Preview: Chargers' Weapons Coming Around

It took the Chargers a little while to get used to their new coaching staff, but they appear to be back on track as an AFC contender. The addition of Chris Chambers didn't hurt, either. We take an in-depth position-by-position look at the Vikings' opponent on Sunday.

Few teams in recent memory have seen the type of turnover that the San Diego Chargers have experienced over the last 10 months. Typically when a team fires a coach and all the top assistants leave, it is the result of a terrible season – not a 14-2 team that boasted the best record in the NFL last season.

But that is the San Diego squad that will invade the Metrodome looking to extend its winning streak to four straight games following a 1-3 start that had many pundits blowing "Taps" on their chances of returning to the playoffs in the dominant AFC.

The Chargers' resurgence has come in a big way with three blowout wins – 41-3 over Denver, 28-14 over Oakland and 35-10 over Houston. After a very slow start, the offense has picked up its game – led by quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers has thrown for 1,442 yards through seven games with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has a respectable passer rating of 90.3 and has spread the ball around nicely. For the Vikings to win Sunday, forcing Rivers into turnovers will be a must. In the Chargers' three losses, he has six interceptions, while in their four wins he has just one.

Perhaps nobody is more important to the Chargers than running back LaDainian Tomlinson. The reigning league MVP, Tomlinson also got off to a low start – gaining just 130 yards on his first 57 carries – barely over 2 yards a carry. But over the last four games, he has rushed 82 times for 487 yards – better than 5 yards a carry and looks like the L.T. of 2006. With 26 receptions to go with his 139 carries, Tomlinson is a ball hawk that will get plenty of opportunities to make big plays and the primary job of the defense will be to stop him. When L.T. needs a break, Michael Turner takes his turn. A backup in name only, Turner has averaged better than 6 yards a carry and would be a starter for many teams in the league. While Tomlinson is the main man, Turner isn't a step down when he comes in the game.

Like so many previous Vikings opponents, the tight end position is again a concern for the passing game. Having already played against the likes of Alge Crumpler, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and L.J. Smith, the Vikings get the best offensive tight end threat in the league this week with Antonio Gates. Gates is on pace to catch more than 100 passes this year and gain 1,400 yards. Through seven games, he has 46 receptions – as many as the next two Chargers receivers combined for 639 yards and five touchdowns. He is a dangerous threat down the middle, as evidenced by his 14-yard reception average. But he is no longer alone. With an injury to wide receiver Eric Parker, the Chargers made a trade-deadline deal to get Pro Bowler Chris Chambers from the wallowing Dolphins. Chambers is a deep threat with great hands and a penchant for making big plays, something the Chargers weren't getting on a regular basis from their other receivers. He steps into the starting lineup alongside Vincent Jackson, a third-year project whom many believe is on the verge of stardom. Also in the mix is rookie Craig Davis, a first-round pick with speed and moves that make him dangerous in the open the field. Once thought to be merely Gates and Friends, with the emergence of the Jackson and the arrival of Chambers, the Chargers' pass offense suddenly looks much more dangerous than it has in previous years.

To make any offense work, especially one centered around a talented running back, you need an offensive line that can get the job done and the Chargers have one of the best in the league. The strength is in the middle, where center Nick Hardwick and guard Kris Dielman are both Pro Bowl quality players. Hardwick is out for the this game, brining in former Viking Cory Withrow. Second-year man Marcus McNeil was a steal in the second round of the 2006 draft and has developed quickly to protect Rivers' blind side. If there is a weakness – and that is a big "if" – it would be on the right side. Guard Mike Goff and tackle Shane Olivea are solid run blockers, but struggle at times in pass coverage. If the Vikings are going to blitz Rivers, the pressure will likely have to come from the right side of the offense to be effective.

One of the reasons the Chargers went 14-2 last year was that they were one of the few teams that could dominate on both sides of the ball. Running a 3-4 defense, San Diego has a trio of solid role players up front that do their jobs very well. They are anchored by nose tackle Jamal Williams, a 10-year veteran who, like Pat Williams, is a great run-stuffer that requires a double team on most plays and handles it well. He is flanked by third-year man Luis Castillo and four-year man Igor Olshanky. Castillo was a first-round pick in 2005 and Olshansky was a second-rounder in '04. Both have good pass rush ability, despite combining for just 1.5 sacks to date this season. They can collapse the pocket in a hurry and open lanes for blitzing linebackers to clean up on pass rush plays.

The linebackers are what make the Chargers defense click. They have two of the games best on the outside – third-year man Shawne Merriman and fourth-year pro Shaun Phillips. Both players have already recorded 5.5 sacks each and are among the most feared pass rushers in the AFC. Both are given the leeway to freelance and make big plays. In the middle, Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm are both fifth-year players who are very strong in run support and will supply the occasional blitz. The Chargers have a young group that, if it stays together and isn't broken up by free agency, could be the standard-bearer among linebacker units for years to come.

The defense doesn't take a back seat in the secondary either, where the team is stocked with three very solid cornerbacks. Quentin Jammer was a first-round pick in 2002 and is viewed as a legitimate shut-down corner that a lot of offensive coordinators don't even try. Fifth-year pro Drayton Florence technically remains the starter on the other side, but second-year phenom Antonio Cromartie has been stealing playing time. Cromartie is tied for the team lead with three interceptions and, while teams went after him last year, he has turned into a playmaker that will make an offense pay if they come after him. If there is a weakness, it is probably at strong safety. Free safety Marlon McCree remains a big-hitting playmaker that also has three interceptions, but the strong safety position has been a revolving door with Clinton Hart and Eric Weddle both seeing playing time but neither being overly effective. The Chargers don't usually give opposing offenses too many chances over the top, but if they do, both Hart and Weddle have shown a propensity for showing up a little late and biting on play action and pump fakes.

A month ago, the Chargers looked like another team that was successful in 2006 but was taking a hard fall the following year. However, their resurgence hasn't been a fluke. Having outscored their opponents 104-30 in the last three games, the Chargers have shown the ability to run up big scores while keeping their opponents to minimal if any points. For the Vikings to beat the Chargers Sunday, it might take a perfect game because, while teams like the Colts and Patriots are stealing all the headlines, the Chargers have played as well as anyone over the last month and look a lot like the Chargers team that dominated the league in 2006 – making this Sunday's game another difficult must-win for the Vikings.

Viking Update Top Stories