Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Steelers II

In a special edition of Behind Enemy Lines, SDBoltReport.com publisher Michael Lombardo answers seven questions from readers of SteelCityInsider.com. From the perceived decline of LaDainian Tomlinson to the changes in store for Ron Rivera's defense, we serve up the answers you need in advance of Sunday's game.

Click here to read Part I of this series, where SteelCityInsider.com's Jim Wexell talks about Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Parker, LaMarr Woodley and more.

Q: What is wrong with LaDainian Tomlinson?

A: Right now, nothing is wrong with Tomlinson. He was severely limited by a sprained big toe on his right foot during Weeks 2-7, but he is back to 100 percent. He's averaged more than 143 yards from scrimmage over the last two games and has regained his trademark explosiveness. If the Chargers can improve their run blocking, especially on the right side of the line, LT will look a lot more like the All Pro fans are accustomed to watching.

Q: Is Darren Sproles getting enough touches?


RB Darren Sproles
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty

A: I think so. Sproles is averaging 10 all-purpose touches per game, which is a pretty decent clip for someone who backs up a future Hall of Famer. His explosive performances have fans clamoring for him to get the ball more, but Coach Norv Turner is reluctant to allow too many hits on Sproles' 181-pound frame. Sproles has only logged more than 10 carries once in his career, which was a 25-carry, 122-yard performance against the Detroit Lions last season.

Q: Has Antonio Gates lost a step?

A: No, Gates has not lost a step. Like Tomlinson, Gates was bothered by early-season injuries (toe and hip). And like Tomlinson, Gates is now rounding back into his All Pro form. Gates has three touchdown catches in the last four games and leads all tight ends with six scores. He set a season-high in receptions last week (eight) and a season-high in yards the week prior (96). While he's not quite back to his peak form, he's as close as he's been all season.

Q: What is wrong with the San Diego defense? Watching the Chargers bench closely versus the Buffalo Bills, I noticed the lack of passion and intensity most good defenses bring to the table.


LB Shawne Merriman
Donald Miralle/Getty

A: The Chargers defense was demoralized after watching opposing offenses dink and dunk against their soft zones on a weekly basis, which was one of the reasons former coordinator Ted Cottrell was let go. Another obvious factor is the absence of Shawne Merriman, who served as the emotional catalyst on the defensive side of the ball. Finally, the Chargers defense typically feeds off sacks and turnovers, and the unit has been unable to generate many of those lately, with only one sack and no takeaways in the three games.

Q: What exactly are the Chargers doing on defense that will make them better under Ron Rivera's guidance?

A: Rivera is working to simplify the defense and allow the players to react rather than over-think. The biggest issue is putting players in position to make plays. Some examples include using Shaun Phillips almost exclusively as a pass-rusher rather than dropping him into coverage, and sending Eric Weddle on more safety blitzes. Also, the Chargers will play more man coverage under Rivera, especially in the first halves of games.

Q: Does the defense blitz more with Rivera in charge?

A: Not yet, although that could change depending on future matchups. Rivera has made it clear he won't blitz just for the sake of blitzing. The Chargers have failed to generate heavy pressure even when rushing five or six defenders, so blitzes just expose an already vulnerable secondary. Remember, Rivera worked under Lovie Smith with the Chicago Bears when they ran the Cover 2 defense, which relies on the front four to generate the bulk of the pressure. Although that's still Rivera's preference, he may need to manufacture some more heat if opposing quarterbacks keep completing 70-plus percent of their passes.

Q: If Norv Turner fails to get the Chargers to the playoffs, will he be fired?

A: I think that's pretty unlikely. The Chargers are built to contend between now and 2009 and firing Turner may hinder the team's chances of competing next season. It usually takes a new coaching staff some time to get acclimated and the Chargers are in win-now mode. San Diego has several marquee players scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the '09 season -- including QB Philip Rivers, LB Shawne Merriman, LT Marcus McNeill and WRs Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson -- so I think Turner has until then to win The Big One. Of course, General Manger A.J. Smith is a huge fan of former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, so if the Chargers think they can land him, all bets may be off.

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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