Postcard from camp: Chargers
Chargers feel the pressure to get back into playoffs after missing out last year
Improving upon last year's lackluster special teams has been a point of emphasis
If Ryan Mathews lives up to his potential, the team's offense could be unstoppable
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
On Wednesday the Chargers got away from their year-round training facility in Murphy Canyon for an evening workout at Qualcomm Stadium. The sparse crowd wasn't treated to much of a show, as nearly half of the projected starters on offense and defense did not participate.
There is a sense of urgency among the Chargers, who ranked No. 1 in total offense and defense last season yet failed to make the playoffs at 9-7. Despite annually being mentioned as one of the league's most talented teams, they've flamed out in the playoffs or failed to get there. They won two postseason games in Norv Turner's first season, in 2007, one in 2008, none in 2009 and failed to even qualify last year. If that trend continues, it could make for an interesting offseason. Fans will want change at the top, but owner Dean Spanos doesn't figure to give it to them.
1. The Chargers have been spending more practice time on special teams than at any point in recent years, according to one team employee. For good reason. Last year they were the Keystone Kops of special teams, allowing four returns for scores, including three on kickoffs, one shy of the league record. They also had four punts blocked and another deflected. The NFL record for blocked punts allowed is six.
Assistant Steve Crosby was made the fall guy and replaced by Rich Bisaccia, whose units were perennially among the most respected in the league during his tenure with Bucs. Some team members say it was time for a change, if only because they had been listening to Crosby's voice for nine years. If the unit doesn't show marked improvement, however, someone else will have to take the fall.
2. Eric Weddle says he and Bob Sanders, the former Colts standout, will be the league's best starting safety tandem if they play at their best. Hyperbole? Not necessarily.
Injuries have limited Sanders to nine games over the past three seasons, but in 2007 he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, a lethal combination of intelligence, intuition and fierce striking. Weddle, who signed a $40 million, five-year deal last week, is a rising player whom the coaches identified as one of their two best players on defense in 2010, along with linebacker Shaun Phillips.
Weddle and Sanders have been inseparable since camp started, and they quickly got the attention of new coordinator Greg Manusky when they were among the few players taking copious notes during a defensive meeting early in camp. How they play could go a long way toward determining whether the Chargers' D is good or very good.
3. Continuity ... and change. The offensive line returns its top eight players, including a starting five that has been together for three-plus years save for the right guard position. The group has talent to go with experience. Left tackle Marcus McNeill, guard Kris Dielman and center Nick Hardwick all have played in the Pro Bowl.
San Diego's linebacker corps is not as static. There could be three new players among the four starters. The team chose not to re-sign both inside starters -- Stephen Cooper and Kevin Burnett -- and Shaun Phillips is the only outside 'backer who played the entire season last year. The only givens at this point are that Phillips and Takeo Spikes, the former 49er, will start. Donald Butler has been getting a long look at the other inside spot, and oft-injured Larry English and free-agent signee Travis LaBoy will compete for the other outside spot.
Ryan Mathews, running back. Numerous eyes are on the second-year back who buckled under the pressure of replacing LaDainian Tomlinson last season. A first-round pick out of Fresno State, Mathews struggled with a high ankle sprain early in the year and never got comfortable with pass protection. If he can be the player management envisioned when it traded up to get him, the offense could reach a nearly unstoppable level.
Think about it: Philip Rivers threw for 30 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions last season despite working with a receiving corps that was decimated by injury and holdout. If Rivers could put up those numbers throwing to guys who sometimes did not have a full week of practice before taking the field, imagine what he could do with Vincent Jackson (he missed the first 10 games in a salary dispute), Patrick Crayton and Kelley Washington around for a full season, and veteran Laurent Robinson having a full training camp to get acclimated, on top of Mathews' contribution.
Coach Norv Turner is counting on Mathews to not only improve significantly on last season, when he ran for 678 yards and seven TDs on 158 carries, but also to help fill the void that was created when veteran passing-down back Darren Sproles signed with New Orleans as a free agent. Mike Tolbert, who led the team with 735 yards rushing and 11 TDs last year, also could be in the mix. And fullback Jacob Hester could see some time. But Turner says he expects much of the work to go to Mathews.
Greg Manusky replaces defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who was hired as head coach of the Carolina Panthers. A point of emphasis for Manusky will be creating turnovers. San Diego ranked No. 1 in total defense last season, but finished tied for 23rd with just 23 takeaways -- four shy of the league average and 16 behind the league-leading Giants.
Players say takeaways are being stressed in meetings, warmups and during drills. The 49ers did not finish above 15th in takeaways during Manusky's four seasons running their defense, but the stat is misleading considering San Francisco often was playing from behind because of struggles on offense. That shouldn't be a concern now; San Diego ranked No. 1 in total offense last season and should challenge for the scoring title this year.
In the meantime, keep an eye on rookies defensive end Corey Liuget and cornerback Marcus Gilchrist.
Liuget, a first-round pick from Illinois, is expected to start at right end. He missed the first seven training camp practices, but was drafted over a seemingly more pressing void at inside linebacker because the team believes he can be a physical, disruptive force (remember the defense's new mantra is "takeaways").
Gilchrist, a second-round pick from Clemson, has flashed ability during camp while subbing for Antoine Cason (finger surgery) and Dante Hughes, who was unable to practice until the CBA was ratified. Gilchrist has earned props for his physical play and fearlessness.
The Chargers have been perennial slow starters under Turner, losing three of their first five games in each of his four seasons. However, everything appears to be set up for a turnaround this year.
For one, they have an experienced roster and established coaches and systems. Hence, they should be less affected by the four-month lockout than teams with new coaching staffs or key changes in personnel.
For another, three of their first four games are at home, where they will face a Minnesota team breaking in a new quarterback, a Kansas City squad it has beaten in six of the teams' last seven meetings in Qualcomm Stadium, and Miami, which has had only one winning season in the last five. The two road games before the bye are at New England and Denver, where they have won four in a row.
If they aren't at least 4-1 heading into the bye, there may no hope for ever having a fast start under Turner.
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