Behind Enemy Lines: San Diego Chargers

Charlie Bernstein asks the important questions to San Diego Chargers NFL Expert Michael Lombardo as it relates to the Jaguars matchup this weekend.

Charlie Bernstein: L.T. isn't having an "off year" for mere mortals, but his production is significantly down from his MVP campaign of a year ago. Teams are obviously keying on stopping him and the Chargers running game, but that should've been the game plan last year as well. What do you attribute this drop-off to?

    Michael Lombardo: Two factors come to mind when dissecting Tomlinson's slump and Norv Turner deserves the blame for both of them. The first is a lack of attitude. The Chargers routinely faced eight-man fronts last season, but they responded by subbing in blocking specialist Brandon Manumaleuna for one of the wide receivers, lining up and playing smash-mouth football. Turner rarely has both Manumaleuna and Lorenzo Neal on the field at the same time, and the running game has taken a hit as a result.

    The other issue is predictable play calling. Turner loves to run up the middle on first down and defenses are loading up to stop it. Last year under Cam Cameron, the Chargers consistently caught defenses off guard with their play calling. Cameron would call passes on first-and-10 and runs on third-and-five. That diversity is now gone and Tomlinson is paying the price.

CB: Philip Rivers' overall production and quarterback rating is down from last season, and the Chargers offense is 25th overall, despite returning several Pro Bowlers on the offensive side of the ball from last season. Following a 14-2 season, you're not going to sneak up on anyone, but why is there such a drastic decline in production?

    ML: I believe the problem with Rivers is not that he has gotten worse, but that opposing defenses have gotten better at taking away what he likes to do. Rivers is a pocket passer who needs clear throwing lanes to be successful. Opposing defenses are countering by bringing constant pressure and forcing Rivers to throw under duress or break the pocket. Until Rivers makes defenses pay by hitting some big throws over the top, I don't anticipate this will change.

    Additionally, the offensive line is not playing as well as it did last season. Some of that has to do with the absence of Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick, who missed the last three games with a foot injury and will sit again on Sunday. But as a whole, the unit has taken a step back.

CB: The Jaguars are susceptible to quick running backs when they are in space (San Diego's native son Reggie Bush killed them a couple weeks ago). How often do the Chargers line up L.T. in the slot or out wide, and how do you think they will try to take advantage of this blatant mismatch?

    ML: The Chargers used a great formation last season in which Michael Turner lined up in the backfield and Tomlinson motioned out into the slot. Often times, a linebacker would walk out with Tomlinson and L.T. would exploit that matchup every time. However, when Cameron left for Miami he must have taken that play with him because we haven't seen it since. Tomlinson will get his share of catches coming out of the backfield, but I don't expect to see him split out.

    The player I think the Chargers will use to exploit this situation is WR/TE Legedu Naanee, a rookie fifth-round pick who has really come on over the last couple weeks. Naanee has climbed past first-round pick Craig Davis on the depth chart and has the versatility to hurt defenses in a number of ways. You might see him line up in the slot or in the backfield, where he can slip for a couple of quick-hitters in space.

CB: Defensively, the Chargers seem to be a little soft while defending shorter, underneath passes. The Jaguars entire passing game is predicated on short, controlled passes. Do you think the San Diego secondary will be more aggressive and take some more chances against the Jaguars offense?

    ML: I expect the Chargers corners to sit on the underneath routes and attack them aggressively until Garrard or Quinn Gray proves he can consistently make plays downfield. The availability of Quentin Jammer (hamstring) will affect this matchup one way or the other; he is the most physical player in the secondary.

    I still expect the Jaguars to complete a high percentage of throws in the short passing game. Ted Cottrell runs a bend-but-don't break defense that is designed to force defenses drive 10 or more plays to put points on the board. San Diego will give up the dink and dunk plays in hopes that one of its playmakers will come through with a play to get the defense off the field before Jacksonville drives into scoring range.

CB: Chargers kick returner/running back Darren Sproles just had the game of his life on national TV against the Colts, returning a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown. How long will it be before teams begin to give him the Devin Hester treatment, and kick away from him to severely limit his opportunities?

    ML: I don't think Sproles will get the Devin Hester treatment anytime soon. His primetime performance was no doubt special, but that had as much to do with undisciplined coverage by the Colts as Sproles' ability. Sproles has great quickness and start-and-stop speed but is not someone you scheme around.

    The player garnering the comparisons to Devin Hester is Antonio Cromartie. This exciting second-year player is a touchdown waiting to happen once he gets his hands on the ball, which has been happening more and more as of late. It the last four games, he has six interceptions and three touchdowns, including a fumble recovery, an interception return and missed field goal brought back 109-yard for a score.

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