Offense wins games, defense wins championships.
Last April, no one had this mantra in mind more so than Chargers GM AJ Smith. Possessing eight picks going into the 2009 NFL Draft, Smith utilized five—and two of his first three—on defensive players in an effort to shore up his unit, which ranked in the bottom third in 2008 for many key defensive stats, including total yards allowed and touchdowns allowed through the air.
An on-the-fly adjustment was attempted midway through last season when defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was fired in favor of former Bears assistant Ron Rivera. The performance of the unit improved slightly, but still displayed several holes along the season en route to being dismantled by Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.
With the departure of DE Igor Olshansky and the acquisition of MLB Kevin Burnett from Dallas, some interesting personnel combinations are lining up for San Diego that will most likely include some of those 2009 draft-day selections.
But, concretely, what can be expected to change between the 2008 defense and 2009's version?
- QB Pressure: Smith could not make it more apparent that he was dissatisfied with the team's attack when he decided to employ his 1st round pick on Northern Illinois LB/DE Larry English.
No Shawne Merriman for 15 games last season meant a sharp decline in the team's sack numbers (ranking 22nd in the league with 28 total), which allowed teams to exploit the Charger secondary at will.
The team's flexible 3-4 formation on defense will allow potentially for Merriman, LB Shaun Phillips and English to be on the field at the same time, creating matchup problems for blockers and headaches for quarterbacks through blitzing schemes tailored to English's speed, Phillips' footwork, and Merriman's raw power.
- An Improved Secondary: Dissatisfied with the soft play of SS Clinton Hart, Smith drafted former second team All-American S Kevin Ellison (USC) in the sixth round of the draft in order to assure a more dominant presence over the middle of the field.
Last season, the aforementioned lack of pressure on the quarterback meant a greater workload for San Diego's back line.
Furthermore, injuries to All-Pro CB Antonio Cromartie hampered the unit's ability to limit the passing game. Oregon CB Brandon Hughes was selected to bolster the secondary, joining Antoine Cason, Cromartie, Quentin Jammer and Cletis Gordon.
Jammer's tough, physical play contrasts with Cromartie's speedy, athletic style. Neither found much success last season as offenses picked them apart.
Much like Merriman, a return to form for Cromartie could signal an immediate improvement for San Diego and make opposing offenses think twice about picking on a passing defense that allowed 247.4 yards per game through the air (31st in the NFL).
- Shoring up the Inside Linebacking Corps: In 2008, San Diego brought in veteran Derek Smith to partner up with Stephen Cooper (who missed the first four games due to suspension) and Matt Wilhelm.
At the end of the season, Smith had been cut from the team, Wilhelm had been benched and Tim Dobbins had emerged as the other starter aside Cooper. Despite missing time, Cooper led the linebackers in tackles with 98, recording 1.5 sacks and picking off 4 passes.
However, the inconsistency from the other ILB spot prompted the team to sign former Cowboy Kevin Burnett to help out. Burnett is a speedy, versatile player who is expected to help out against the run and the pass in covering a lot of ground.
- Conclusion: After ranking 25th overall in the NFL in yards allowed (just one season removed from being 14th and two seasons from being in the top 10), San Diego made adjustments to shore up their secondary and their inside linebackers.
In the business of pressure play, the Chargers saw their sack numbers deplete from 41 total in 2007 to 28 last season and look to Larry English and a healthy Shawne Merriman to improve.
With defensive coordinator Ron Rivera well known throughout the league as an aggressive signal caller, San Diego's defensive look will change significantly from a soft unit that allows offenses to set the momentum of play, to a disruptive force that dictates what happens on the field.
A.J. Smith hopes that with these movements, the clear emphasis on bettering the defense will uphold the mantra, and end the 2009-10 season with a parade in downtown San Diego.