| Merriman says a faster takeoff will make his pass rush even more ferocious.
|Peter Read Miller/SI |
14 at Oakland (M)
4 at Pittsburgh
19 DENVER (M)
25 at Kansas City
8 at N.Y. Giants
22 at Denver
29 KANSAS CITY
6 at Cleveland
13 at Dallas
25 at Tennessee (F)
Vincent Jackson, Wide receiver:
Watching the San Diego wideouts take the field is like watching the
Lakers walk on the court for warmups. With the exception of 5' 11" Chris
Chambers, these guys are huge. If the Chargers go four-wide, they can line up
Jackson and Malcom Floyd, both 6' 5" and near 230 pounds; Legedu
Naanee, at 6' 2", 220; and Chambers, who has plenty of muscle at 210. Even
the backups, Buster Davis and Kassim Osgood, are 6' 1" and 6' 5",
respectively. Finally, there's the former Kent State power forward, Antonio
Gates, who plays tight end like a wideout, at 6' 4", 260.
"It's something that still amazes me sometimes," says coach Norv Turner.
"I've had coaches come up to me after games and say to me, 'That's the biggest
group of receivers I've ever seen in the NFL.' " Indeed, it's rare that an
NFL team has this kind of collective height among the receivers on its active
roster, or two 6' 5" guys as broad as Jackson and Floyd.
Fifth-year vet Jackson, who played basketball at Northern Colorado, looks
like an aspiring bodybuilder, wide and solid in the shoulders. His size and
athleticism allow quarterback Philip Rivers to slightly overthrow him -- the way
Arizona's Kurt Warner puts it up for Larry Fitzgerald -- because he can outjump the
coverage. It's one reason Jackson was able to average 18.6 yards per
reception last year, more than any other receiver with at least 50 catches.
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
With Shawne Merriman pumping electricity back into the
defense, the prospects are looking sunnier for the Bolts.
The most talented team in football. For a couple of years pundits have
been calling the Chargers that, and the mantle has not worn well. San Diego has
lost 13 games over the last two seasons. The "most talented" team has been among
the most disappointing.
"It's not a compliment anymore," defensive lineman Luis Castillo says.
"I like our team a lot," says coach Norv Turner, "but that's the kind of myth
that can only hurt you."
It certainly was a myth in 2008. The Chargers finished 8-8, making the
playoffs only because of a monumental collapse by the Broncos. When linebacker
Shawne Merriman was shelved by a left-knee injury after just one game, the pass
rush vanished and the San Diego defense struggled to a stunningly bad year: 25th
overall, and 31st against the pass. The Chargers had just 28 sacks, and
opponents completed 67.9% of their passes -- the second most in the club's 49-year
Some of the players blame the schemes of coordinator Ted Cottrell, finding
them too passive; Cottrell was fired after Week 8, and his replacement, Ron
Rivera, produced a more aggressive unit that surrendered nearly a touchdown less
But even with Rivera's leadership the Chargers missed Merriman's pressure?and
his presence. Which is why the linebacker's return this season will be the
biggest factor in determining whether San Diego can finally live up to the
hype. "Last year was so tough to watch," says Merriman, who had reconstructive
knee surgery in September. "Little things happened, and I'd be, 'Damn, if I was
in there, they wouldn't have done that to us. I know they wouldn't.' I've heard
from several offensive coordinators who've told me, 'We can't run counter and
leave that backside open, because you'll run it down.' Or, 'We can't run power
at you, because we know you'll blow it up.' So I'm looking forward to getting
back and, hopefully, limiting what some of those offenses can do."
Merriman averaged 15 sacks and 21 tackles for loss over his previous two
seasons. His replacement, Jyles Tucker, had 5 1/2 sacks and 15 tackles for loss
last year, and he wasn't the fire-and-brimstone tone-setter that Merriman had
been during his first three seasons.
Looking to come back strong, Merriman has worked on his balance because he
felt he was pushed over too easily at the point of attack. He also worked on
sprinting off the line at the snap. "I've needed a faster takeoff, and even
after the surgery I think I have it," he says. "I feel faster than I've ever
Merriman has an added incentive: He is one of the five-year veterans who
could be caught in the middle of the NFL's labor trouble after the season. If
the league doesn't reach a new contract with the players by March, four- and
five-year unsigned vets, who are unrestricted free agents under the current
system, will be restricted free agents. That means if San Diego doesn't sign him
next off-season, the team that does will have to give the Chargers
compensation -- at least a high draft choice. That puts heat on Merriman to show
potential bidders he's worth the added expense.
There also still seems to be a residue of resentment in the San Diego
front office over the fact that Merriman didn't have the left knee surgery
recommended last off-season by team doctors. If he had had the operation when
the Chargers wanted him to, he likely would have been ready to play much, if not
all, of 2008. So it wouldn't be surprising if they let him walk and take a pick
or picks in return.
But that will all play out in due time. For now, Merriman, sporting a blue
Mohawk, looks to be in combat mode.
"Test me," he says. "I want to be tested. What wakes me up in the morning and
drives me to come to practice is being physical and helping us be great again."
If that happens, the Chargers might feel a lot better about that title they
-- Peter King