I have to admit, it was a little difficult trying to come up with something to worry about in the San Diego Chargers' 2010 season. I'm an optimist. I saw no big problems, and certain things that I thought were big problems turned out to be not-that-bad when I started digging through stats.
However, the defense as a whole scares me a little bit. After the jump, I'm going to break down every part of the defense and why I'm fearful that each one could fall off from last year.
On either side of the ball, you should always start with the line. There's a lot of sayings, such as "whoever makes the fewest mistakes wins", but I really do think that the team with the better line on both sides of the ball will win a game 90% of the time. Right now, I'm not certain the Chargers have that. Guys like Ian Scott, Alfonso Boone and Travis Johnson surprise you in terms of value, but there's always a reason that they were found on the scrap heap. Either they have problems staying healthy, problems being consistent or problems having any sort of factor on the games they play in.
Faith in Ron Rivera
When the Chargers ask you to put faith in what they're doing, and as fans they are asking that of us, we often ask why. In response they typically send out facts like Norv Turner's record with the Chargers after October, or Philip Rivers' record when making a game-winning drive, and we feel secure that the team knows what they're doing. On the defensive side of the ball, far too often it seems the team is putting all of their eggs in the Ron Rivera basket.
The Bolts have said that in the upcoming season they will continue to play a hybrid defense, 3-4 in certain situations and 4-3 in others. I would love this type of creativity if it was showing results, but it really hasn't. And when you're building a roster for the purpose of being a dominating 3-4 (which the Chargers were at one point), it seems silly to try running the 4-3 with the same guys. Did Tony Dungy try to turn the Colts into a running-offense, ball-control team based around the Cover 2 defense just because that's what he was comfortable doing in Tampa? Of course not. Why would you ask guys like Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman to play Defensive End?
Wasting Strong Safeties
I think the disconnect between Rivera's ideas and the output on the field (which has been good, but certainly not great) has resulted in some odd situations and odd picks. For instance, Kevin Ellison was picked in the 6th round of the 2009 NFL Draf and took over the starting Strong Safety spot just a few weeks into the season. He was everything the scouting report said he was: big, slower than guys like Polamalu, smart. Ellison projected to be an okay NFL player, if he was projected to be a star he would've been a 1st round choice. After taking over, Ellison proved himself to be consistently okay.....and for some reason the team is disappointed him for this. I don't get it. If you wanted a different player, why not pick a different player?
In this year's draft, the Chargers used another mid-round pick to get Darrell Stuckey to replace Ellison. Stuckey is a similar type of player, but I suppose the Bolts hope that he's better. So for at least the third year in the row, Charger fans are heading into the season with almost no clue as to what type of production they're going to get from the SS position. That's scary/annoying.
The Rest of the Secondary
Let's face it, this is an unpredictable game. At any moment, an MVP player can suddenly lose that little bit of physicality that he had and go from great to mediocre overnight. The Chargers have been relying on Quentin Jammer as their #1 CB for seven seasons already, which is an NFL eternity. Eventually the guys like Randy Moss and Reggie Wayne are going to be too much for him, and I thought A.J. Smith would usually see this situation coming and be more than prepared. He may have been, and Antonio Cromartie may have forced himself out, but that doesn't make me any less worried.
If Jammer loses a half-step, or Antoine Cason is more of the player that got benched as a nickel corner and less of the opportunistic CB that everyone saw in college and even a bit in his rookie season, things could get ugly. If/when Jammer has a problem, he's going to have someone like Darrell Stuckey (who is inexperienced) trying to cover for him over the top. If Cason has a problem, the Chargers really don't have anyone else that can step into the #2 CB position. Everything could be fine....everything has to be fine, because there is no backup plan.
At least here there seems to be some forward thought and a backup plan or two. The biggest problem here is Stephen Cooper, who fell off in terms of production last year. Now, that could've been caused by age or it could've been caused by injury (he played with a bad elbow all year) or it could've been a mix a both. If it happens again this year, I hope that the defensive coaches have a plan to try to fix it (like Donald Butler and/or Brandon Siler). Kevin Burnett is a good player when he's healthy and on the field, but if he can't stay healthy he'll be watching Siler in his spot all season.
So much of this position is up in the air. Will Larry English get that 10% better that he needs to be an effective pass-rusher? Will Shawne Merriman turn back into the beast he once was? Does Ron Rivera blitz these guys enough, or does he get too creative with them?
The terrible part about having so many things up in the air is that this is arguably tied with the line for the most important part of the defense. Plain and simple: the Bolts' OLBs need to get to the opposing QBs more, and it's the same group of OLBs from last season. The only thing we can do is hope for progress from English, health from Merriman and progress in Rivera's head. There's no guarantee that this very important group will be any better. That's a problem.
My pessimism about the defense is nothing new. With this team, there is so little change from year-to-year that it's easy to be pessimistic about any of the positions that didn't perform well the year before. Going into 2009, I was worried about RB, SS and RG. Louis Vasquez plugged one of those holes very nicely. Somebody will step up and help plug one of the holes above. The defense will probably be good, but when Charger fans so recently saw what these players could do under Wade Phillips it's hard not to ask.....why can't it be great?