's averaging only 17.5 rushing attempts per game after averaging 21 carries per game over his first seven seasons. Also, his offensive line has failed to find a rhythm with its running blocking; due to injuries to Pro Bowlers LT Marcus McNeill and C Nick Hardwick, the starting five has played together for only four games.

MP: What's a bigger problem for the Chargers offense – the injury Antonio Gates suffered that caused him to miss most of training camp or the injury WR Chris Chambers is nursing now?

ML: The injuries to Gates (toe and hip) are far more damaging to the offense than Chambers' sprained ankle. When healthy, Gates is arguably the most important member of San Diego's offense, even more so than Rivers or Tomlinson. Gates makes everyone else on the offense better by commanding double-teams, controlling the middle of the field, and giving linebackers something to worry about other than No. 21.

Chambers is an excellent player, but he's no superstar. Also, as evidenced by the play of Malcom Floyd over the last two weeks (seven catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns), the Chargers have players who can step in and pick up the slack for Chambers. There is no one on the Chargers' roster -- or in the NFL, for that matter -- who can replace what Gates brings to the table.

MP: How have the Chargers compensated for the loss of Shawne Merriman? And what was the reaction there in San Diego when he defied every medical opinion to play in the Season Opener?


LB Shawne Merriman
Jeff Gross/Getty

ML: The Chargers have replaced Merriman with a committee of young players: Jyles Tucker, Marques Harris and Antwan Applewhite. Tucker (three sacks) is the best player in that trio; he has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury but is expected to play against the Saints. All three of the aforementioned players are talented, young pass-rushers, but they lack the disruptiveness, experience and run-stopping ability of Merriman.

Merriman's absence has been devastating to a defense that ranks dead-last against the pass and No. 28 overall. Shaun Phillips has been effectively neutered now that he's inherited extra attention from opposing blockers, and the lack of a pass rush has left the secondary hanging out to dry. Last season, the Chargers led the NFL in interceptions (30); this year, they're on pace to finish with less than half that number.

As for fan reaction, Merriman earned a lot of respect for attempting to play through the injury. However, there was a general consensus he would not make it through the season, so it was in everybody's best interests that he shut things down early and got a head start on preparing his body for next season.

MP: Am I not paying attention, or have I not heard Antonio Cromartie's name much this year? Is he living up to his Pro Bowl year or is he experiencing a slip?

ML: I don't think "slip" even does justice to the massive decline in Cromartie's play. After busting onto the scene last season -- intercepting 10 passes over the final 11 games and scoring touchdowns on an interception return, fumble return and missed field goal return -- Cromartie has only two picks this season, both of them in a Week 3 blowout against the New York Jets.

The problems facing Cromartie are numerous. He's tried to force the issue and chase interceptions, which is part of the reason he is the most penalized player in the NFL right now. There's also the hip injury he suffered during Season Opener, which is still causing a hitch in his giddy-up. He's still an electrifying athlete, but until he restores his focus and discipline, he'll remain far removed from his All Pro form.

MP: Your opinion – is Norv Turner the head coach of the Chargers in 2009? What must he do to keep his job?

ML: I believe Turner will be the head coach of the Chargers next season regardless of whether this team's makes the playoffs. The Chargers' "window of contention" is open between now and the end of the 2009 season, so the team cannot afford to break in a new coaching staff during that limited stretch of time.

The Chargers have several marquee players scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the 2009 season, including QB Philip Rivers, LB Shawne Merriman, LT Marcus McNeill, WR Vincent Jackson and WR Chris Chambers. So, if Coach Turner can't win the Big One by then, the Chargers may make a change at the top, reload and prepare for another run. However, I can't envision any scenario in which the change takes place before then.

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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