Football is finally back. Starting tonight, with the Chargers game, you can regularly plan your entire schedule around the sound of shoulder pads hitting shoulder pads for at least the next five months. FIVE MONTHS! Get excited, people.
What to for in tonight's matchup against the Seattle Seahawks:
Please Jammer, Don't Hurt 'Em
Injuries. I could name the most important players that need to stay healthy in this game (Philip Rivers, Bob Sanders, Takeo Spikes, Nick Hardwick, etc.) but what you should really be watching for is general health. If I remember correctly, despite a few injuries at training camp, the 2010 Chargers didn't have many (if any) injuries in their four preseason games. Let's hope for a similar outcome this year.
Paging Stephen Cooper
I have yet to talk to a knowledgeable Chargers fan this preseason without hearing the phrase "I'm worried about the Inside Linebacker situation". I understand it, because I'm worried too. Not so much about Jonas Mouton or Donald Butler being a starter, but about the lack of depth there. If two of those guys get hurt, do you know who gets on the field then? I'm not even entirely sure. Kion Wilson, if he makes the team, would be my guess. The undersized Andrew Gachkar might be another option. Neither are very good ones.
Watching Butler, Mouton and Spikes in this game will be fun and also important to the success of the defense. Watching who comes in for them once they leave, I suspect, will show a big hole on the roster and force the team to maybe go back to the free agent waters looking for a backup. Tim Dobbins would be suitable, but he's been snatched up by the Texans. Stephen Cooper would work well, but first he'd have to be certain that he can't get a starting job anywhere else in the league (I suspect he's waiting for an injury, or a Channing Crowder retirement, to force a team to give him a chance).
There are a lot of good ILB options out there as free agents, both if the Butler/Mouton thing blows up (Kirk Morrison or Lofa Tatupu are still out there) and if it does not (Dhani Jones, Chase Blackburn, Eric Barton and Hunter Hillenmeyer are just some of the guys looking for new homes). Which group the Chargers keep their eye on probably depends greatly on the performance of all of the ILBs tonight.
Trial By Fire
A point I've made in years passed is that many NFL teams seem to hand important starting roles to rookies, and yet the Chargers never did/do. I thought it gave a boost of youthful energy and enthusiasm to those other teams that the Bolts missed. This season, it looks like we might be getting a lot more youth than we have.
The rookies that are expected to start this game include Steve Schilling (in for an injured Marcus McNeill), Donald Butler (I still count him as a rookie), Marcus Gilchrist and Corey Liuget. Schilling and Gilchrist hopefully won't be starting a month from now, but it'll be fun to see them go up against first-team players all the same. Keep your eye on all of the kids on the team because, after all, they are our future.
The Chargers were really high on Stuckey last season heading into training camp. They thought, with Kevin Ellison out, Stuckey could slide in and be the starting SS with some luck. Then there were issues with contract negotiations, which left him behind. Then Darrell struggled to stay healthy until nearly halfway through the season, at which point he was strictly a Special Teams player. Not the best of rookie seasons.
This year, Stuckey has been moved to Free Safety (replacing Paul Oliver as Eric Weddle's backup) and has been showing off why the Bolts front office was so high on him last season. In the handful of practices that I've been too so far this season, Stuckey has stuck out (no pun intended) as someone who is constantly in the middle of the play. He makes it very hard for Wide Receivers around him when he's on the field, and he never seems to make a bad read. Just for the sake of comfort, it would be great if he could flash that same skill when he gets on the field tonight.
Just Left of Center
If I got anything from the Silver Fox's depth chart post yesterday, it's that Scott Mruczkowski tore his quadriceps and our third Center is a "beast" that's coming off ACL surgery (Colin Baxter). Uh oh.
Tyronne Green, drafted as a C/G and revealed to be a talented OT in a pinch as well, is expect to back up Nick Hardwick. He's suddenly in the middle of a very deep, talented and versatile group of backup offensive linemen on this team. If he can prove himself to be a good Center (a position he struggled with a bit when they tried him there), he could lock up a spot on the roster.
The disconnect between Ryan Mathews (who thinks he's playing tonight) and Norv Turner (who seems convince that Ryan is not) is disconcerting, but at the very least it means there will be lots of carries left over for the lesser-known RBs on the team. Jordan Todman will get his chance to impress, as will Curtis Brinkley and one of two other guys (I'd love to see Brandon Sullivan, but I believe he's still dinged up).
I'm very entertained by the competition between Travis LaBoy and Antwan Barnes opposite Shaun Phillips. Barnes has missed a few days of practice lately, so he might not even play, but if he does it'll be interesting to see who can generate more pressure against the number one offense of the Seahawks.
The Usual Stuff
Mathews, Mike Tolbert, Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Phillips, Antonio Garay, etc. These guys should be watched and cheered for, for the one series or so that they'll probably be in the game.