Saturday, September 25, 2010

Seahawks to Get a Dose of Tolbert

With the Chargers wisely sitting rookie Ryan Mathews with a high ankle sprain, we will all get to see how Mike Tolbert performs at running back over the course of a whole game. While he may have the body of a fullback, he's repeatedly flashed a surprising open field speed whenever he gets his hands on the ball. Might the Chargers have their own version of Jerome Bettis on their team? We find out tomorrow. I'm expecting at least one epic collision between the Seahawks' great middle linebacker, Lofa Tatupu and our own "bowling ball," Tolbert. We'll see who, if anyone, wins that battle.

The Seahawks are currently an inferior team to the Chargers at most positions. However, Qwest Field in Seattle is one of the louder places to play and, once again, it's going to be raining. Many of the younger players looked a bit shell shocked in Kansas City in the rain and rabid environment. This game will provide an excellent test to see if some of the newer Chargers can play at a high level on the road in a hostile environment. Can Malcolm Floyd or Legedu Naanee be consistent and make game changing plays when it counts?

On defense, it looks like Stephen Cooper's action may be limited and Larry English is questionable with a foot injury. Brandon Siler will have another chance to show he can step up and have a great game. At outside linebacker, English's absence will mean more playing time for both Shawne Merriman and Antwan Applewhite. We'll see if Merriman continues to make progress back to his old dominant self (as he's promised us). Charger fans that have been paying attention have noticed that Applwhite just seems to make big plays every time he gets a chance. He seems to have a knack for causing fumbles and getting in the backfield. I'm excited to see what he can do this week.

The Seahawks don't have much of a running game, so if San Diego doesn't get stalled again by the rain, Hasselbeck will be playing catch-up and be forced to throw the ball more and more in the second half. This should give San Diego's secondary another chance to get some picks again this week. I'd love to see this group's confidence continue to grow.

The special teams will be tested by the lightning fast rookie, Golden Tate. After the horrible breakdowns in week one against the Chiefs, San Diego didn't really get much of test last week, with only one punt (which was blocked!). The jury is still out on this group.

San Diego really needs to get a win this week to prove they can play at a high level on the road.

Chargers 24, Seahawks 17

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

San Diego Bounces Back

The Chargers looked much better last week, dominating the Jacksonville Jaguars in a crazy game that featured nine turnovers. The Chargers' three turnovers were somewhat excusable. Ryan Mathews' "fumble" was not a fumble, as he was down. He does need to take care of the ball however. Both of Rivers' interceptions bounced off his own receivers' hands first, so he can't be blamed for those.

The offensive line was actually impressive in both the running and passing game. The Jaguars just got pushed around on the line of scrimmage. Maybe Dombrowski will turn out to be serviceable after all. If Louis Vazquez continues to develop at right guard, the Chargers could do some real damage in the run game this year.

In regards to the run game, Ryan Mathews' second game almost ended in complete tragedy, as he turned over the ball then went out with an injury. It turned out the fumble wasn't real and the injury wasn't serious. For a moment though, San Diego fans saw the season flashing before their eyes. The exciting first round back out for the season after two devastating fumbles? Confidence and an ankle unable to recover? The football gods were kind to the Bolts this week.

Mike Tolbert stepped into the gap left by Mathews and showed his surprising speed and vision in addition to his well known strength. Whether or not Mathews is healthy, Tolbert just played his way into more opportunities this season (pick him up for your fantasy squad now...he's probably undrafted).

Even better news came with the continued strong play of the defense. Antione Cason had a monster game and monster confidence builder for a young player. This first-rounder is no bust. He looks like a serious upgrade from the weird hijinx of Cromartie over the past few years.

Larry English made a big play and Shawne Merriman looked fluid and quick on the field, if a bit tentative in his first game back. Lights Out seems to have come out of this game healthy and will probably turn up the heat for Seattle. Brandon Siler filled in for Stephen Cooper without missing a beat. Antione Applewhite came in and caused a fumble. The linebacking corps is coming together.

On the whole, San Diego looks stronger, indicating that perhaps we can call the KC game a wet sloppy aberration. However, it's easy for young players to get on a roll and perform well in a blow out. How will some of these guys react in the pressure situation of a close game? The KC game showed some inexperience and flawed confidence. This week's game against a lesser opponent on the road should be a good test of some of the young players' consistency and ability to perform under a bit more pressure.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chargers Need to Regain Footing Against Jags

This game is more about the Chargers' battle with themselves than it is about Jacksonville. The Jaguars are a tough but average NFL team. At home, if the Chargers are capable of playing near the level they were at last year, they should win. At home on a 70 degree sunny San Diego day, there will be no excuses.

Questions to be answered today:

  • Will the special teams be righted? Another poor performance and the special teams coach should worry about his job. Also, Sproles needs to show he can still do it. Has the little guy already lost a step at this young age?
  • Will Ryan Mathews get his confidence back? After fumbling and essentially being pulled from the game in the 4th quarter, he needs to come back and have a great game. The guy can be a top performer in the league...if his head is right.
  • Will the front seven continue to create some havoc in the backfield or were the Chiefs just that bad? We'll see...
  • Can Lights Out still do it? If Shawne Merriman has a good game and doesn't pull his hammy again, the Chargers will suddenly be one of the scariest teams in the league.
  • Can the receivers make the the big catches? Teams will double and triple team Gates. Someone else must step up or AJ will hear the Jackson chants for the rest of his career in SD. None of "the replacements" made anyone forget about VJ last week.

Prediction: Chargers 31, Jacksonville 17

If San Diego chokes again and loses this one, I'm not optimistic about a late season run this year. For the sake of the young and inexperienced on the team, they need to have some success now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chiefs Game Revealing but Not Defining

In a wet mess that reminded Charger fans of last year's playoff game versus the Jets, the Chiefs prevailed in a spasm of red frenzy. The only good to come out of this game is that Charger fans can feel lucky they don't live in Kansas City. After the hundreth close up of another red clad, red faced goon screaming in the stands, even with a loss and a team with serious flaws, we can be glad we live in SD.

Because of the rain and the frenzied crowd, I can discount some of the breakdowns and mistakes made by the Chargers on Monday night. San Diego seemed to be slipping and sliding all over the field, right past the more sure footed Chiefs. On the 94 yard punt return by Arenas, Tolbert had him in his sights and lost his footing. Darren Sproles depends on churning those little legs and changing direction faster than the other guys. The wet field seemed to completely neutralize him.

Rain Pictures, Images and Photos
During the worst of the downpour, Rivers couldn't get a grip on the ball as almost every pass fell short of its target. It seemed like it hadn't even occured to the Chargers that it might rain. This, combined with first game jitters, was too much for some of the younger players.

The rain can't excuse everything though. The run game is essentially broken. The Chiefs don't have great personell and the Chargers never controlled the line of scrimmage. The pass blocking was good enough, but Norv's realization of the weakness of the run game was evident at the end when the Chargers ran one draw and passed three times when they had first and goal at the four. After the game, Mathews honorably blamed himself for missing holes, but anyone watching could see the Chargers' offensive line simply wasn't getting any push. This bodes ill for the season. I don't think it's the personell either. The run game hasn't been strong since 2006. I think these guys aren't being coached up correctly on their schemes and technique.

In the passing game, it became clear that the Chargers' recievers can catch the ball, but seem to falter when they need a big play. These guys just don't have the confidence yet to step up on crucial third and long or fourth down situations. Naanee's drop of an easy pass on 4th down was one indication of this. Buster Davis and Floyd missing catches because they fell down in the final series of the game is another indication. The pass blocking was, well...passable.

The Chargers defense essentially shut the Chiefs down except for one major breakdown leading to Jamal Charles 60-yard touchdown run. I would blame this (just like in the Jets game) on weak safety play. Steve Gregory had responsibility for that gap and got blown out of the hole. He simply doesn't have the physical tools to play at a high level in the NFL.

Lastly, while the rain can excuse some of the special teams play, it was evident the Chargers have some guys out there who are inexperienced and just aren't very good at what they're doing. Everyone noted the loss of Kassim Osgood, which is a huge factor, but I would also add the loss of Tim Dobbins into the mix. These to guys made the majority of the tackles and big hits last year. Someone else better step up, or the Chargers will continue to lose games they shouldn't.

Positive things fans can take from this game? Antonio Garay played like an absolute stud early in the game. Part the reason Cassel only had 68 yards on the night was that Garay had rocked him three times in the first half, causing the Chiefs to stick to the run and quick passing game. Coaches should choose to leave Garay in longer instead of sticking to the constant rotation. In general, San Diego was able to get some pressure and chaos into the backfield. Larry English didn't make any huge plays, but he looked more comfortable and natural as the game went on. He needs that experience if he's going to evolve into the great player the Chargers need him to be.

The coverage in the secondary was also solid. Like I've mentioned before, the cornerback position is now a major strength of this team.

Overall, this game was a complete nightmare, but I think it will prove to be more of an anomally than a precursor of things to come. The Chargers must (and will) rebound strongly against Jacksonville next week.

Rain Pictures, Images and Photos

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chiefs a Perfect Opening Test for Chargers

The San Diego Chargers will face the Kansas City Chiefs in a late game on Monday night that should provide a perfect bellwether for how San Diego is going to play this season.

On offense, the Chiefs' undersized front seven (they don't really seem to have the personnel for the 3-4) should reveal if San Diego is going to be able to run the ball at all this season. If the offensive line and the powerful rookie Ryan Mathews can't exert its will on the Chiefs' defense by the 3rd or 4th quarter, it doesn't bode well for the ground game this year.

I would discount the first quarter and a half or so of the game, as the Chiefs are going to be playing on an adrenaline high in their new stadium with a new chance to prove they won't be one of the worst teams in the league. Romeo Crennel will probably have some creative blitzes early on, so the Chargers will have to adjust to the high pressure atmosphere and unique scheme. Ultimately though, San Diego should be able to push these guys around.

In the passing game, the talented Tamba Hali should also provide a real test for Brandon Dombrowski. Even one sack will cause Charger fans to start gathering with torches and pitchforks outside of AJ's office. "Sign McNeill! Sign McNeill!" will ring annoyingly in AJ's ears for every home game...unless Dombrowski can actually do the job. We'll see. My guess is he might be good enough to be an average NFL tackle, but the pressure and expectations will simply be too high. He will make some mistakes, and AJ will work out something with McNeill before too long.

Downfield, the Chargers will get to test top rookie safety Eric Berry, who has amazing potential. Hopefully, Rivers and Norval will be able to make him look like just another rookie a few times in this first game. I wouldn't want to be facing a Norv Turner inspired game plan my first game. We'll also get to see if any of the Chargers' wide receivers can get deep, or will the subtraction of Vincent Jackson shrink the field? I'd love to see a few shots deep to Buster Davis and Legedu Naanee. San Diego needs to find out if they can make the big play.

On the other side of the ball, the Charger defense should stack the box to contain Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, forcing Matt Cassel (who was just horrible last year) to beat them. It will be interesting to see if new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis can actually improve this offense, or were he, Crennel, head coach Todd Haley, Eric Mangini, and Josh McDaniels all just overrated hacks riding the coattails of the genius Bill Belichick? The "truth" arrow points more to "a bunch of hacks" right now. None have shown consistent success and many have been abject failures. When will NFL owners and GM's lose faith in Belichick's disciples? This will be a key season.

If the Chargers can weather the early storm and not make mistakes, they should be able to build a lead. This will force Cassel to pass the ball more, playing catch up as the game goes on. This should give Chargers fans a chance to see if the front seven can bring any pressure on the quarterback. I expect Rivera will hit on one or two safety blitzes, but that doesn't really show much, as more talented teams and QB's will sting the Chargers for taking those big gambles consistently. I want to know if Larry English and Shaun Phillips can get to the quarterback. Can Antonio Garay, Cam Thomas, Luis Castillo and Jaques Cesaire actually get enough push to create havoc and confusion on the offense? If the answer is "no," San Diego's secondary will get burned by the high powered offensives in the NFL. This should make everyone very nervous going into the playoffs in January. If they can bring pressure? This actually could be the Chargers' year to go all the way.

Chargers 27 Chiefs 13

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Chargers 2010 Preview

The Chargers will win their division by a lesser margin than last year, but once again go to the playoffs, this time with a 12-4 or 11-5 record. Everyone knows the AFC West is weak, but at some point one of the other teams is going to put together a string of success to challenge San Diego. AJ Smith seems strangely complacent, adding only role players and letting Pro Bowlers sit out. The hungry teams on the outside have a way of sneaking up on the complacent, who realize their powers have diminished only when it's too late. It almost happened last year with Denver. I don't think it will happen this year, but AJ seems willing to risk mediocrity in the present, rather than get into "uncomfortable" contracts with the a new Collective Bargaining Agreement being negotiated next year.

Unless Shawne Merriman regains his old form (which isn't looking likely at this point with his immediate gimpiness upon returning to camp) or one or more of the younger guys like Larry English, Darrell Stuckey or Cam Thomas start dominating, this team will mostly likely be bounced out in an early round of the playoffs.

The defense hasn't shown it can be stout enough against the strongest rushing teams, especially in January when it counts. Weddle and Gregory just don't have the physical prowess. The tackles in the middle are inexperienced, and Cesaire and Castillo are just "guys" in there, not adding much special to the mix. Stephen Cooper is a very strong middle linebacker and leader, but he needs more help. Burnett, at the other middle linebacker position is athletic, but not stout against the run. A team that can play solid pressure defense and run the ball will be able to control the clock, keeping Rivers and company off balance and off the field.

Ryan Mathews should have a good year. The guy just looks amazingly strong, fast and determined. He leaves everything out on the field though and doesn't dodge any big hits. An injury to him would be devastating. He' the only running back in San Diego that will make this offensive line look passable.

Phillip Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and should have a great year. He continues to improve and this year folks may start murmering about his ability to go to Canton. However, his big play ability will be limited by the lack of a dominant deep route running receiver. None of Vincent Jackson's replacements have the speed, strength and size. Malcolm Floyd is tall, but not as fast, and he gets out-muscled on some jump balls. The passing game will have to rely even more on the magical Antonio Gates, who can seems able to handle any challenge or any pass.

Here's the game by game prediction:

9/13 SD @ KC: This is a dangerous game as the Chiefs and their fans will be pumped up in the desperate hope of not being horrible again this season. With the addition of former Patriots' offensive and defiensive coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crenel (they should rename themselves the Western Patriots), look for the Chiefs to try any crazy thing to get a win. In the end, talent will win out and so will San Diego.

9/19 JAC @ SD: The Chargers should roll in their home opener against the Jaguers, who are still searching for a franchise quarterback, and may technically be in "rebuilding" mode.

9/26 SD @ SEA: Speaking of rebuilding, Pete Carroll jumped the sinking USC ship just in time, but this team has been on the downward slide and Carroll hasn't proven he can succeed in the NFL, although one could argue USC was a quasi-professional team. Chargers win.

10/3 ARI @ SD Arizona should beg Kurt Warner to emulate the classless Farvre and make a tearful heroic return from retirement. It's the only chance they have. I can't believe they let linebacker Karlos Dansby go last year. The guy was a vicious part of their defense. Chargers win.

10/10 SD @ OAK Going to the Black Hole is never fun. I'm not predicting the Raiders to be great, but they should be improved with the addition of a real QB. The Raiders will be pumped up for this one and expose the Chargers' weak run defense. Chargers lose. Fans question the loss of Jackson and McNeill.

10/17 SD @ STL St. Louis is rebuilding. San Diego wins easy.

10/24 NE @ SD Belichick is a football genius and finds a way to expose San Diego's weaknesses on defense. Chargers lose. Fans wonder loudly if the Chargers can compete with the elite teams.

10/31 Ten @ SD The strong running defensive minded Titans are just the type of team to give San Diego trouble. Chargers lose. Fans wonder even more loudly if "the window" has closed...blame AJ.

11/7 SD @ HOU Some are predicting Houston to be up and comers into the elite. I don't believe it yet. They are cursed until they aren't. Chargers win.

11/22 DEN @ SD Denver is still a mess. They will fall apart further this year and their immature baby of a coach will be fired. Chargers win.

11/28 SD @ IND Indianapolis may be predicted to win the Super Bowl again this year, but they are the perfect match up for the Chargers. This is the one team that can't out muscle San Diego. Chargers win.

12/5 OAK @ SD The Raiders may have beat San Diego in the Black Hole, but they still aren't ready to compete on the road. Their head coach isn't sophisticated enough to out-scheme Norval at home. Chargers win.

12/12 KC @ SD The Chiefs just need better players. Chargers win.

12/16 SF @ SD The Chargers may have more "skill" players, but the Singletary led Niners play smashmout football, push San Diego around, and win a close one. Fans worry about the defense going into the playoffs.

12/26 SD @ CIN The Bengals looked great last year. This year? They implode by this time. Chargers win.

1/2 SD @ DEN Denver will be out of contention by this time and the Chargers will be positioning for the playoffs. Chargers win.

Unless something changes or AJ makes some magical trades to bring a couple difference making players, the Chargers will disappoint again this year in the playoffs, likely falling victim to a tougher team that plays stout defense and is hitting on all cylinders.

All that being said, get to the playoffs and anything can happen. Maybe Rivers and Gates can will the team to a Super Bowl. I'll be watching.

Look for my Chiefs pre-game analyisis this weekend. Happy football season everyone.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Preseason is Over!

Just a few things came out of the ugliest game we hope to see until next preseason:

  • Rookie Safety Darrell Stuckey made more progress, looking a little more comfortable out there, making a few plays and showing his hitting ability. The Chargers need Stuckey to mature, because Gregory, the projected starter, showed that while he's gritty and knows his responsibilities, just isn't up to par physically on an NFL field. He and Weddle are starting to specialize in getting run over by big opposing running backs. This has been a problem in the playoffs the past few years. Last year, while everyone likes to focus on Cromartie's phantom tackle, remember Jets running back Shonn Greene actually ran over Weddle on his 60-yard TD run to end the Chargers' season. A couple years before that, on a crucial third down play against the Steelers toward the end of the game Gregory was run over by Willie Parker on a big run that may have made the difference in the game. The Chargers possess the two least intimidating safeties in the league and need Stuckey to grow into the starting job by the end of the season if they are going to do better than previous years in the playoffs.

  • Larry English made a play! English stopped the 49er running back in the backfield on a well read 4th and short pitch play. It still looks like Antwan Applewhite is the better play maker out there. If Merriman proves injury prone again this season, it will be interesting to see if Applewhite eventually pushes for a starting job.

  • The new guy looks sharp:Recently acquired cornerback (from Houston), Fred Bennett, made a strong play on a deep ball and took it away from the receiver for an interception. This guy is quick, strong, and athletic, making the rusty Nathan Vashar expendable (I thought Vashar had showed some spark and might regain his first string form with time, but AJ & co. seem to have made the right call here).

  • The Chargers generally stood up against the Singletary-toughened Niners, but the defense still looks flawed. San Francisco did not display any passing attack, but the Chargers defense again showed some weakness against the run. To start the season, it's hard to rate the front seven as anything but below average. This fact, added to what was said above about the weakness at safety, should worry fans going into the season. The only part of the defense I'm not worried about is the cornerback position. Jammer and Cason will be great as starters. Strickland and Bennett are experienced and extremely strong nickle or dime backs. If the Chargers could generate any kind of pass rush, this group could get many picks this season.

  • The most notable occurrence on offense was the big night of Buster Davis. He showed he could go deep, across the middle and perform tight comeback routes leaving corners five yards up field. Hopefully, he will stay healthy and continue to develop his confidence. I can see Davis in the slot catching slants across the middle in open space and going for 30+ yards as opposing safeties focus too much on Antonio Gates.

The biggest news in Chargerville had nothing to do with Thursday's ugly marathon slog. In picking up wide receiver Patrick Crayton from Dallas, San Diego added some needed veteran experience and talent. They thought former Bill Josh Reed would provide this, but all he showed this preseason was an incredible ability to drop balls. Crayton is reliable and can still get deep time to time at the advance NFL age of 31. All this may be bad news for Legedu Naanee, who may end up as an occasional slot receiver (the same role he's had the past two years) behind Buster Davis. Norv may let Davis and Naanee battle it out at slot for awhile to see who is more effective.

This team may be reverting to the Fouts era Chargers with a nearly unstoppable passing attack, weaker running game, and even weaker defense. That sounds exciting, but that team never made it to, much less won, a Super Bowl either.

I'll post my 2o10 regular season preview later this week.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chargers vs. 49'rs Pregame

This Thursday's game against the 49'rs will be the most meaningless contest of the preseason. San Diego's brain trust probably has a solid idea of who they're going to cut and keep at this point minus just a few names. The starters won't get enough time to show us much. So things are pretty much set for the regular season, barring any freak injuries tomorrow night.

The Chargers will go into the 2010 season with some weaknesses and question marks at the offensive tackle positions, wide receiver, outside linebacker and safety. Fans shouldn't be surprised if the Chargers lose some games early on they would have been expected to win in previous years. Unless Shawne Merriman returns with a vengeance, unless AJ drops his arrogance and brings in Jackson and McNeill, unless some 2nd stringers or rookies suddenly show vast improvement, the San Diego Chargers will begin this year a lesser team than last year.
All that being said, this season will rise and fall on the brilliance of Rivers and Gates and the fresh legs and power of Ryan Mathews. They will have to make up for a non-threatening defense and a flawed offensive line. It seems the Chargers are willing to take a step backwards this season, rather than get into "uncomfortable" contracts under the new CBA to be negotiated next year.

Back to Thursday night, the Mike Singletary-led 49'rs will test the Chargers' toughness by playing hard through four quarters. It will be interesting to see if San Diego folds even in garbage time during the 3rd and 4th quarters. One could look at this as test of Norv's lack of "fire" vs. Singletary's wide-eyed intensity.

Let's see what happens.