It was a stormy period for the Chargers defense on Ted Cottrell's watch. He came in the wake of Marty Schottenheimer's firing in 2007 and the word of the day was continuity. San Diego had lost their talented defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to the Cowboys as a head coach. Cottrell brought experience with the 3-4 defense, and actually worked with Wade in Buffalo. The first ten games of the 2007 season were rocky and the defense looked passive and was giving up more yardage and points than fans were used to. AJ stuck with Cottrell and the second half of the season seemed to bear him out as the Bolts closed the year on a 8-1 tear producing more turnovers than anyone in the league.
The 2008 preseason had hardly begun when Charger linebacker Shawne Merriman began showing signs that his knee was not fully healed. The defense looked bland during the preseason, but usually teams only show vanilla defensive packages. In the first game against the Panthers the Chargers were giving up yards against the run and particularly to tight ends in passing. Rivers looked to have pulled out a comeback victory, but Jake Delhomme marched down the field against a prevent defense. The final play was a last second reception by the Tight End. After the game Outside linebacker Merriman finally decided to get the knee surgery that he had been avoiding. His absence left the Chargers bringing much less pressure against opposing quarterbacks; and much more time for them to find an open receiver. The second game against Denver was worse; the Chargers fell to 0-2 as the Denver offense carved up a secondary that simply melted down. After that the Chargers came back with more 'man to man' coverage against the Jets and closed out a convincing game. The defense was better against the Dolphins, but was unable to keep the Dolphins running and short passing attack from running out the clock.
Against New England the Bolts seemed to rediscover a little swagger; there were big hits and more press defense. They put pressure on the QB and it resulted in an interception, another that was called an incomplete. But after that success Cottrell mysteriously returned to the zone; and Bills quarterback Trent Edwards feasted with an 84% completion rate. The Bolts went on to play New Orleans in London; and while there was less zone, there was not any pressure and again the defense was disected by a quality quarterback with too much time to make decisions. As Cottrell makes his exit the Chargers are ranked dead last in the league in pass defense.
If a move was to be made; this was absolutely the time to do it, it gives the new controller time to work with the defense in this two week bye period. Ron Rivera came to the Chargers after serving as the Defensive Coordinator for the Chicago Bears from 2004-2006. The Bears that year was known for an aggressive defense that caused numerous turnovers. Rivera apparently had differences with Lovie Smith. He came to the Chargers to get more experience with the 3-4; hoping to go after a head coaching position. As the linebacker coach he has worked with the inside linebackers; that would include Dobbins, Cooper and Matt Wilhelm. Recent quotes from defensive players seemed to indicate a frustration with the defensive playcalling, this is a move that I would expect to be viewed positively by the players. The blitzes under Cottrell seemed predictable and the defense too passive; that was not the hallmark of the Bears during Rivera's tenure.