1 SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

September 04, 2011

Two new big names make a potent defense Big Game caliber

On the surface Takeo Spikes's joining the Chargers smacks of a desperate attempt by a veteran player to chase a Super Bowl ring—which it is, to some extent. Despite playing for four teams and starting 183 of 187 games during his 13 years in the league, the veteran inside linebacker has never been to the playoffs and has played for only one team that had a winning season. An opportunity to sign with a Chargers club that has had winning records in six of the past seven seasons and advanced to the playoffs in four of the past five, understandably, was attractive.

San Diego more than welcomed Spikes's interest. The Chargers were so hungry to find an interior linebacker who could bring physicality to the field and authority to the locker room that general manager A.J. Smith called Spikes within 10 minutes of the start of free agency in August. The message behind his message was that the team didn't just want Spikes, they needed him. "A.J. said, 'I want leadership, but I want playmakers first. We need both those things to get to the next level,' " Spikes recalls.

Spikes's arrival followed the March signing of veteran safety Bob Sanders, the 2007 defensive player of the year with the Colts who missed 39 of 48 games the last three seasons because of injuries. Like Spikes, Sanders brings a commanding presence on and off the field. If Sanders stays healthy, his acquisition could be the steal of the off-season. During his last full season, in 2007, Sanders had 97 tackles, 3½ sacks, two interceptions, six passes defensed and one forced fumble. He also provided an intimidation element that is less quantifiable.

"We know why he was available, because he's been hurt," coach Norv Turner says. "But there have been guys like that who've come back to be productive. There was one here: Rodney Harrison. People thought he wouldn't stay healthy [he was released by the Chargers after the 2002 season], and he went to New England and won two Super Bowls. When I was in Washington we couldn't keep Mark Schlereth because there were three or four [physical] things wrong with him, but he goes to Denver and extends his career five or six more years and wins a couple of Super Bowls."

Super Bowl has become an epithet of derision in San Diego, where the Chargers annually are hailed as having some of the league's top personnel only to flame out in the playoffs. In fact, they failed to even reach the postseason last year, largely because of poor special teams play, especially during their fourth straight 2--3 start under Turner.

Still, the feeling is that their top-ranked offense—with quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, wideouts Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, and running backs Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews—is so good that, with just a little more help in the other phases of the game, a title run is a strong possibility.

Defensively that means producing more takeaways. For all the talk about the Chargers' ranking No. 1 in defense, they were 10th in points allowed (20.1 per game) and tied for 14th in interceptions (16), 26th in forced fumbles (10) and 23rd in takeaways (23), even though they tied for second in sacks with 47.

Turner privately told team insiders that there were occasions when the unit could have been more aggressive, which, in turn, could have produced more game-changing turnovers. When defensive coordinator Ron Rivera left in January to become the Panthers' coach, Turner quickly turned to former San Francisco coordinator Greg Manusky, whose aggressive, attacking schemes fit the Chargers' needs. It also didn't hurt that Manusky had a close relationship with Spikes from their three seasons together with the 49ers.

In Spikes, Turner sees plenty of a former Chargers stalwart. "Everyone knows when you lose a guy like [Shawne] Merriman—[you lose] a presence," Turner says of the former All-Pro linebacker who was waived last November because of a dropoff in production and frequent injuries. "Everyone wants to talk about the stuff before and after the snap, but I'm talking about what a guy like Shawne does when the ball is snapped. He would take his guy and knock him backward. He'd change the way the offense had to attack you.

"We'd like get more turnovers, we'd like to take the ball away more, and Takeo and Bob are the types of guys that do those things."

That appetite for a playmaker is the reason the Chargers drafted defensive end Corey Liuget in the first round. "He's a guy who can get down inside in our nickel package and have an impact early," says Turner.

Impact. It's a word you hear often with the Chargers when they talk about their hopes for 2011.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 1

QB PHILIP RIVERS

ATT 541

COMP 357

PCT 66

YARDS 4,710

YD/ATT 8.71

TD 30

INT 13

RATING 101.8

RB MIKE TOLBERT

ATT 182

YARDS 735

REC 25

TTD 11

FB JACOB HESTER

ATT 26

YARDS 60

REC 22

TTD 1

WR VINCENT JACKSON

REC 14

YARDS 248

AVG 17.7

TTD 3

WR MALCOM FLOYD

REC 37

YARDS 717

AVG 19.4

TTD 6

TE ANTONIO GATES

REC 50

YARDS 782

AVG 15.6

TTD 10

LT MARCUS MCNEILL

G 11

SACKS 2½

HOLD 1

FALSE 1

LG KRIS DIELMAN

G 15

SACKS 1¾

HOLD 0

FALSE 1

C NICK HARDWICK

G 16

SACKS 1¾

HOLD 1

FALSE 0

RG LOUIS VASQUEZ

G 10

SACKS 4½

HOLD 0

FALSE 1

RT JEROMEY CLARY

G 16

SACKS 7½

HOLD 1

FALSE 3

RB RYAN MATHEWS

ATT 158

YARDS 678

REC 22

TTD 7

WR PATRICK CRAYTON

REC 28

YARDS 514

AVG 18.4

TTD 1

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 1

DE CORY LIUGET (R)

TACKLES 63

SACKS 4½

INT 0

NT ANTONIO GARAY

TACKLES 48

SACKS 5½

INT 0

DE LUIS CASTILLO

TACKLES 26

SACKS 2½

INT 0

LB SHAUN PHILLIPS

TACKLES 55

SACKS 11

INT 1

LB TAKEO SPIKES

TACKLES 109

SACKS 0

INT 3

LB DONALD BUTLER

TACKLES 0

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB LARRY ENGLISH

TACKLES 17

SACKS 3

INT 0

CB QUENTIN JAMMER

TACKLES 45

SACKS 0

INT 2

SS BOB SANDERS

TACKLES 0

SACKS 0

INT 0

FS ERIC WEDDLE

TACKLES 95

SACKS ½

INT 2

CB ANTOINE CASON

TACKLES 67

SACKS 0

INT 4

DB MARCUS GILCHRIST (R)

TACKLES 60

SACKS 0

INT 1

SPECIALISTS

K NATE KAEDING

FG 23

FGA 28

XP 40

PTS 109

P MIKE SCIFRES

PUNTS 52

GROSS 46.7

NET 30.8

BOLD: Projected starter

Italic: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 9--7

September

11 Minnesota

18 at New England

25 Kansas City

October

2 Miami

9 at Denver

16 BYE

23 at N.Y. Jets

31 at Kansas City (Mon)

November

6 Green Bay

10 Oakland (Thu)

20 at Chicago

27 Denver

December

5 at Jacksonville (Mon)

11 Buffalo

18 Baltimore

24 at Detroit (Sat)

January

1 at Oakland

COACH: NORV TURNER

AGE: 59

FIFTH SEASON WITH THE CHARGERS (41--23)

He took the Chargers to the AFC Championship Game in his first season, after inheriting a club with 11 Pro Bowl players. But the arrow has been trending down ever since, with only one playoff win over the last three seasons. Normally his seat would be red hot, but Turner is viewed as G.M. A.J. Smith's guy. Still, will Turner's job be safe if the team misses the postseason for a second straight year?

SPOTLIGHT

RYAN MATHEWS, Running back

The Chargers made a bold move to get Mathews in the 2010 draft, trading up 16 spots to select him 12th overall. The Fresno State star was supposed to immediately fill the shoes of iconic running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who was released after the '09 season. That plan faltered when a right-ankle injury and a tendency to fumble limited Mathews's contribution. He finished the season with 678 yards and seven scores to rank behind undrafted teammate Mike Tolbert, who had 735 yards and 11 TDs.

This season Turner is counting on Mathews to step up and help fill the void on passing and third downs created by running back Darren Sproles's departure to New Orleans. Turner anticipates Mathews picking up many of the carries in those situations, but he also feels comfortable relying on Tolbert and fullback Jacob Hester.

There were whispers in the organization last season that Mathews needed to become more professional in his approach to his job. Eyebrows were raised in training camp when The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that he did not complete his fitness test.

When asked about Mathews's maturity level Turner said, "Some guys come in and their background is such that they're a perfect fit. Ryan came out a year early, and we knew he was a young guy. I don't think where he is from a maturity level will keep him from playing at a real high level."

PHOTOBOB ROSATO (TURNER) PHOTOTIM HEITMAN/US PRESSWIRE (SPIKES)DEMOLITION EXPERT The Chargers hope Spikes's physical presence will intimidate offenses and inspire other San Diego defenders to make more game-changing plays.
PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (MATHEWS)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)