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IN THE second-floor room where the Chargers hold their defensive staff meetings, a sign speaks to new coordinator John Pagano's philosophy:
SIMPLE = FAST
THINK = SLOW
The only thing speedy about the Chargers' defense in 2011 was the change coach Norv Turner made after the season. Out after one year went coordinator Greg Manusky, who oversaw a unit that ranked last in opponents' third-down efficiency and 29th in opponents' red zone touchdown percentage. In came Pagano, a longtime Chargers assistant—he had worked with the linebackers since 2005—whom Turner had passed over for the coordinator job twice before. If the defense changes as quickly and as dramatically as Turner wants it to, this might be the year the Chargers fulfill the Super Bowl expectations that have followed them for so many seasons.
Though starting running back Ryan Mathews is doubtful for the opener after breaking his collarbone in the first preseason game, the offense is in the capable hands of Philip Rivers—who despite a career-high 20 interceptions in 2011 ranks second in NFL passing yards and third in touchdown passes and yards per attempt since Turner arrived in '07. The kicking game is among the league's best. That leaves the defense.
"Our approach is, Know your job, do your job, go out and play," says Pagano, whose brother, Chuck, is coach of the Colts. "If guys are thinking out there, they're not going to react. They're going to slow down a little. If the defense is simple and something they all understand, they're going to play fast."
Schematically the defense won't look dramatically different, but rather than employ complicated checks and adjustments when an offense shifts, the Chargers plan to remain mostly static and rely on execution over deception. "Obviously we have some tweaks, but the mentality [Pagano] brings is that we're going to be aggressive and play smart football," says linebacker Shaun Phillips, who is entering his ninth season. "Over the years it wasn't for lack of talent that we didn't succeed. It was lack of intelligence on some things, whether it was an interception that we tried to return [and fumbled away], or a stupid penalty, or not managing the two-minute situation. That comes from football IQ, and he's preaching to us to be smarter football players."
The defense will be better if only because it has no place to go but up. Opponents converted 96 of 195 third downs, a staggering 49.2% rate that was 11.2 points higher than the league average. In third-and-10 or longer, teams earned first downs 30.4% of the time, second-most in the league and 10.7 above the average. It was even worse in short-yardage situations, with opponents converting 91.7% of their third-and-ones, 24.6 points above the average. In the red zone, teams scored touchdowns on 59.2% of their possessions and averaged 5.1 points per trip inside the San Diego 20-yard line, the second-highest total in the league.
As Turner likes to say, when you're that bad, the finger can point simultaneously at the coaches and personnel. He addressed the former by promoting Pagano, and general manager A.J. Smith addressed the latter by adding several intriguing pieces, most notably linebacker Jarret Johnson and safety Atari Bigby in free agency, and pass rusher Melvin Ingram and defensive end Kendall Reyes in the draft.
Ingram, a first-rounder out of South Carolina, could be the ideal complement for Phillips, who often has had little help on the pass rush. The Chargers likely will use Ingram situationally to keep him fresh for four quarters. If 2009 first-round pick Larry English can overcome the injuries that have limited him to just 13 games and two starts at outside linebacker for the past two seasons, San Diego could have a wrecking crew of rushers.