Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Browns I

The Chargers carry a six-game win streak into their game against the Browns. But are the visitors taking the opposition too lightly? To explore this and several others topics, SDBoltReport.com's Michael Lombardo answers six questions from Barry McBride of the Orange and Brown Report.

Barry McBride: The Chargers struggled as the season began to such a degree that head coach Norv Turner was considered to be at risk for keeping his job. What was the major factor in their turnaround?

Michael Lombardo: The short answer is that the Chargers got healthier and the schedule got easier. Health was the big key after San Diego got beat up early in the season. Most the injuries came on the offensive and defensive lines, which is something the Chargers were not equipped to endure. The offensive line is now playing with more consistency and the defensive line has been reinforced with some key midseason pickups (Alfonso Boone and Ian Scott).

As for the schedule, San Diego's three losses came against the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers -- the AFC finalists from last season -- and a Denver Broncos team that was 5-0 at the time. Since then, San Diego has feasted on bottom-feeders and caught some winning teams (the Broncos and New York Giants) as they were mired in slumps.

BM: Browns fans remember earlier this decade when the Chargers came to town and LaDainian Tomlinson (like Jamal Lewis) tore the team's defense to shreds. How dangerous is Tomlinson as a runner compared to the unstoppable force the Browns saw all those years ago?


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Jaime Squire/Getty
ML: The phase "shadow of his former self" is cliché, but it's applicable when it comes to Tomlinson. He is no longer a threat to post 100-yard games (none this season) or bust long runs, and his role as a receiver has all but been eliminated. I think he'll have his best game of the season in Cleveland, as he's motivated to get the 55 yards he needs to pass Browns icon Jim Brown on the all-time rushing list, but that might mean nothing more than 80 yards and a score.

To be fair, Tomlinson still plays a big role in the offense. He's a solid between-the-tackles runner, which keeps defenses honest, and he has a nose for the end zone when he's inside the 5-yard line. However, he's no better than an average running back at this point in his career.

BM: San Diego lost FS Eric Weddle earlier this week. Who will serve as his replacement and does this create an opening the Browns would be able to exploit if they, you know, had an NFL-quality offense?

ML: Weddle's injury actually creates some substantial problems for the Chargers. One of the keys to San Diego's turnaround this season was when Ron Rivera revamped his nickel defense, benching CB Antoine Cason, a 2008 first-round pick, and going with a three-safety lineup featuring Weddle, Steve Gregory and Paul Oliver. That was the second big safety shake-up this season, as earlier the Chargers cut starting SS Clinton Hart and replaced him with rookie sixth-round pick Kevin Ellison.

Now with Weddle out, Oliver moves into the starting lineup and Cason regains his place in the nickel defense. That shouldn't hurt too much from a coverage standpoint, but it limits Rivera's options for rushing the passer. San Diego loves to blitz its safeties and Weddle was sent off the edge with regularity. Weddle's absence -- combined with the possible absences of Shawne Merriman (foot) and Luis Castillo (calf) -- could result in Brady Quinn having ample time to throw.

BM: Merriman looked set to become one of the league's premier defenders several years ago. He's been playing this year, but we haven't heard quite as much about him. What's happening with Merriman?


LB Shawne Merriman
Harry How/Getty
ML: Merriman has battled an assortment of injuries (groin, foot, etc.) that have prevented him from returning to the form he showed before his reconstructive knee surgery last season. Merriman has shown flashes of his pass-rushing prowess, posting four sacks in a two-game stretch and drawing double-teams in obvious passing situations, but he's nowhere near the impact player he once was.

The problem when he does play is that he sells out in pursuit of sacks, often failing to hold the edge or contain the backside of plays. He's allowed more big plays than he's made this season, which is troubling. The Chargers, who had only three outside linebackers on their roster as of last week, brought back OLB Marques Harris this week. Harris spent the 2005-2008 seasons in San Diego and may sub for Merriman this week so that "Lights Out" can rest for a week in hopes of discovering his old self.

BM: Marty Schottenheimer was the Browns' last coach who managed to develop a consistently winning program here, twenty years ago. Several years out from his tenure in San Diego, how do you think Marty is remembered in SD?

ML: People are evenly divided into Marty and Norv camps. Members of Camp Marty tout the consistency of his program and the fact that the Chargers were well-coached, consistent winners in his tenure. The Chargers have been under .500 at the beginning of October in each of Turner's three years at the helm, something that wouldn't have happened under Schottenheimer.

On the flip side, Turner has won three playoff games in his first two full seasons with the Chargers, and we all know about Schottenheimer's poor playoff record. The one thing I try to remind people in the anti-Marty contingent is that Turner is winning with a lot of players who were taught how to play the game by Coach Schottenheimer.

BM: Is there any chance that the San Diego Chargers will, as a team, miss their plane from San Diego giving the Browns a chance to win the game, or at least cover the spread? Do they struggle logistically with things like that? What are the odds that the team bus will be hit by a comet on the way to the stadium from the hotel? At this point, Browns fans are struggling to come up with winning scenarios for the team that don't include the phrases "Act of God" or "Apocalypse."

ML: This doesn't look good for the Browns. Some teams play down to the level of the opponents but the Chargers aren't one of them, as evidenced by their 29-point win over the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Also, San Diego caught a break that this game kicks off at 4 p.m. ET, which negates a lot of the East Coast lag.

But, if Browns fans want reasons to be optimistic, I can dole out plenty. First, the Chargers seem to be treating this game like it's in the bag, floating the idea of resting some injured players who might partake in a game of higher magnitude. Second, the weather should give the Browns a big homefield advantage. And third, the Chargers have dealt with bouts of poor tackling that must have Josh Cribbs licking his chops.

Will that be enough for the Browns to pull of an upset? Probably not. But I know for certain the Chargers are going to come out very aggressive and look to put this game away early. If the Browns can keep it close into the second half, they might just frustrate the Chargers and make a real game of it.

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. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.


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