With all of the excitement about the newfound versatility of our offensive skill players, a fundamental shift in our defensive philosphy has flown under the radar. Our offense is now able to run a wide variety of plays out of many formations without substituting very much. The hope is that we can keep opposing defenses from substituting situationally. This is the very thing we're hoping our defense will be able to do. Norv Turner and Ron Rivera will be regularly and dliberately shuffling as many as 19 players in and out of the 11 spots in the lineup on defense. Being the starter in many cases means you get to play first down and then run gleefully off the field to Ron's side. The heaviest rotation will be along the D-line where fierce competition has bred... equality?
"We’re not going have a situation where … last year Luis and Jacques (Cesaire) played two-thirds of the time and got 40 plays," Turner said. "I don’t think we’ll be in that situation. We’ll roll more guys in, and I think sometimes on first down you’ll see bigger guys. We have some big guys. Vaughn Martin is 325. Cam is 335. We have some bigger guys that I think will help us defend the run, particularly some of those teams we’ve had a tough time with who’ve come in and overpowered you.
"We’ll see the bigger guys early, then use the guys who aren’t as big in second-and-long and third – down situations. But I do believe, as I said in training camp, you want to get to situation where you understand what your guys do best. I think we’re getting a better understanding of that."
This is a big shift for the Chargers. It used to be the only non injury related changes were that Jamal Williams came off for third and long while a DB replaced a LB to make a nickel. On the line at least, these changes were not the plan, but simply the best way to make use of the talent available:
And Turner stated his preference early in training camp that players step up and force the Chargers to forgo a heavy line rotation. But he sounds now as if the ability of Martin, Alfonso Boone and Travis Johnson has the Chargers ready to shuffle more than ever.
"I think we’re finding out that there are certain situations where we’ll want to use our big guys and then other times when we want to use guys with better pass-rush ability," Turner said.
This decision could be viewed in the John Gennaro way (glass half full), or the Wonko way (make a trashy drama inducing reality show out of it). It could be the talent rising together; that everyone has been playing at a high level and have all earned the trust to perform against 1st team NFL talent. The negative nancies of the world will be nervous that this means no one has separated from the pack and forced the coaching staff's hand. For now, the fact that it worked pretty well out of neccessity last year indicates it ought to work by design this year.
It hasn't been discussed very much, but the ILB position opposite Stephen Cooper will be manned by Siler on running downs and Burnett for passing downs. Larry English will definitely get plenty of playing time, as he must be developed with the all-but-guaranteed departure of Shawne Merriman at the end of this season (even WITH the assumption that Merriman will be able to get on the field and return to form - which looks more and more doubtful every week) .
The Strong Safety position was planned to be shared by fourth round pick Darrell Stuckey and Steve Gregory, with the latter's veteran savvy giving way to the former's athleticism as the season progressed. The original goal was for Stuckey to start, playing first and second downs, while Gregory helped the defense get off the field on third down. Due to Stuckey's slow progress and Gregory's general awesomeness, it looks like the rookie may have trouble pushing the veteran out as soon as had been planned.
While Stuckey began camp strongly, showing his speed and a penchant for learning quickly, the Chargers never intended to use him as an every down player this season. He is going to be the strong safety in the Chargers' base defense, working primarily against the run.
"He's going to play in one personnel package, on first and second down," Turner said. "The learning issue isn't as extensive as if he were being asked to play in all personnel groups and all situations. Based on what I saw of him and how he handles things, I'm not concerned about where he is. Now, if he were to have a setback, I'd be concerned."
While veteran Steve Gregory likely will begin training camp working with the first team and could well be the primary strong safety come Sept. 14, the job is Stuckey’s to win.
There are benefits and drawbacks to this new approach. If done right, it puts the right guy in the right place to make a play, and allows Rivera to 'dial up' pressure and blitzes from a lot of different angles. It's a football fact that as a game progresses, defensive players tire quicker than offensive players. Heavy substitution helps keep everyone fresh in theory, but won't these lineman get exhausted running in and out from the sideline? Isn't that more tiring then simply strolling five yards back to line up for the next play? This is also great for developing younger players, as well as being ready to absorb the inevitable season ending injury or two.
This level of defensive substitution relies on two things: being able to predict the opposing offense to some degree, and the offensive tempo giving you time to make your changes. This makes me nervous about opponents such as the Colts (this is amusingly somewhat mitigated by the umpire fiasco). It's also dangerous against any quarterback that has more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage as he can see exactly what the defense is expecting based on the lineup. Does this make game planning against our defense easier or harder? Is this an isolated development or an NFL trend?