Defense, special teams come with red flags


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Jan 22, 2006
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Defense, special teams come with red flags

By: JAY PARIS - Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO ---- Quarterback Philip Rivers' best friend, the Chargers' defense, looks to be in pretty good shape.

While Rivers will be judged on how he directs the offense, the defense will have a big hand in that. If it performs at the level Chargers coaches predict, Rivers won't be saddled with poor field position, won't have to orchestrate long drives to penetrate end zones and won't have to rally the Chargers with a one-dimensional (passing) approach.

The Chargers' blueprint reveals a blue-collar defense aiding a green quarterback. It shows a run defense that is tougher than a $5 steak and a pass rush that often congregates in the rival quarterback's pocket.

And the Chargers' front seven might be the NFL's best. Linemen Jamal Williams, Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky are relentless. Linebackers Shawne Merriman and Steve Foley provide the giddy-up in the pass rush. Leading tackler and ball-hawk Donnie Edwards supplies dynamite coverage. Randall Godfrey is an inside run-stuffer extraordinaire.

"And Merriman is even bigger and stronger this year,'' an appreciative Rivers said of last year's NFL rookie defensive player of the year.

But the bright stars aligned on this side of the ball come with a black cloud.

The secondary remains an Achilles' heel, which is among the reasons cornerback Antonio Cromartie ---- despite one college start ---- was the team's top pick and safety Marlon McCree was signed as a free agent.

Others said not enough was done, and they were disappointed the Chargers didn't make a serious run at free agent Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law, who landed in Kansas City. As a result, the Chargers' chief concern remains stopping the pass.

Here are some questions regarding the defense, as well as the special teams:

> Come on, cornerbacks: The Chargers brass tried and it didn't quit work. Its plan to stockpile defensive backs taken high in the draft and let them grow together has grown, well, old.

Cornerbacks Quentin Jammer (a first-round pick) and Drayton Florence (second round) were simply OK last year as the pass defense stumbled to a No. 28 ranking. Air Force One is not only President Bush's plane, it's a good way to describe the '05 season for Jammer and Florence: Each had one interception.

Jammer, though, did have some highs ---- a team-best 19 passes defensed and a key deflection to win the game against the Jets ---- and enjoyed possibly his best season. Florence battled injuries and inconsistency, and could be pushed by Cromartie.

When push comes to shove, the Chargers' cornerbacks have to respond better in '06, especially considering the help they're receiving with the tenacious pass rush up front.

> Safety net: McCree was brought in from the Panthers in hopes it would make the back end friskier. McCree likely will start at free safety, which means a spirited competition awaits at strong safety between Bhawoh Jue, Terrence Kiel and Clinton Hart.

Jue, last year's free safety, had a team-high three interceptions; the Chargers totaled only 10. But the thinking is McCree has more range, and the Chargers are desperate for some big plays to arrive via the free safety. McCree, at strong safety, was the Panthers' second-leading tackler last year with a career-high 95.

> Line depth: There's no dissing Williams, Castillo and Olshansky. Williams is a Pro Bowler and Castillo and Olshansky are emerging stars.

But what's behind them? Not much in terms of experience, since DeQuincy Scott wasn't invited back.

Jacques Cesaire can swing between tackle and end; he had 25 tackles and a sack last year. But the others, Ryon Bingham and Derrick Robinson, combined for three tackles and zero sacks. Rookie Chase Page will get a look, but it's tough banking on a seventh-round pick.

If the starting three stay healthy, everything is groovy. If not, the Chargers could be bummed.

> Kickoffs, please: Nate Kaeding has the team's confidence as a place-kicker. But his lack of leg strength last year prompted the Chargers to burn a sixth-round pick on Kurt Smith, a kickoff specialist.

Most don't give kickoffs a second thought, but it's the first domino in the defense and eventually can help the offense.

If kickoffs are deep, opponents start their drives in the shadow of their goal post. If not, prime field position is the prize, which could translate into easier touchdowns. That could lead to Rivers heaving the ball more than he wants if the game turns into a shootout.

> Early returns: Coach Marty Schottenheimer said he hopes Darren Sproles can resume his role as the punt returner. Schottenheimer's hands were behind him, so it's tough to say if his fingers were crossed.

The shifty Sproles looked like Padres outfielder Terrmel Sledge catching flies when fielding punts. He was eventually replaced by Eric Parker and Keenan McCardell ---- two options the Chargers don't want to utilize again.

On kickoffs, Sproles was special. His 1,528 return yards were sixth in the NFL and the third-highest total in team history.

While the Chargers were good on returns, the same can't be said about their defense against them. The special teams, despite having Pro Bowler Hanik Milligan, ranked No. 24 defending punts and No. 22 against kickoffs.

CHARGERS NOTES: The team completed its rookie orientation of training camp on Thursday, with the remainder of the squad to report today. The first full squad practices are Saturday at 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at Chargers Park. They are open to the public. ... Team officials, including president Dean Spanos, met with Chula Vista politicians to discuss the city's interest in building a new football stadium for the Chargers. The city has two potential sites it is considering. "It was a very positive day because we saw firsthand that Chula Vista has a strong vision for the city's future and highly skilled and experienced people at the city's helm,'' Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani said. "There is a real can-do attitude around Chula Vista City Hall, and that was a refreshing and hopeful sign to us.'' Next up for the Chargers is meeting with County Supervisors Ron Roberts and Dianne Jacob on Aug. 1.

-- Contact staff writer Jay Paris at [email protected].

Five defensive/special teams uncertainties for the Chargers

> 1.Cornerbacks: That's no typo ñ--- three picks in '05.

> 2. Safeties: Can newcomer Marlon McCree have an impact?

> 3. Depth along the line: Injuries here would be a killer.

> 4. Kicks with a kick: Who'll handle kickoffs?

> 5. Punt returner: Can shaky Sproles bounce back?
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