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."