Leberfeld's interview with Charger insider

Dan Leberfeld chatted this week with Charger Insider Mike Lombardo to get some insight San Diego's NFL team. Here is that chat -

Dan Leberfeld: How much has it hurt the Chargers playing without their starting left tackle and center in the first two games?

Michael Lombardo: Whenever you're down a pair of Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, there are going to be negative repercussions. It is especially difficult when you're missing a left tackle, who protects his quarterback's blindside, and a center, who calls out blitz pickups and protections.


C Nick Hardwick
Donald Miralle/Getty

The Chargers are fortunate to have two 10-year veterans as stand-ins. LT L.J. Shelton will start his 60th consecutive game on Monday while C Jeremy Newberry has a couple of Pro Bowls on his résumé. Neither player is as skilled as the man he replaces, but the drop-off isn't particularly precipitous.

The pass protection hasn't suffered much, as the Chargers have allowed just one sack per game. The run blocking has been mediocre, as San Diego is averaging 4.1 yards per carry. That's a low number with former MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and homerun hitter Darren Sproles in the backfield, but Tomlinson's toe injury has something to do with that, as well.

DL: What is the problem with the Chargers defense?

ML: San Diego's defense is struggling on all three levels. It starts on the defensive line, where three-time All Pro nose tackle Jamal Williams is struggling to win at the point of attack after undergoing offseason surgery on both of his knees. When he's not commanding double-teams and keeping his linebackers clean, the Chargers aren't nearly as effective.

On the second level, the absence of Shawne Merriman is a huge blow. It was painfully obvious in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos, as QB Jay Cutler dropped back to pass more than 50 times and was sacked only once. Also, without Merriman drawing extra attention, Shaun Phillips is having a hard time on the opposite side. Phillips is battling a minor groin injury and is still seeking his first sack of the season.

The biggest problem in the secondary is players chasing interceptions. The Chargers led the NFL with 30 picks last season and the defensive backs are taking unnecessary chances to try to duplicate that number. No player personifies that flawed mentality more than Antonio Cromartie, who suffered through an awful game last week. Cromartie was flagged for three penalties and dropped an interception while allowing Brandon Marshall to set a franchise record with 18 receptions.

DL: Jyles Tucker, who grew up right near the Jets new training complex, is a key player for the Chargers since he has replaced Shawne Merriman. What can you tell us about him and how is he playing?


LB Jyles Tucker
Doug Pensinger/Getty

ML: Tucker is a fantastic pass-rusher who is still improving his technique, especially against the run. He showed how effective he could be in Week 17 last season, when he tallied three sacks, a forced fumble and a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders en route to AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Tucker is still working on attaining sustained success. He needs to do a better job of disengaging from offensive linemen and must diagnose plays more quickly. That being said, the Chargers are very high on him. The proof is in the pudding, as the team gave him a five-year contract extension during the offseason that can be worth up to $14 million. That's a big show of faith in a first-year player with zero starts and only six games played under his belt.

DL: Tell us about the running game and how big is the concern about LT's toe?

ML: The concern about Tomlinson's toe is legitimate, especially since he was limited to 10 carries last week, when he was on the sidelines during crucial stretches at the end of both halves. It will help that he has an extra day for rest and rehabilitation this week, but it is unrealistic to expect him to be 100 percent.

Tomlinson's injury shines a light on the moves the Chargers made to reshape their backfield this offseason. Backup extraordinaire Michael Turner has taken his act to the Atlanta Falcons, leaving the Chargers with the unproven tandem of Darren Sproles and rookie third-round pick Jacob Hester.

Sproles has been a revelation, continuing the momentum he built in the second half of last season. Last week, he became just the 23rd player in NFL history to top 300 all-purpose yards in a single game. The jury is still out on Hester, who is still seeking his first touch from scrimmage. That will likely change on Monday night.

DL: Do you believe the receiving corps featuring Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers can be special?


WR Chris Chambers
Doug Pensinger/Getty

ML: The Chargers are currently in a philosophical shift on the offensive side of the ball, and Chambers and Jackson are the primary beneficiaries. Because of injuries to Tomlinson and Antonio Gates (toe, hip), Chambers and Jackson have become the primary weapons for QB Philip Rivers.

In fact, because Rivers has been so consistently spectacular since the second half of last season, the Chargers are quickly becoming a pass-first team. This dates all the way back to last year's playoffs, when in three games Chambers and Jackson combined for 34 catches for 578 yards (17-yard avg.) and three touchdowns.

Chambers and Jackson are on the brink of forming a special receiving corps. If one of San Diego's second-year players, Buster Davis or Legedu Naanee, and step up and be an effective No. 3, the Chargers will boast one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the NFL, especially once Gates returns to form.

DL: Darren Sproles is causing quite a buzz. How big a weapon is he?

ML: Sproles is an exciting player on offense and special teams. As I watch him continue to carve out a significant role with the Chargers, I'm reminded of a conversation I had back in 2004 with Sproles' coach from Kansas State, Bill Snyder. Snyder told me that, despite Sproles' diminutive stature (5-foot-6, 181 pounds), he was destined to be a full-time starter in the NFL.

Sproles is quickly proving Snyder right. While he makes the highlight reels with his kickoff returns and crazy scampers on screen plays, he has proven surprisingly effective between the tackles and near the goal line. He runs with a low center of gravity and breaks arm tackles on a regular basis.

Norv Turner continues to design new ways to get Sproles the ball in space. A lot of those tricks will come out of the bag on Monday night because of Tomlinson's toe injury and Hester's inexperience. I wouldn't be surprised if Sproles winds up with more touches than Tomlinson by game's end.


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