Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers Part I

NFL experts, Jon Scott of and Michael Lombardo of, analyze Sunday's game between the Patriots and Chargers. Part 1 of 3 includes the scoop on injuries, the bitterness from last years AFCC, the loss of Shawne Merriman and more...

Q: LaDainian Tomlinson seems to be struggling to have much of an impact. Is it about LT or have teams just figured out how to stop him on running plays?

Michael Lombardo: It's a little bit of both, but it will be impossible to identify the primary culprit until we see Tomlinson at 100 percent. He sprained his toe during the Season Opener against the Carolina Panthers and has been hindered from that point on. He's only averaged better than 3 yards per carry in one game since Week 1, which was in Week 4 against the Oakland Raiders when he ripped off a 41-yard TD in the final two minutes.

Teams are still loading eight men in the box on early downs, which opens up some things in the passing game. If the Patriots try to slow Tomlinson with only seven in the box, he still has enough pop to make them pay for it.

Q: The Chargers had a good game in Week 3 in a shootout against the New York Jets, but have had two tough games in a row, beating Oakland but losing a close one to Miami. At 2-3, are the Chargers the same team as last season? What do they need to fix to get back on track?

FB Mike Tolbert
Donald Miralle/Getty
ML: No team in the NFL is the same as last season. The Chargers team that will line up against the Patriots on Sunday will have a different look than the team that faced New England in the AFC Championship Game, with three new starters and numerous new role players.

The Chargers have several areas in need of improvement. The running game must be more impactful; the defense needs to tackle better; and the play-calling has to be less predictable. However, the biggest issue plaguing the team is consistency. If the Chargers can play the first halves of games like they do the second halves, they'll be fine.

Q: Antonio Cromartie has received accolades for being the playmaker in the Chargers secondary. How will San Diego defend the Patriots receivers -- particularly Randy Moss?

ML: The Chargers typically keep their cornerbacks in place, with Quentin Jammer on the left side of the defense and Antonio Cromartie on the right, so which corner is assigned to Moss will depend on New England's offensive formation. Jammer spent the most time on Moss in the AFC Championship Game last season and I'd expect that trend to remain in place on Sunday.

The Chargers like to see Cromartie on Wes Welker because Cromartie is one of the few players with the speed to run with Welker. Cromartie is still the biggest playmaker on San Diego's defense; he just lacks the discipline of focus exhibited by Jammer on the opposite side.

Q: Darren Sproles seems to have exploded onto the national scene with big plays in both the passing game and the return game. Where is Sproles' biggest impact? What do the Chargers need/expect from him?

RB Darren Sproles
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty
ML: What makes Sproles so dangerous is that there is no one aspect of the game where he is most effective. He is a weapon whenever he gets the ball in space, whether it's on a kick return, a screen pass or a delayed handoff. He's also surprisingly effective in the red zone because of his low center of gravity.

If I had to cite one area where Sproles does the most damage, it would be as a check-down option on third downs. Sproles has the ability to turn the corner and explode upfield, allowing him to make something out of nothing and extend offensive drives.

Q: The Chargers were known for having one of the better defenses in the League. They've allowed 379 yards (28th overall) and 25.8 points per game (24th overall). How much does losing Shawne Merriman hurt the team? How are teams having success against the defense?

ML: The loss of Merriman was obvious at first, as the Chargers failed to generate any kind of a pass rush, but now the Bolts are beginning to recover. The Chargers have tallied 11 sacks over the last three games, so at least there is some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It will be tough to maintain that pace against the Patriots, however, as Merriman's replacement, Jyles Tucker, is out with a hamstring injury.

San Diego's defense is struggling to adjust to the way opposing offenses are attacking. Teams are passing on early downs against San Diego's base defense and enjoying a high rate of success in doing so. The Chargers defense is predicated on putting teams in third-and-long situations so the pass rush can go to work; that doesn't happen when teams complete passes for 5-8 yards on first down.

Q: LT, Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers were all hurt last year in the AFC Championship game (a 21-12 win by New England in Foxboro). Without Tom Brady, the Patriots obviously aren't the same team that played them in 2007. How healthy are the big three now, and how important do you think this game is as a rematch compared to other games on their schedule?

ML: None of the Big Three is 100 percent, although they are all limited to different degrees. Rivers' knee injury is not affecting his play, although he still experiences some soreness and swelling. Gates is healthy enough to play games from start to finish, but he's still not getting the separation he's used to as he battles hip and toe pain. Finally, LT is the least healthy of the Big Three, as he's only about 75 percent and extremely limited in his ability to change directions or explode through holes.

This rematch is extremely important to the Chargers, not because it's against the Patriots, but because the Chargers are 2-3 and trailing the Denver Broncos by two games in the AFC West. However, there is something to the mental advantage the Patriots have over the Chargers. It would do wonders for San Diego's psyche if it beats the Patriots, especially if these teams collide again in the postseason.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the 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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