Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Charger Defensive Backs 2009 Starting Grade: B-

This group was much maligned last year as the Chargers pass defense ended up ranked 31st in the league. Make all the excuses you want: lack of pass rush, a high scoring offense forcing teams to pass to keep up, etc. but 31st is just terrible.

One of the key questions going into this season, I think, has been answered. Can cornerback Antonio Cromartie regain his 2007 form after playing with an injured hip all last season? When he jumped in front of a Kurt Warner pass in the end zone against Arizona in the preseason, then returned it for 50 yards with a nice stiff arm to the jaw of Warner on his way out of bounds, I think we had our answer. Cromartie still needs to work on his run defense and tackling. Sometimes he looks like Deion Sanders at is worst with his arm tackles and lack of "stoutness" on the edge. But if he can get by in the run game and regain that freakish athletic ability against the pass, the Chargers will be in good shape in 09.

The other corner is almost forgotten because he's become so good. Teams don't want to throw at Quentin Jammer anymore because he's all over the receivers. San Diego fans have been rewarded for their patience in the development of one of the finest corners in the league. The preseason reminded us that he still has hands of stone (anyone remember stick-um?), but he is a true shut-down corner at this point in his career. Unlike Cromartie, Jammer is vicious in the run game, as one of the bigger hitters on the team. If he wasn't so good at corner, he would make a great safety.

Speaking of safeties, Eric Weddle has developed nicely into the smart player and leader of the defense AJ Smith envisioned when drafting him. He is undersized and isn't going to intimidate any receivers coming across the middle, but he seems to be in right place consistently and not miss tackles. This will only be his third year, so expect him to show even more improvement and make some picks this season.

The strong safety position is the biggest question mark and perhaps weakness of the whole team. Clinton Hart works hard and tries his best, but seems to have critical mental lapses in coverage, giving up big plays. Some of this was evident in the preseason, though he managed to make some strong plays as well with some crucial tackles in the run game and a stunning interception. The question is, can San Diego win with his inconsistent play? Will AJ Smith's failure to bring in an experienced veteran to this position (Brian Dawkins?) be the biggest factor in the Chargers' failure to win a Super Bowl this season? We'll have to watch and see.

The team has been high on safety Steve Gregory in camp and there's a chance he could be starting at some point. Also rookie safety, Kevin Ellison, out of USC made some monster hits in the preseason and looks like a real NFL starter. The problem is that it's scary to trust a rookie to this crucial position that can give up game winning touchdowns if it isn't played right. I think Ellison will have to wait and apply his big hitting prowess to special teams this year.

Third cornerback, Antione Cason has developed nicely as a first-round draft pick and could be a starter on just about any team in the league. If Cromartie relapses into terrible play again this year, he will be somewhere else next season and Cason will be starting.

So this is a make or break year for this group that should be much, much better than 31st in the league.

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