They may have had injury problems; they may have had awful luck. But at the end of the day, 8-8 is 8-8. However, changes in schemes and personnel should see the Bolts improve on their .500 record.
Lets start on the defensive end, where the Chargers’ numbers declined as much as any team in the league. While a midseason promotion for Ron Rivera brought some toughness back to the unit, there’s still some work to be done.
Shawne Merriman’s return to the mix should get the Chargers’ pass rush back to the league’s elite. With Merriman healthy his first three years, the Chargers totaled 46, 61 and 42 sacks. Last year, without him, they could only muster 28.
We hear the phrase so often: A dominant player makes everyone around them better. That’s Merriman. Without him, Shaun Phillips totaled just 7.5 sacks, while Luis Castillo registered just 1.5 in 15 ineffective games.
Following the mantra, “you can never have enough pass rush,” General Manager A.J. Smith pulled off one of the surprises of the first round, landing Northern Illinois’ Larry English with the 16th overall pick. But how will he be used?
Ideally, Rivera would love to get the trio of Merriman, English and Phillips after the quarterback on passing downs. But since English is a bit undersized for a 5-technique lineman in the 3-4, we could see the bigger Merriman playing defensive end on some downs. When asked about English, San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke said he “blitzed from 20 different areas” in order to find a weakness.
Two interesting additions to watch are former Cowboy Kevin Burnett and 6th round pick Kevin Ellison, a hard-hitting safety out of USC.
In 2008, the Chargers relinquished 213 first downs through the air, the worst in the NFL. Most of these plays came on quick, inside throws to slot receivers and tight ends.
The Chargers hope Burnett, a coverage linebacker, can help alleviate that problem. Ellison fell in the draft due to a history of knee injuries, but has the tools to be a physical run stuffer. Clinton Hart will need to rebound from a lousy ’08 or Ellison might start seeing some of his reps.
Offensively, the Chargers will resemble the strong attack of a year ago, with a couple of new additions. Right guard Mike Goff was not resigned and is now in Kansas City. This has opened up a competition between former Falcon Kynan Forney and 3rd round pick Louis Vasquez out of Texas Tech. The 30-year-old Forney was a key blocker for the DVD trio of Dunn, Vick and Duckett in Atlanta and the Bolts will need him to carry that nastiness over to this line, which played soft for most of 2008.
We know all about Philip Rivers’ great 2008 season, but most of the Bolts’ moves on the offensive side of the ball indicate a desire to get back to the basics of pounding the ball.
Forney and Vasquez are both plus run blockers, with the big rookie being described as a guy with a major mean streak. For an o-line that looked tentative last year, a bit of nastiness may be just what the doctor ordered.
Despite all the issues, LaDainian Tomlinson still put together an 1100 yard season with 11 touchdowns. Is he the same back he was five years ago? Probably not. But he’s not chopped liver either. With a healthy toe and better blocking up front, LT should be closer to his norm of 1500 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Darren Sproles’ ridiculous finish to the 2008 season underscores the need for Turner to actually share the load among his backs. Both Michael Turner and Darren Sproles have been keys to past Charger teams, but still only got 5-10 touches a game. Between carries and catches, Sproles touched the ball 80 times on offense during the regular season. And while the Bolts need to keep Sproles fresh for special teams duty, I’d still like to see him closer to 150 offensive touches.
The Chargers missed Michael Turner's bruising, physical style a year ago. So they used a 4th round pick on Colorado State’s Gartrell Johnson, who rushed for over 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns. His stock rose after racking up 375 total yards against Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. Johnson won’t see many carries, but should be a nice change of pace behind the shifty Tomlinson and Sproles.
One of the Chargers’ more confusing offseason storylines is the 3rd wide receiver position.
Malcom Floyd averaged over 17 yards a catch last season, but the restricted free agent has been skipping offseason workouts. He’s a major upgrade over guys like Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis, but a slot receiver is not the guy who should be pulling this kind of power play.
Overall, I think we’re going to see a lot of explosiveness by the Bolts in ’09. But unlike last year, I think it’s going to come from both sides of the ball.
Nearly all of the Bolts’ moves, whether it was through free agency or the draft, were designed to make the team more physical and bruising. What better way to see their toughness than Monday Night Football against the Raiders? Kickoff is less than four months away!