The San Diego Chargers are two games into the 2010 preseason and the reviews couldn't be better. Philip Rivers looks like Philip Rivers, but a year more experienced and with a little more control over the leadership of the team. Antonio Gates looks like Antonio Gates, but maybe a year healthier. Ryan Mathews looks like a big improvement over LaDainian Tomlinson, and Mike Tolbert looks like he'll be utilized as the short-yardage back this team hasn't really had since Michael Turner.
Is anyone worried? Is anyone concerned about any positions at all? Let's travel back to a time before these two games and revisit the concerns we had, and where stand on them now.
Philip Rivers has been playing exclusively against opposing 1st string defenses. Sure, they're not spending a lot of time scheming against him, but his numbers should be a semblance of a sign of whether or not the passing offense will be okay this season...right? If that weren't true, Jay Cutler would be tearing the league apart in the preseason.
With about 3/4 of a game of football under his belt, Rivers has completed a ridiculous 71.4% of his passes (15-for-21) for 187 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT (and 1 sack, which was Ryan Mathews' fault). Not stellar, but not bad, and this is without Philip playing during his favorite times of the game (4th quarter and the last 2 minutes of the 1st half). As I stated during last night's podcast, my peepers tell me that Rivers is knocking off a little rust and working his way back to his comfort level. What everyone has been able to tell is that Rivers hasn't been pressured any more than in years passed, and the run-blocking has actually looked better than it's been.
I know this might seem blasphemous, but is there a possibility that Brandyn Dombrowski is a better LT (or maybe, at this point in their careers, a better fit for this offense) than Marcus McNeill. I know he wasn't drafted and wasn't even an OT until last season, but stranger things have happened. The fact that Kurt Warner was in the AFL didn't make him any less of a QB. I am open to this possibility, and with each week Dombrowski at least keeps me from looking like a complete idiot.
Now, WRs. We've been over this. Antonio Gates + Randy McMichael + Kris Wilson + Malcom Floyd + Legedu Naanee just might be better suited for our new "grind it out" offense than Gates + Manumaleuna + Vincent Jackson + Floyd was last season. Maybe not. However, I think when you factor in price-tags it's hard not to pick the current crop over last year's. This is Philip Rivers' team and at his dispense he has a bunch of young, inexpensive, hungry and versatile players. This could work. As long as the offensive line holds up.
How will Antoine Cason handle the outside when he couldn't handle being a Nickel CB?
Two things here.
1) This has been stressed repeatedly, but the outside is an entirely different ballgame than the nickel. Especially in Ron Rivera's defense. The nickel spot is almost more like a small/fast linebacker than a cornerback, and that's not Antoine's forte. That is not what helped him win the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college in 2008. Much like Antonio Cromartie, his skills are best-suited for a position where he's covering one guy and making sure he doesn't get the ball rather than a spot where he might be blitzing, defending the run, and playing more zone than man.
Here's a good analogy. When Legedu Naanee first arrived on this Chargers football team, they marveled at his size, physique and toughness. Not to mention his versatility as a runner, blocker, passer and pass-catcher. The coaches' minds ran wild and for a few months they tried to turn him into an H-back. For those that don't know, an H-back is a player that essentially moves all over the field from TE to FB and even occasionally to WR. The experiment failed, for some reason, and Naanee was eventually moved back to WR. What has happened with Antoine Cason is not that different.
The only difference is that Naanee's proposed transformation took place on the practice field and in training camp, whereas Cason's happened on the playing field in front of every Chargers fan. His struggles in a position so different from the one he played in high school and college were very evident, and has led a lot to believe the guy is not a good defensive back. I don't believe this is the case, and through two games he's looked very good as the outside CB. As a matter of fact, that may be why we're seeing more passes go to Quentin Jammer's side in preseason than we've seen in a few years: The WR on the other side is covered in a Cason blanket.
2) I just finished reading an article about Padres' phenom-pitcher Mat Latos and how much he's grown up in the last year. He spent most of his career, in high school and college, believing so much of his own hype that he refused to listen to coaches and other players when they tried to help him. He thought he was talented enough to be a star without their help, but is now having his most successful season after growing up as a person and letting some veteran pitchers and coaches into his inner circle. I would be surprised if Antoine Cason were going through a similar thing over the last season.
I didn't pay much attention to Antoine last season, except to note his exceptional talent, but I do remember the CB group being a group of individuals instead of a group like the o-line or d-line (who never seem to be more than 2 feet away from each other). We've heard whispers here and there about Ron Rivera's disappointment in Antoine after the terrible Steelers game, both in the player's game preparation and what he was willing to give on the field. Who knows how much is true, but I've seen a player in camp and the preseason that wants to be a part of a team in the defensive secondary rather than just an individual. He seems to always be around the veterans (Quentin Jammer and Nathan Vasher), trying to learn how to get better. I love seeing that.
LaDainian Tomlinson is gone! The league's worst running game is going to get worse!
Nobody in their right mind thought this, but that doesn't mean that plenty of people didn't say it. They did. They believed it was the offensive line's fault, not LT's. That LT was still an MVP-level runner and that a rookie would struggle even more behind the same group of guys.
Through roughly 1 full game of work, Ryan Mathews has run for 103 yards on 21 carries (4.9 YPC). That's exactly what this offense is looking for from their running back. The last time Tomlinson averaged 4.9 YPC was in his record-breaking 2006 season. The last time he average a 4+ YPC was in 2007. I know it's just the preseason but, just from watching the kid run and with him going up against first-string, it looks like he should be able to average 4+ YPC over the course of the season as long as the O-line stays healthy.