Saturday, August 28, 2010

Chargers Show they're Good but Not Great

The Chargers came out with a beautifully balanced drive that kept the Saints' defense on their heels, scoring a touchdown after strong running, screen passes, and some deeper throws. However, as the game went on, it became clear that while the Chargers can compete with the best teams in the NFL, they may not be ready to beat them.

While the offensive line looked good that first drive, as the game went on, it was the Saints' defense that began to impose its will. The Saints slowly bottled up Ryan Mathews more and more until some of his runs looked just as ineffective as LT's did last year. Perhaps Norv and AJ's (not to mention Kevin Acee of the U-T) thesis that it was all LT's fault last year, will start to look more and more thin as San Diego struggles to consistently run the ball. The theory of the rest of the league that the Chargers are a bit soft in the trenches may again come to resonate with Chagers' fans if the team is once again reliant on sophisticate passing schemes rather than hard nosed blocking.

In the passing game, Rivers looked great on that first drive, but problems are still evident. I'm going to have to hold my nose and actully agree with Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton, that Rivers looks jumpy in the pocket due partly to pressure in his face and partly to what may be an insidious lack of trust of Dombrowski and Clary lodged somewhere deep in his psyche. The interception he threw last week and the near interception this week were due to rushed throws on out patterns that he couldn't quite step into.

Lack of pressure is the exact problem on the other side of the ball. The pass rush looked as ineffective as it did two years ago against the Saints in London when Ted Cottrell was still in charge of this defense. Drew Brees had ample time to sit back and calmly dissect the secondary. Every good quarterback will do this because the Chargers have no one creating havoc in the front seven. The only time they do get to the QB is with the safety blitz, this worked once last night, but the next three times San Diego tried it, Brees burned them. The safety blitz is better than doing nothing, but the Chargers will be hurt this year if this is the only way they can get pressure. Larry English is not a game changer and is beginning to look more and more like a bust as he is also often lost in space when they ask him to cover. Shaun Phillips hasn't shown much this preseason, perhaps only that he hasn't become any wiser after his playoff debacle, when he got a 15-yard penalty for an obvious blow to the head after Brees had thrown another of his many completions.

The best news on defense is the play of first-year starter Antoine Cason at cornerback. Even though he gave up one long touchdown, I'll chalk that up to bad luck. He mirrored Colston all the way down the field while keeping his eye on the ball, only to miss the interception and become the victim of a freaky bounce off his own shoulder pads. On that play and the rest of the game Cason showed excellent footwork, ball awareness, speed and tenaciousness in run support. The guy will be a top-rated corner in the NFL.

At safety, rookie Darrell Stuckey still looks too raw and a bit lost out there for the Chargers to play him. He also got run over by the Saints' big third string running back (who looks like a stud by the way), but did show some grit in getting up, chasing him down about 50 yards later just a bit too late in the end zone. Stuckey may end up being a good player, but probably needs a year to get used to the NFL.

On the whole, San Diego came out and showed they are ready for their soft schedule and will most likely win the AFC West, beating the teams they are supposed to beat on the way back to the playoffs. What they haven't shown though is that they can beat the best teams in this league. Without some surprising improvement during the regular season, Charger fans may end up dissappointed again this year. The question is, who will take the blame this time now that LT is gone? Will Dean Spanos turn his critical eye on AJ or Norv? It seems AJ is taking the biggest risk of all this season if the Chargers get knocked out of the post-season early while Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill sit out. All the current confident pronoucnements of "We'll be fine without them," will turn into the arrongance of a stubborn tyrant. Be careful AJ! As you like to say, "no one is untouchable."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chargers vs. Saints Preview

This Friday we get the third and most important Charger preseason game. The first team will get the most playing time of the preseason (into the 3rd quarter) and those on the bubble will have their last chance to make an impression before the upcoming cuts.

I'll be looking to see if Darrell Stuckey has made any progress at safety or if he still looks a bit lost out there. Stuckey, and the rest of the secondary, including first year starter Antoine Cason should get their best test of the season against a "motivated" Drew Brees, who relishes in making the Chargers (and AJ) regret their decision to let him go. The Saints have averaged 32 points in their first two games, so we'll get a good look at how the Charger defense handles the pressure of a superior QB and offense.

Shawne Merriman is still injured (quite the comeback so far!) so we'll get to see if Larry English can actually make a difference in a game. He still looks like a raw rookie out there in his second year. Without Merriman or English stepping up, this defense will be in for another mediocre year.

On offense, it's all about #24: "Mathews! Mathews! Mathews!" This may not be as fun to chant as "LT," but Charger fans (and the rest of The League) are beginning to realize how special this guy is. He should get an extended opportunity to showcase his skills. Again, look for a developing patience to let his blockers get out in front and do their jobs, pass catching and pass blocking abilities. If he can learn his responsibilities and become the complete back soon, San Diego may really have a chance to control the ball this season.

The big "if" in this equation is, of course, the offensive line. The idiotic (on both sides) hold out of Marcus McNeill is forcing the Chargers to start green, below average tackles. Look to see if Norv REALLY trusts these tackles or he and Rivers continue to opt for quick routes and passes. I'd love to see them show some confidence in Dombrowski and Clary and throw some deep bombs to Floyd and Naanee. If the Chargers are really okay without Jackson and McNeill, this shouldn't be a problem. If the blocking is a problem , it will force the offense to become more conservative, like in the playoff game against the Jets last season, putting downward pressure on the team's ability to score.

If the first team has a good showing this week, the Chargers will have proved they are ready for sharp start to their season. If they don't do well, fans who think this team won't be the same without Jackson and McNeill will have more ammunition to pillory AJ.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

10 Things to Take Away from Chargers vs. Cowboys

                          1. Ryan Mathews is for real, but... Mathews again showed his toughness and burst. He still needs to learn to show a bit more patience (he knocked over Hardwick on a screen play). Charger fans should also worry about Mathew's health. He's tough and doesn't avoid pounding tackles, and this resulted in a bloody nose last night (and concussions in college). He can't try to run over every linebacker in the NFL if he wants to last a full season.

                          1. Dombrowski's OK!: He stood up well for the most part against DeMarcus Ware and made some nice blocks down field in the run and screen game. One more point for AJ Smith in the ongoing test of wills against Marcus McNeill.

                          2. Clary's not OK!: Jeromey Clary still looks below average at right tackle. Rivers' one interception was partially caused by Clary getting pushed right back into his QB's face, causing a poor throw. He also seems to have trouble blocking anyone in the open field. The guy is simply a weak link on the line. If the Chargers could bring back McNeill, I'd bet Dombrowski would end up starting at right tackle, putting Clary on the bench (where he belongs).

                          3. Louis Vasquez looks great: The second year guard started last year, was injured in the first game, causing him to miss significant time during the season and slowing his development. Last night he showed great skill and strength in blocking down field on screens and firing off the ball and smacking linebackers in the face on run plays. His development could be the difference in the success of the running game this season.

                          4. Tolbert will back up Mathews: Mike Tolbert ran around, through and over defenders last night, showcasing not only his obvious strength, but his surprising speed. He was able to turn the corner a few times, beating linebackers to the edge (anyone remember Natrone Means?). While good news for the Chargers and Tolbert, this is likely bad news for Marcus Mason, Shawnbrey McNeal and Curtis Brinkley, who will have to fight for a spot on the practice squad.

                          5. Stuckey is not ready: Darrell Stuckey got his first dose of major playing time last night, and while he looked athletic, fast and strong on the field, he also didn't seem comfortable in the defense or in the flow of the game. He has been out with an injury, so perhaps he'll get up to speed with more practice and two more preseason games, but if I had to bet right now, I would say Steve Gregory will be the starter in the opening game.

                          6. Larry English is not a game changer: English still looks quick, but somewhat one-dimensional, as all he can do is rush around the edge on passing downs. Tackles can simply nudge him past the QB. He needs to get better to not be considered a bust of a first round pick.

                          7. Cam Thomas should start at nose: Of all the DT's rotating in at nose, the rookie Thomas looks the quickest and most dangerous out there. The other guys hold the line, Thomas pushes the center backwards or zips across the line of scrimmage on passing downs. He should be "the guy" when the regular season starts.

                          8. Antwan Applewhite deserves consideration for a starting job: Again this week, the most dynamic and aggressive linebacker was Applewhite. If Shawne Merriman continues to have injury problems or is simply ineffective when the regular season starts, Applewhite should get the nod. The guy is a beast who finds ways to create chaos.

                          10. Nathan Vasher is a gamer: The former Pro Bowl free agent pick up was all over the field last night. He's not a real big or imposing guy, even for a corner, but he fought through blocks and made some great tackles on the edge against the run and was always right with his receiver on passing plays. He will be very valuable at some point this season.

                          Overall, the Chargers looked a little better this week and the Cowboys looked horrible (anyone notice Wade Phillips' body language throughout the game? Exasperation). Tony Romo looked completely out of sorts all night, and I don't think it had much to do with what the Chargers were doing. It could be a season of disappointment in Dallas.

                          Friday, August 20, 2010

                          Chargers Vs. Cowboys Pregame Analysis

                          Saturday night's game WILL be televised this time for local San Diego fans at 6:00. I'll be looking to see some improvement from players that showed weaknesses last week and some debut performances from others.

                          On defense, rookie safety Darrell Stucky is healed and ready to show what he is capable of this week. Despite being a rookie, the Chargers have pencilled him in as the starter opposite Eric Weddle. The team has raved about his field intelligence and work ethic in practice so far. It will be interesting to see if practice translates to a strong game performance. Tony Romo and the Cowboys will no doubt challenge the Chargers' young DB's. If Stuckey doesn't work out, they will have to revert to Plan B, which is the mediocre but hard working Steve Gregory.

                          Also on defense, hopefully we'll get to see the supposedly improved Larry English. Reports out of practice have lauded his speed, but I don't think speed was his problem last year. He was capable of getting around the edge quickly, but because that seemed to be ALL he could do, offensive tackles could just push him past the QB with a little nudge. Has he found other ways to get to the QB that will work in the NFL? We won't get to see Shawne Merriman who's out with a strained hamstring. This could be a bad sign for Merriman's health this season, as it is a chronic injury.

                          The defensive line did a decent job last week. I'd like to see rookie Cam Thomas get a shot at playing against the Cowboys' first string. While the other DT's in the rotation seem like just a bunch of journeymen sharing a position, Thomas showed some spark last week. Maybe he can step up and become "the guy" to replace Jamal Williams (he's already comandeered his jersey number). Another strong performance and they'll have to move him up the depth chart.

                          On offense, again, look to see if the O-line can actually push people off the ball and open up holes in the running game. They did not do this last week. In the passing game, this group should get more of a test from DeMarcus Ware and Cowboys creative blitzing 3-4 defense. Wade Phillips is the best coach in the game at running this thing. Will Dombrowski and Clary hold up? If not, the pressure will increase on AJ or Dean to concede and bring back McNeill. This is a test of wills yet to play itself out.

                          All San Diego fans should be extremely excited to get another glimpse of the electrifying Ryan Matthews at running back. I'm looking for him to show more patience this week in letting his blocks develop. Poor Kris Dielman had to put up with Mathews running up his back the whole first quarter last week. As a former high school offensive lineman, I know exactly how much it sucks when your own guy is smacking you in the back (one of the few places without much padding). If Mathews does show some patience and the O-line blocks just a little bit, he could bust a big run, increasing the buzz in SD and The League for the 2010 season.

                          I'm hoping the coaching staff will give rookie running backs Shawnbrey McNeal and Curtis Brinkley and longer look this week. If anything happens to Mathews during the season, McNeal, Brinkley or Marcus Mason (who looked unimpressive last week), will have to take on more of the load than most people realize.

                          Lastly, the receiving core minus Vincent Jackson will have to continue to show they can do it without him. I'd like to see some deep balls to Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee. Can they run past people, or are they confined to leaping over them? Without a speedy deep threat, safeties will be able to converge more closely on San Diego's running game and blitz without fear.

                          The best news? We're one week closer to the regular season.

                          Tuesday, August 17, 2010

                          More Thoughts on Bears vs. Chargers

                          Who will back up Ryan Mathews? It seems doubtful that Darren Sproles will fill that role as Norv likes to keep him fresh for third down plays and in the kicking game. It appears that right now, the plan is to use fullback Mike Tolbert in that spot, but can he be considered more than a short yardage guy?

                          San Diego acquired RB Marcus Mason from the Redskins this off season, and on Saturday night, the guy looked slow and unexciting in an extensive audition during the 3rd and 4th quarters. Rookie, Shawnbrey McNeal did not get much of an opportunity, so look for him to get a shot in the next two weeks. Curtis Brinkley, a rookie out of Syracuse, actually looked the most explosive of these "other guys" in the few touches he had. Unless one of these players pulls out an amazing performance in the next couple weeks, I think it's going to be a combination of Tolbert, Sproles, and Jacob Hester backing up Mathews, with one of the "other guys" on the practice squad.

                          A couple more quick notes on the defensive side from Saturday night:

                          • Antwan Applewhite looked the best of the outside linebackers in getting to the ball and putting pressure on the QB. He knocked the 2nd string Bears QB out of the game. Jyles Tucker is big and strong, but seems to lack the quickness to get around the tackle.

                          • Rookie defensive tackle Cam Thomas showed off his quickness in the second half in throwing the center out of the way and getting into the backfield. He may be a real find. I'd like to see him get a chance against the starters of the Cowboys next week. Thomas also seemed to be having fun out there. There's something special about this kid.

                          Sunday, August 15, 2010

                          Bears Game Analysis

                          Amidst the fog and chaos of mistakes and fourth string players who will never make it in the NFL, some truths about this team are coming into focus.

                          On offense, Ryan Matthews is truly a special runner. He has the burst, strength and vision to be great in the NFL. He was able to pick his way through small holes and make multiple tacklers miss on the outside. I would even venture to say that his ability to see plays developing is beyond what LT was capable of his rookie season. If Mathews can stay healthy, he has a shot at becoming the next Hall of Fame runner in SD.

                          At Quarterback, Phillip Rivers showed he's ready for the season right now. His confidence in the offense and accuracy are in midseason form. He will have a great year. The recievers looked adequate, but it was clear they have no one who can stretch the field quite like Vincent Jackson. There is no doubt this team is worse off without him.

                          The offensive line looked about like it did last year. The pass blocking was adequate (except for Jeromey Clary's multiple false starts: they guy is just below average, period). The run blocking was weak. Mathews' big gains depended on his own brilliance more than any push. I continue to think there is something wrong with the run blocking strategy, as well as the personell.

                          The defense also looked about like it did last year, with one obvious truth making itself apparent: this group is average, at best, without an improved Larry English or a Shawne Merriman who has returned to form (both sat out last night). The coverage was passable and guys were making plays in the running game, but without an intense rush off the edge, this defense will be carved up by the better QB's in the league. Steve Gregory had a good game and it appeared Darrell Stuckey sat out, not getting a chance to challenge Gregory for the strarting job. Hopefully, we'll get to see Stuckey next week.

                          Friday, August 13, 2010

                          Chargers vs. Bears

                          The long teasing preseason arrives in San Diego this Saturday night, and while we can't wait for the actual season to start, there are some important position battles and strategy cues to look for in the next four games.

                          Rookie strong safety, Darrell Stuckey is looking to prove the Chargers can trust him as a starter. The knock on him out of the draft was that he didn't have optimal speed for the position, but he's probably faster than anyone the Chargers have been playing back there (Clinton Hart, Steve Gregory, Kevin Ellison). Look to see if he seems to be in the right place on passing downs and how aggressive he can be in run support. One could argue that this position has been the greatest weakness of the Chargers' defense for years. Finding a real player here could make a huge difference.

                          At corner, Antione Cason has to prove he can replace, and improve upon, the job Antonio Cromartie did last year. After be demoted out of the nickle back position in 2009, he has a lot to prove. One time Pro Bowler Nathan Vasher is hot on Cason's heals, trying to prove he can still be relevant, if not great, in this league after injuries struck him down in his prime.

                          At the linebacker position, I'll be looking to see if OLB Larry English is actually improved over last year. Reports out of camp laud his increased speed and technique. If true, this could make Merriman irrelevant (and trade bait?) if not, some might begin rumbling about AJ Smith's new "bust," as English went at #16 in the draft last year. The most cheering and applause of the night will come if English can get his hands on the hated whiner, Jay Cutler.

                          On offense, everyone will be looking to see if Ryan Mathews has the burst, cutting ability and vision to merit shipping LT off to New York. Look to see if he can burst through the line and make people miss while not fumbling. This could be the start of a new era in San Diego. However, will the starting line be able to run block even a little bit? We will find whose fault last year's horrible running game was.

                          Will the rest of the guys on the receiver corps be able to do much without Vincent Jackson? A poor performance could increase the calls for AJ to make a deal and get Jackson in sooner than later.

                          On the strategy front, we won't get to see much creative blitzing with the defense, but the offense may want to practice an intriguing formation they've reportedly been working on: the three tight end set. Lining up with tight ends Antonio Gates, the talented and experienced Randy McMichael, and Kris Wilson, this formation challenges defenses to prepare for the run with all the "bigs" in there, but all three of these tight ends are fast and great pass catchers. Those of you who play Madden might know this formation works incredibly well in the game...will it translate to reality? If it doesn't happen Saturday night, look for it later in the regular season.

                          Wednesday, August 11, 2010

                          Crackback IS Back

                          The wounds of last season have healed slowly, leaving scars of skepticism and new questions for the San Diego Chargers in 2010:

                          • Was is it all LT's fault last season? After hearing the Union Tribune's constant droning in 2009 about how the The League and the Chargers had changed and running the ball was simply no longer a priority, they released LT then went out and picked Ryan Matthews in the first round. This implies running the ball actually is important, but the lack of change on the offensive line, in coaching or personell, would imply someone (Norv and/or AJ) has actually made the calculation that last year's atrocious running game was actually LT's fault.

                          • Will Ryan Matthews live up to the hype? This guy is talented and tough. He ran through and over defenders at Fresno State, which caused some injury and concussion problems toward the end of his collegiate career. Will he hold up in the NFL? The Chargers hope the answer is "yes." The preseason may be telling if Norv gives Matthews a real chance to show his stuff.

                          • Will the offensive line be exposed as the "real" problem when an aging LT isn't around to blame anymore? There appeared to be no push and no holes last year against even the most mediocre of defenses. What has changed this year? Oh, the team has refused to sign their best young lineman, Marcus McNeill, bringing us to our next question.

                          • Has AJ Smith grown even more arrogant and overconfident, letting this team take a step backwards by forcing a holdout of Marcus McNeill, Vincent Jackson and Shawne Merriman(although there are reports Merriman is signing as this goes to press)? Or is he simply smart and tough, figuring he has these three over a barrel and they will have to report for the sake of their careers?

                          • Will the receiver corps suffer without Vincent Jackson? None of the remaining receivers contain both the size and speed of Jackson. Buster Davis is often injured and seems more of a prototypical slot receiver rather than a wideout. Malcolm Floyd has the height and pass catching ability of Jackson, but lacks the pure speed to stretch the field. Legedu Naanee is big and athletic, but also not as fast as Jackson. Will teams be able to stack the box with safeties even more if no speedy deep threat emerges?

                          • And the defense....Who will fill that final safety spot? The promising rookie, Darrel Stuckey or will the job default back to the average but gritty Steve Gregory? Will the team regret letting go of Antonio Cromartie at corner, or will Antione Cason provide more reliability and run stopping stoutness? Will the new free agents, Vasher and Strickland provide the solid experience lacking in the nickel and dime packages of previous years?

                          • Can the front seven regain its pass rush and run stopping swagger? Is Merriman done, or about to return to form? Is Ron Rivera simply not knowledgeable enough to run the 3-4 defense properly (like Wade Phillips)?

                          • Lastly, will the Chargers dominate a befuddled AFC West again this year only to get out coached, out-physicaled, or out kicked (Kaeding!) in the playoffs once again?

                          We'll be exploring all of these questions in depth as well as breaking down the preseason games over the next four weeks. I hope you tune in. Broken heart or not, it's going to be an interesting season.