UNTIL LAST season outside linebacker Steve Foley couldn't imagine being as happy as he is with the Chargers. He had spent six frustrating years in Cincinnati and Houston, rarely getting the chance to display his pass-rushing talents. Then, after leaving the Texans as a free agent following the 2003 season, Foley signed with San Diego and found himself at home in the team's 3--4 scheme. He produced a career-high 10 sacks, a half-sack fewer than he had in his first six years combined, but his season could have been even better. After the coaches reviewed film from '04, they saw that Foley had missed out on about eight more sacks because he didn't pull down the quarterback after getting a decent shot at him. Having seen the big-play opportunities he let slip away, he is determined to have an even better season in '05.
Foley is the only proven pass rusher on a unit that had 29 sacks, which tied for the third-fewest in the league. The Chargers hope their two first-round draft picks--outside linebacker Shawne Merriman of Maryland and defensive tackle Luis Castillo of Northwestern--will create more pressure, but Foley believes he and his veteran teammates will be improved as well. "We're already doing things with this defense that we didn't do all of last season," Foley says of the scheme installed in 2004, when Wade Phillips became the new coordinator. "Guys are more comfortable with the system. They know when they can be more aggressive, and that's going to help with our pressure. Plus, if we can start bringing both outside guys off the edge, I hopefully won't have to deal with so many double teams."
At the start of last season opponents didn't bother to assign an extra blocker to Foley, but that quickly changed after the 6'4", 265-pound linebacker unleashed a stunning combination of speed and power. "When I played with Jevon Kearse in Tennessee, I thought I'd never see another guy who was as big and fast. But Steve has similar ability," says Chargers inside linebacker Randall Godfrey. "He's a natural pass rusher and also agile enough to be effective in pass coverage. But I never realized how good he was until he got here."
Selected in the third round of the 1998 draft out of Northeast Louisiana, Foley was looking forward to playing outside linebacker in the Bengals' 3--4. But after his second season Cincinnati switched to a 4--3, and Foley was overshadowed by fellow starters Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons, both of whom were better suited for the scheme. "I felt like the other guy" in that defense, says Foley, a strongside linebacker who covered the tight end, forced running plays inside and seldom blitzed. In five years with the Bengals, three as a starter, he never had more than four sacks in a season. After missing all of 2002 with a right shoulder injury, he was released in late August '03.
Foley was snapped up two days later by Houston and made three late-season starts in a 3--4 scheme, before landing in San Diego with little fanfare. Defensive tackle Jamal Williams had to seek out fullback Lorenzo Neal and guard Mike Goff, both of whom had played with Foley in Cincinnati, to find out what type of player the Chargers were getting. "They told me [Foley] was a monster," Williams recalls. "They said the guys on defense wouldn't be disappointed." They weren't. Foley also finished with career highs in tackles (65), forced fumbles (five) and interceptions (two). San Diego rewarded him with a three-year, $10 million extension.
Foley's breakout season was only one of several on a team that went from four wins in 2003 to 12 last year. Skeptics are waiting to see if the Chargers were a one-season wonder, but coach Marty Schottenheimer keeps reminding his players of how hard they worked to win the AFC West. And this team is filled with blue-collar types, like Foley, who understand what it takes to be successful. "This is the high point of my career," he says. "I hate that it took this long, but at the same time I'm still excited that it has finally arrived." --J.C.
With only one Pro Bowl appearance as he enters his 10th season, inside linebacker Donnie Edwards is one of the game's least recognized standouts. He has excelled in a 4--3 and a 3--4. He has dominated in the middle and on the outside. And what he accomplished in 2004--another year in which he didn't get invited to Hawaii--was another typical season for him: He led the team in tackles (151), interceptions (five) and passes defended (14).
AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW
It will be harder for Drew Brees to have the success he did last season. A lot of defensive coordinators took him for granted because he'd never played that consistently before. That won't happen again.... LaDainian Tomlinson is the best back in football. He has speed, power, moves and great hands.... They're mediocre at receiver. Keenan McCardell plays younger than his age (35). Eric Parker is a very deceptive talent; he runs great routes and has the speed, but he hasn't put it all together.... If you look at their offensive linemen individually, you don't see anything special. But collectively, they're a tough, physical unit.... On defense Luis Castillo should really help them if he stays healthy. They put so much pressure on Jamal Williams to make things happen.... Donnie Edwards is the most underrated linebacker in the league. He's a very fluid athlete who plays with great leverage.... They should be much better at corner. Sammy Davis has a ton of ability, but Drayton Florence will start because he's more consistent and physical. On the other side, Quentin Jammer looks like he's finally figured out how to play at this level.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 12--4
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE 6/16/10 DEFENSE 3/31/18
COACH: Marty Schottenheimer; fourth season with San Diego (177-117-1 in NFL)
XPs MADE 54
XPs ATT. 55
FG MADE 20
FG ATT. 25
NEW ACQUISITION PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
18 at Denver
25 N.Y. GIANTS
2 at New England
10 PITTSBURGH (M)
16 at Oakland
23 at Philadelphia
30 KANSAS CITY
6 at N.Y. Jets
13 Open date
27 at Washington
18 at Indianapolis
24 at Kansas City (S)
31 DENVER (S)
NFL rank: T5 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .531 Games against playoff teams: 7