NFL Season Preview: San Diego Chargers
By Curt Adams
Ramping up for the new season, the San Diego Chargers are hoping to turn their luck around. The Chargers were a model franchise in the mid 2000’s under the leadership of QB Philip Rivers, dominating the AFC West, and making the playoffs in each of River’s first four seasons, but the Chargers haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2009.
Another disappointment, in addition to the team missing the play offs for the last two consecutive seasons, has been the subpar performance of Rivers himself. Many speculate that Rivers was injured in his week two match up with the New England Patriots, something that Rivers denies. Either way, there are still concerns over Rivers’ play coming into this season, injured or not. Rivers had career highs in interceptions (20) and fumbles (7). He also threw only 27 touchdowns, his fewest since 2007. Rivers also had his lowest completion percentage (62.9) since his first year as a starter.
To make matters worse, Rivers has now lost several key players around him. Mike Tolbert, Vincent Jackson and Patrick Crayton are all in new cities this year. The Chargers have replaced them, but with less caliber players. In the off season, San Diego signed wide receivers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, as well as running back Ronnie Brown. Both Meachem and Royal have been very productive number two WRs in their careers, but neither has shown the ability to be a viable number one option. That role will likely fall on returning Chargers WR Malcom Floyd, who played in 12 games last season, but managed to catch 43 passes for 856 yards, and score five touchdowns. In the last week of the season, Floyd caught seven passes for 127 yards and a touchdown against rival Oakland Raiders.
While Floyd will be the number one option at wide receiver, Rivers’ main target will remain Tight End Antonio Gates. Gates is coming off his second injury ridden season in a row. Despite Gates’ injuries, he is still viewed throughout the league as a top tier TE.
Another player returning to the Chargers starting lineup is Running Back Ryan Matthews. Mathews Was the 12th pick of the 2010 draft, out of the Fresno State. Matthews was considered a can’t miss product coming out of college, due to his explosive speed and agility; But in the NFL, Matthews has been labeled injury prone and had many fans question his toughness for sitting out over what many consider minor injuries. Matthews, while inconsistent in regards to his health early in his career, did manage to rack up over 1,000 yards last season. Matthews also scored six rushing touchdowns last year, a decent number, when you consider that the majority of red zone rushes went to the departed Tolbert. With Tolbert gone, Matthews will likely get more carries, meaning more opportunities to silence his critics. Another boost that Matthews will receive in 2011, is the addition of Full Back La’Ron McClain. McClain has been to the Pro Bowl twice, and in 2008 was named to the AP NFL ALL Pro Team.
The Chargers didn’t just regress in offense last year. In 2010, San Diego was amongst the league leader in nearly every defensive stat. But after the departure of Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera (now Carolina Panthers Head Coach), the Chargers find themselves in the middle of the league, defensively. In 2011, San Diego was 16th in total defense, 13th against the pass, and 20th against the run. The one alarming stat that the Chargers didn’t do very well in was sacks; San Diego had 30 sacks on the season, ranking them 25th in the league. Leading the Chargers last year in sacks, was Antwan Barnes (11); however Barnes wasn’t even considered a starter, being really more of a backup to Shaun Phillips. Philips only had 3.5 sacks last season, a career low. Looking to improve their defense, the Chargers signed DE/OLB Jarrett Johnson away from Baltimore. Johnson, while well known for his run stopping skills, had 6.5 sacks last year. San Diego used the 18th pick in the 2011 NFL draft to select Melvin Ingram, another DE/OLB hybrid talent to play alongside Johnson and Phillips. Ingram had 48 tackles, 10 sacks, 15 tackles for a loss and two interceptions in his final college season, and was recognized by a consensus, as a first-team All-American.
With the additions of players like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer to the AFC, another cause for concern for San Diego, is their lack of skill in the secondary. Eric Weddle returns at Safety, and will be aided by free agent Atari Bigbi, but both veterans will have to spend more time assisting Corner Backs Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer. Cason was an All- American in college, and a first round draft pick, but has yet to show the talent he once promised. Jammer has always been a quality Corner, but faster WRs are able to separate from the 11th year veteran. Jammer looks to rebound in 2012 from the poor 2011 season that he blamed on off field issues (his divorce).
If the Chargers front seven can get more pressure on the QB this year, limiting the time the secondary spends in coverage, the Chargers defense should be back closer to their top 10 form, and anytime you can pair a top 10 defense with a Rivers led offense, you should see a playoff team in San Diego.