Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers, Part I

Our Scout.com experts, Michael Lombardo of SDBoltReport.com and Tim Yotter of VikingUpdate.com, break down Sunday's game between the Chargers and Vikings at the Metrodome in Minnesota. Let's start this three-part series with six questions about the Chargers.

Tim Yotter: How are the wildfires of Southern California still affecting the team? Have any players talked about personal experiences or how hard it was to enter last weekend's game not knowing where they'd be playing?

Michael Lombardo:
The effects of the wildfires are nearly nonexistent at this point. Last week was obviously chaotic with 24 players evacuated from their homes and the team relocated to Arizona for four days. However, all of the players and coaches have returned to their homes. Although some endured property damage, none of the players lost their homes.

LaDainian Tomlinson went through this before in 2003, when wildfires forced the Chargers to move a game to Arizona on late notice. The Chargers lost that game to the Miami Dolphins, 26-10, and Tomlinson learned from that encounter and demanded his team's focus this time around.

None of the players griped about the uncertain venue, which would have been a public relations nightmare given the more pressing concerns facing San Diegans at the time. The players insisted they were focused and, judging by their 25-point win over the Houston Texans, one can only conclude they were.

TY: How has the defense changed, if at all, with former Vikings coordinator Ted Cottrell running the defense in San Diego now?

ML:
Ted Cottrell was hired to provide continuity. A big selling point was that he coached the 3-4 defense under former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips when the two were together with the Buffalo Bills. However, there have been some significant changes on that side of the ball.

Phillips constantly stacked the line and pressured quarterbacks, thereby dictating how opposing offenses would play. Cottrell runs more of a read-and-react system in which he is just as likely to rush six defenders as he is to drop eight into coverage.

Another key difference is the way the coordinators deploy their defensive linemen. Phillips wanted his linemen to penetrate into the backfield and harass the quarterback. Cottrell is content with having them tie up blockers and keep the linebackers behind them clean. Case in point: the lineman alone accounted for 18 sacks last year and are on pace for just six this season.

TY: What were some of the biggest factors in the Chargers being able to turn around their slow start, and why do you think they had such a difficult time coming out of the gate?

ML:
There were a number of reasons for the slow start. Norv Turner was not entirely sure how to deploy the weapons he had on offense. He wanted to get all of his players involved early in games to help them get into a rhythm, but eventually he was just taking touches away from Tomlinson and Antonio Gates.

It didn't help that Philip Rivers was uncharacteristically sloppy out of the gates, turning the ball over 10 times through the first six games after giving it away just 11 times in 16 games last season. The loss of Eric Parker to a toe injury hampered Rivers' efficiency more than he let on.

On defense, the Chargers broke in three new starters – Stephen Cooper, Matt Wilhelm and Clinton Hart. Although all three have been with the team for years, this is the first time they have played first string. That, plus the aforementioned scheme changes, caused a difficult adjustment period.

TY: What has the addition of Chris Chambers meant to the offense, and has that opened up Antonio Gates to an even greater degree? Chambers and Rivers seem to have made a quick connection.

ML:
It took Chambers just one week to make life easy for Gates. Gates exploited his newly found single coverage and hauled in two touchdowns of 30-plus yards in Chambers' first game with the team. The players Chambers helps the most are his fellow receivers. Vincent Jackson slides into a more natural role as a complementary wideout, while Craig Davis can focus on using his speed to excel out of the slot.

Rivers and Chambers are clicking early because Chambers comes to an offense nearly identical to the one he played in with the Dolphins. Cam Cameron learned how to call an offense from Norv Turner and then passed that knowledge down through Chambers during their time together in Miami. Plus, Chambers is eager to play with a quarterback of Rivers' ilk for the first time in his seven-year career.

TY: Adrian Peterson has been compared quite a bit to LaDainian Tomlinson. What are your thoughts on those comparisons?

ML:
I see where the comparisons are coming from, but they are beyond premature. Tomlinson has more seasons with over 1,775 yards from scrimmage than Peterson has 100-yard games. Also, Tomlinson is far more versatile as evidenced by his 100-catch season in 2003 and his seven career passing touchdowns.

This biggest thing that separates Tomlinson and Peterson is durability. Tomlinson has more than 2,600 touches in his seven-year career yet has never missed a game due to injury. A quick look at Peterson's medical dossier reveals his is a long shot to match that feat.

Peterson has certainly flashed the ability to be as good or better than Tomlinson. However, it is hard to project too much based off a single season's productivity. Remember, Anthony Thomas was better than Tomlinson when they were both rookies in 2001 and look how far that got him.

TY: Like the Vikings, the Chargers have been very stout against the run, giving up an average of just 88.9 yards per game. They also have a pass defense that isn't quite living up to those standards. Have they just concentrated on stopping the run so much at the expense of the pass or are there issues with the pass rush or coverage units?

ML:
Pass defense has long been an Achilles heel of the Chargers. There are two ways to help a struggling secondary: pressure the quarterback or drop more players into coverage. Wade Phillips preferred the former remedy, Ted Cottrell the latter.

Part of the problem is that the Chargers focus too heavily on stopping the run, but that is not going to change anytime soon. The team's preferred strategy is to stop the run on early downs and unleash Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips on third-and-long, even if it means being susceptible to the pass on first and second down.

The secondary has talent (Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie were first-round picks; Drayton Florence and Eric Weddle went in round two) but still has other issues. The players adapted slowly to new secondary coaches Bill Bradley and Kevin Ross after the popular Brian Stewart left to join Phillips in Dallas.

Also, the Chargers are too eager to part with young talent at the safety spot. Terrence Kiel and Hanik Milligan, two draft picks from 2003, have been released within the past 14 months despite showing great potential. Kiel played in 59 games with the Chargers and tallied 278 tackles and four interceptions. Milligan played in the 2005 Pro Bowl because of his special teams skills. Given some of the cover men on the Chargers depth chart (Cletis Gordon, Steve Gregory), it is amazing there was not room for Kiel or Milligan to continue to develop.


Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.


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