Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Raiders I

Our Scout.com experts, Michael Lombardo of SDBoltReport.com and Michael Wagaman of Silver & Black Illustrated, analyze Sunday's game between the Chargers and Raiders at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Let's start this two-part series with six questions from Wagaman to Lombardo.

Michael Wagaman: Given how badly the Chargers have struggled this season, why did President Dean Spanos and GM A.J. Smith decree that Coach Norv Turner will be back in 2009?

Michael Lombardo: When Spanos and Smith made their proclamations, the Chargers will still in the thick of the AFC West race. The hope was that by removing the distraction of a possible coaching change, the players would show more focus. With Norv Turner taking so much heat, the temptation was there for the players to write off their personal shortcomings on bad coaching. Now that the players know Turner will be back next season, they realize the onus is on them to improve.

However, it is still possible Turner could coach his way out of a job if the Chargers don't show signs of life down the stretch, especially if a big fish like Bill Cowher or Pete Carroll becomes available. If the Chargers lose this week to the 3-9 Oakland Raiders, thereby going 0-3 on a crucial three-game home stand, the odds of Turner returning will drop significantly.

MW: It seems like everything has fallen apart so quickly for the Chargers this season. Is there one event you can identify as the cause for this rapid decline?


CB Drayton Florence
Getty

ML: Like all things in football, San Diego's implosion isn't as simple as it seems. However, one thing that has expedited the team's downfall was A.J. Smith's decision to worry about 2010 at the expense of 2008.

The Chargers lost RB Michael Turner and CB Drayton Florence in the offseason, despite having the money to re-sign both of them. However, Smith was concerned about saving money for his players who will be free agents after the 2009 season, a list that includes QB Philip Rivers, LT Marcus McNeill, LB Shawne Merriman and WRs Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers.

By letting Turner and Florence walk, the Chargers initiated big declines in their run offense and pass defense. Also, it forced Smith to spend his first two draft picks on a cornerback and running back, respectively, picks that could have been allocated elsewhere if Turner and Florence were in the fold.

Ironically, because so many Chargers players have underperformed this season, the only members of the free-agent class of 2009 that are virtual locks to get extensions are Rivers and Jackson. If Smith knew nine months ago that McNeill, Antonio Cromartie and others would slump so badly, he wouldn't have worried about squirreling away money for their next contracts.


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Doug Benc/Getty

MW: LaDainian Tomlinson has always had the Raiders' number, but he comes into this game struggling badly. Is the burden of seven consecutive seasons of 300-plus carries taking its toll? Or is LT being done-in by his supporting cast?

MW: I believe the latter option is much more likely. The Chargers have really done a poor job of run blocking this season, especially at the fullback position. The offensive line hasn't performed up to par, either: LT Marcus McNeill is not reestablishing the line of scrimmage like he used to; C Nick Hardwick looks more passive since undergoing offseason foot surgery; and RG Mike Goff, 32, is showing his age.

The Chargers already addressed the running back position once this offseason, adding veteran RB Michael Bennett off waivers. In fact, Bennett may be active for the first time this season against the Raiders. Look for San Diego to add another back in the offseason, when Darren Sproles is expected to depart as a free agent. The Bolts will consider drafting a sidekick for LT, possibly as early as the first round.

MW: Last week, the Raiders used CB Nnamdi Asomugha against Kansas City Chiefs TE Tony Gonzalez. The Chiefs went right at Asomugha and had great success doing so. Will the Chargers try to exploit that same matchup when Asomugha is pitted against Antonio Gates?


TE Antonio Gates
Chris McGrath/Getty

ML: The Chargers won't go to Gates very often when he's shadowed by Asomugha. Gates never fully returned to his game-breaking form this season after being hampered by toe and hip injuries. He's not getting the kind of separation he's used to, as his routes have gone from effortless to labored.

Remember, the Chargers have always struggled to move the ball through the air against the Raiders. In Philip Rivers' last three games against Oakland, he has completed 41-of-69 passes (59 percent) for an average of 157 yards per game. He's also thrown as many interceptions in those games (three) as he has touchdowns. Bottom line: Look for the Chargers passing game to struggle and for Gates to have a quiet day as a result.

MW: Speaking of tight ends, the Chargers have struggled to stop opposing tight ends all season. How will they slow down Raiders TE Zach Miller?

ML: Statistically, Miller had his best game of the season against the Chargers in Week 4, setting season-highs in receptions (five) and yards (95) while scoring his only touchdown. He could be in for another big day on Sunday, as the Chargers have done little to improve their coverage against tight ends since that first meeting.

When the Chargers are playing man coverage, rookie Antoine Cason will likely get the call against Miller. When San Diego goes zone, Miller might get some good looks against San Diego's linebackers, because coordinator Ron Rivera will keep his safeties close to the line of scrimmage to fluster second-year QB JaMarcus Russell.

MW: Why is it that San Diego's struggles in pass defense have yet to be corrected? Are all these issues simply fallout from Shawne Merriman's injury?

ML: Merriman's injury certainly had a more crippling effect than the Chargers anticipated. When Merriman missed four gamed due to suspension in 2006, the Bolts went 4-0 in his absence. In 2008, without Merriman around to attract attention and harass opposing quarterbacks, San Diego's other pass rushers have been neutralized and its secondary has been exposed.

The rest of the San Diego defense has to take accountability. CB Antonio Cromartie had 10 interceptions last season, but has only two this year; SS Clinton Hart had five picks last season, but is still looking for his first in 2008; and DE Luis Castillo had seven sacks in 10 games in 2006, yet has only 1.5 sacks in 11 games this year. These players must take in on themselves to maximize their talents, regardless of who's around them.

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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