All right, so on Monday I was a big proponent of panicking. I have had a few days to cool off and I thought I should take a look at this a little more methodically. After all, if we're going to start panicking, at least we should have a reasonable justification for it.
We began the season with high hopes, but we did have some areas of concern after the off season and through the preseason. I figured I'd start by looking at each one of those areas of concern after two real games against a decent opponent and a very good opponent.
Area of Concern #1 - The right side of the Offensive Line
Jeromey Clary had received his fair share of lumps, and the unknown of the RG position was a little concerning. We all agreed that losing Mike Goff was going to help a bit, but were we not sure how much. Was Kynan Forney an upgrade? Could the rookie Louis Vasquez learn the ropes in time to contribute? How much of Clary's problems last year were due to Goff's inadequacies and how much were due to his own abilities and ceiling?
Turns out Vasquez did come along quick enough to earn the starting job in week 1. Vasquez's ability, Forney's average play, and some injury problems in camp actually lead to Forney surprisingly not making the 53 man roster. Unfortunately Vasquez didn't last past the 1st half of the first game and we have seen Mruczkowski and Dombrowski in that spot since them. Surprisingly, the right side of the line has held up pretty well. Clary has done pretty well against some decent pass rushers. He had a little trouble in the Raider game, but overall has done well. It will be interesting to see him against the Steelers in a few weeks to compare his play to his lackluster playoff game last year. Dombrowski has taken the majority of the snaps at RG and has looked really good, especially considering he is a second year guy who was on the practice squad all last year. All in all, I'd say this area of concern isn't worrying me too much right now. I may change my might after the Steelers game (even the Dolphins have Joey Porter and Jason Taylor and will present a good challenge)
more after the jump...
Area of Concern #2 - Running Game
Last year we couldn't run the ball if our life depended on it. Despite a moderately successful season from LT, we were in the bottom half of the league in rushing. A lot of reasons contributed to that including a relative shortage of offensive plays, playing from behind, the emergence of the passing game, etc., We were hoping some improvements along the offensive line, a healthy LT, and another year under the belt of Hester would contribute to a reemergence of the vaunted Charger running game.
It hasn't quite worked out like that. LT is injured again, and didn't look that good for the 1.5 quarters he was healthy. It is still early and we have faced two relatively strong teams against the run, but I think this is still an area of major concern. We are all happy to see Rivers have 400+ games, but more often than not, you end up losing those games. Without a strong rushing attack, you will have trouble in the red zone and in short yardage situations (like 4th and 2, for example). I know the offense as a whole is explosive, but I'm afraid that we are going to have an easier time scoring from the 40 yard line than we will from the 10 yard line.
Area of Concern #3 - Pass Rush
We all hoped The Return of Shawne Merriman would solve all our pass rush woes. Plus, the evil genius of Ron Rivera would employ Larry English in new and exotic packages that would bring wreak havoc on opposing QBs. Perhaps we were a bit ahead of ourselves.
Well, Shawne has yet to get a sack and English's motor has been apparent even if his rudder has not been as he has appeared somewhat lost at times. However, there has been good pressure if not a lot of sacks to show for it. There has been lots of blitzing and exotic blitzes at that. Last year we rarely saw the ILBs involved in blitzes. This year (and especially last week against Baltimore) the inside guys were blitzing a lot. Lot's of twist and 6 man rushes. I feel that this area of concern is not so concerning anymore. Aside from the lack of actual sacks, I think it has been going pretty well, and I think one week soon, we are going to get a bunch of sacks.
One surprising development has been Luis Castillo getting pressure from the LDE spot. I think part of it has to be due to the flurry of activity around him. With all the twists and blitzes from different angles, it has been easier to Luis to get some pressure. He has 1 sack so far and I've seen him chasing QBs from the pocket on several occasions.
Area of Concern #4 - Safety Play
Clinton Hart should be shipped out of town. Steve Gregory is too slow to play safety. We should start Kevin Ellison, the rookie 6th round pick simply because he has not yet disproven himself. Eric Weddle is a bust. Or so the preseason talk went. An interesting development in the preseason was Hart playing SS on the running downs and Gregory playing SS on the passing downs. Same as at the end of last season, but it seemed to work much better. Weddle's role was able to change because we had an ILB who can cover people (Kevin Burnett), so Weddle can play more of a "center field" position, rather than the "in the box" safety position he played last year on passing downs.
So far, this seems to have worked. It's a little hard to tell if our improved pass defense is truly because of improved safety play, combined with a little more pressure, or if it's simply because other teams find it easier to run on us. I will say that I have seen Hart making plays in the running game that I haven't seen him make in a few years. And I think Gregory has played a decent coverage SS. I am going to tentatively say that this area of concern has been addressed. I don't think it will really get tested anytime soon by the Dolphins or Steelers so I'm not going to worry about it until it actually shows itself as a problem.
Area of Concern #5 - We can't cover TEs
Stupid TEs. Last year I was offended at first when the fantasy football experts told you to start any TE facing the Chargers. Then I came to the realization that it was actually sound advice. We all loved to blame Wilhelm for the TEs having career days against us, but I wasn't so sure. Burnett is a clear upgrade, plus an improved pass rush and improved safety play was how to improve this.
Did it work? Well, Oakland's TEs put up over 100 yards on us in week 1. Todd Heap had one catch for 9 yards and 1 TD, plus a 30 yard PI call that put the Ravens at the 1 and lead to a walk in TD. Overall, I'd say this is still a concern. If we make Anthony Fasano look like Tony Gonzalez this week, I am officially going to be picking up/trading for the TEs going against the Chargers in fantasy football every week from here on out.
Area of Concern #6 - the Defense can't get off the field
Last year the Chargers were 29th in total offensive plays. This is partly because our offense was explosive and scored quickly, and partly because our defense gave up a lot of long drawn out drives. It is really way too early to judge here. I think in general we've looked pretty good, but we've face two offenses that were not highly regarded before the season began and they have looked pretty good against us, which is not a good sign. As far as plays from scrimmage so far this year, we are middle of the pack, so that is an improvement. I'm still going to worry about this, especially when we pick up dumb running into the kicker penalties that give the opponents a fresh set of downs (I don't care if it was a blown call by the refs, if you aren't close to blocking the punt, you need to never touch the kicker... period).
Area of Concern #7 - Cromartie of 2008 or of 2007
Cromartie was hottest thing ever after 10 picks in just over 1/2 a season of starting in 2007. Expectations were off the charts for 2008 and he proceeded to stink the joint up. Who is the real Cromartie? Well, so far the jury is still out, although by this time last year, Cromartie had already been exposed twice, and so far this year we haven't heard his name much (although there was that Raider TD where he and Hart decided not to cover Murphy). I'm going to go on record as saying a good CB is the one who you never hear of. I will gladly live with 3-6 picks and 16 solid games from Cromartie, as opposed to him making SportsCenter highlights with a few athletic interceptions and a bunch of spectacularly bad outings.
Places we thought were not a concern, but actually are a concern... Go Figure
The left side of the offensive line... What happened here? Last year we had Hardwick's and McNeill's injury excuses. This year, between our healthy offensive line and LTs healthy toes, we were going to run the ball again! Everyone take LT high in your fantasy drafts, he is a man on a mission... I'm beginning to think it's not LT degrading as much as it is the left side of the offensive line not being as good as advertised. Even for the 2 quarters where everyone was healthy, these guys were getting pushed around. They single handedly made Al Davis look like a genius with the Richard Seymour trade (and that is saying something). And listen, I can understand that McNeill is never going to be a dominant run blocker, he is a pass blocker, a 350lb man with the feet of a ballerina who is able to go an entire season without giving up a sack to the league's elite, so I don't really blame him. But Kris Dielman is playing like a very mediocre player. Such is not what we expected from our all-pro. Honestly, I think it has been going on for longer than just this year. I think last year he was little soft too. He gets beat too often on pass rushes and isn't the dominant LG you need for a dominant rushing attack. I'm not sure why... Did he get figured out? Has his technique slipped? Some injury we aren't aware of? Half a dozen baby-mamas demanding his time and financial support? I don't know, but he hasn't been the same since signing that big contract (there... I said it).
Places we thought we were strong, but we are actually much stronger...
We knew our passing game was nails; Rivers, Jackson, Gates, etc. But it has been even better than I thought it was going to be. As expected, Rivers has kept up his game. But somehow Vincent Jackson has picked his up to another level. His game against Baltimore was ridiculous. RIDICULOUS. How many times did he have three guys around him and he came down with the ball anyways? I'm reminded of that old NFL films clip of the Chargers' OC talking to Fouts about his pass progressions and what to look out for on a third down play. Don Coryell steps in, interrupts, and yells, "Just throw it to JJ!!" (John Jefferson). That is exactly how I feel with Jackson, just throw it to VJ!
And Antonio Gates. I do believe he is back from his injuries and is as good as ever. I had almost forgotten what is was like to have a dominant TE. The only thing that is going to keep him from putting up all-world numbers are the other options around him.
So, that's about all I can think of. I think there are only two things that really concern me: 1) complete and utter lack of a running game, and 2) inability to get off the field on defense. I can't seem to muster up a lot of concern about other areas and even the injuries don't strike me as an insurmountable problem. Those two concerns are the things that are going to keep this team from going deep into the playoffs, and of those two, the running game is the biggest problem. I know some of us were calling for more passes and shootouts, but those won't take you far once the playoffs come around. We need a balanced offense, and by that I don't mean we need to have equal run and pass plays, but that we need the threat of a run, and we need to be able to get 2 yards when we absolutely have to have 2 yards. If that doesn't get fixed, we can go ahead and panic.