Coming into the 2003 season, the San Diego Chargers had more than average expectations. Playing in the division many felt was the strongest in the NFL, the Chargers cleaned house of what they viewed as salary-cap liabilities and reloaded with the big-buck signing of a game-changing wide receiver to go with a young offense.
The result has been nothing short of disastrous. The Chargers are 1-7, and already have their playoff hopes dashed.
There remains reason for long-term optimism because of quarterback Drew Brees. While he has struggled at times and was on the hotseat all this week, Brees, who was acquired along with RB LaDainian Tomlinson in a draft-day trade that allowed Mike Vick to go to Atlanta, is the only long-term hope the Chargers have at the position, not former starter Doug Flutie. However, Brees' progression has been stymied by constant lineup shuffling. He has more interceptions than touchdowns and has been inconsistent when pressured. Look for the Vikes to blitz often in passing situations despite the quarterback uncertainty heading into the weekend.
Just how many passing situations there will be is up to debate. Tomlinson is a dominant running back, but his season stats don't tell the story. If you look at his averages for the year, they come out to 20 carries a game for 103 yards — very strong numbers. But half of those yards came in two games. In five other games, he has been limited by defenses bent on stopping him. Coach Marty Schottenheimer insists Tomlinson touch the ball often — even when behind, as was the case in their Monday night loss to Miami two weeks ago. He will handle the ball 20 times or more. How well the Vikings defense can stop him will go a long way to determining who wins and loses.
The receiver corps has been a mess all year. David Boston, the bulked-up wideout from Arizona, was supposed to be the answer. He hasn't been. He was even suspended for a game by Schottenheimer for conduct detrimental to the team. When he's on, though, he is one of the best. He is joined by speedsters Tim Dwight, Eric Parker and Reche Caldwell. Parker has emerged as the team's big-play threat with Caldwell down with injuries. And the Vikings know all too well the damage Dwight (who also came over in the Vick deal) can do. Tight end was supposed to be the domain of Stephen Alexander, but he hasn't caught a pass all year, leaving unproven Justin Peelle as the top option.
One of the big problems has been a patchwork offensive line that is reminiscent of what the Vikings had early last year. When training camp began, the Chargers had a plan for the offensive line. At this point, only one player — left tackle Damion McIntosh — is starting where he anticipated. Solomon Page was signed to replace Vaughn Parker at RT, while first-time starter Kelvin Garmon and rookie Phil Bogle are the guards. As a unit, this group has been overrun by strong defensive fronts and the Vikings will look to attack the entire offense — both run and pass — by dominating this group.
Defensively, the Chargers have been awful. Through seven games, they had allowed teams to run 30 times a game against them, while also giving up three times as many touchdowns as interceptions (15/5) — giving opposing quarterbacks a QB rating of 96.1.
That problem starts up front, where the Chargers were convinced they would be solid. Defensive end Marcellus Wiley is a big-time player, but veteran Raylee Johnson has lost his job to career backup Adrian Dingle, who is hit and miss. In the middle, former Viking Jason Fisk and Jamal Williams have played like journeymen. Backup Dequincy Scott leads the team in sacks and he's a part-timer, which speaks to the lack of pass rush.
The linebackers don't look the same without Junior Seau prowling about. He has been replaced by veteran Donnie Edwards, who, along with second-year pro Ben Leber, flanks MLB Zeke Moreno — in his first full year as a starter. The veteran leadership Seau provided has been missed and, while there is talent at the position, his loss can't be made up for in such a short period of time.
The same is true in the secondary. Veteran safety Rodney Harrison was released, leaving the Chargers talented but painfully young. Quentin Jammer (second year) and Sammy Davis (rookie) are the future stars at corner. Both were high draft picks and are shutdown-type corners, but they have been burned by savvy receivers all year long when left on an island. At safety, veterans Jerry Wilson and Kwame Lassiter were expected to be depth players at best. Both have been forced into starting action and are weak links.
On paper, this looks like a mismatch. The Chargers are awful and going nowhere. But, the same was said about the Giants, so don't expect the Vikings to take them lightly or show any mercy if they get ahead early.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Vikings Linebackers vs. LaDainian Tomlinson — The Vikings may not face another player all year who dominates an offense's touches as much as running back LaDainian Tomlinson. While coach Marty Schottenheimer has always been known as a "run-first" coach, Tomlinson has been his dream player.
Coming off a breakout season last year, Tomlinson (or Schottenheimer) seems hell-bent on maintaining or increasing those numbers. If his current pace holds, Tomlinson will rush for 1,643 yards, while the rest of the running backs on the team will rush for 119 yards. To complicate matters, Tomlinson also leads the team in receiving. He's on pace to not only rush the ball 320 times but catch 98 passes — 31 percent of the team total.
The game plan coming into this contest is simple — stop Tomlinson and the Vikings take away 90 percent of the team's rushing attack and 30 percent of its passing attack. That will be the job of linebackers Chris Claiborne, Greg Biekert and Henri Crockett. While recent opposing RBs like Tiki Barber and Ahman Green have posed similar problems defensively, both the Giants and Packers had much better passing options than the Chargers and don't have coaches that believe in leaning on one player so intensely.
There's no questioning Tomlinson's ability and Schottenheimer's willingness to use him over and over again. What does come into question is what will the Chargers do when a defense shuts down Tomlinson? The answer is simple — they lose. While the Vikings have to respect the ability of the Chargers' receivers, if the linebackers shut down Tomlinson, there will be almost no chance for San Diego to win, which is why this is clearly the key matchup on Sunday.
Brees Isn't Chargers' Only Problem
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