When the San Diego Chargers fired Ted Cotrell last year, it was a signal that the defense wasn’t doing enough—even without Shawne Merriman.
Through the first eight games, the Chargers were ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed and 23rd in points allowed per game.
San Diego’s defense had just six interceptions and 16 sacks through the first half of the year.
Cotrell had to go—and in stepped Ron Rivera, a defensive mind that many think could be an NFL head coach.
Rivera came to the Chargers after a three-year stint as the Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator. He was the guy in charge of the ferocious Bears’ defense when they went to the Super Bowl in 2005 season—the year the team ranked second in the NFL in total defense.
He brought an aggressive style—formed in his days as a Bears linebacker in the 1980s, when he won a Super Bowl.
Many were hoping for a miracle after Rivera took the helm—hoping to restore what was once one of the most feared defenses in 2006 and 2007.
San Diego did improve, finishing the year as the 26th best team against the pass. However, the defense still allowed the second-most points in the league at the regular season’s end.
But, Rivera was unable to completely change the mindset and put his stamp on the Chargers’ defense.
That should change with the defense getting a full offseason under Rivera—giving him the ability to instill his character and defensive acumen to the team.
What should happen? Look for this team to get more aggressive. Look for this team to get back to being a top 10 team against the pass and in sacks.
The year that Rivera led the Bears' defense in a Super Bowl run, they were the second-best team in the NFL against the pass, they sacked the quarterback 41 times, and were second in the NFL in interceptions.
But Rivera shouldn’t be alone in what could be a turnaround for the Chargers' defense this year.
Merriman does come back—and brings his fire, intensity and—most importantly—his 39.5 sacks back to the field.
Merriman is the type of game changer the Chargers missed on defense last year.
He commands double and triple teams, can often fight through those to get pressure on the quarterback, and has so much intensity that he still fired up the defense when he was injured the whole of last year.
In other words, San Diego was operating without its heart and soul on defense.
Place him back in the Chargers' lineup—hopefully with a more aggressive scheme—and it is a totally different defense from last year.
San Diego is also committed to putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Larry English—while he may be a backup plan if Merriman decides to leave after this year—gives the Chargers an extra rush specialist to spell either Merriman or Shaun Phillips.
English had 31.5 sacks in his tenure with Northern Illinois—a school record.
"We need to bring pressure and this is a guy that can bring the heat—physical, nasty, great presence," general manager A.J. Smith told the Union-Tribune in April. "We're going to put him in the mix, give him to coach Rivera and turn him loose."
San Diego should not be the same team it was last year. The defense should remind fans of the defenses put on the field by Wade Phillips.
With Rivera, the addition of English and Merriman’s return—opposing quarterbacks should be having nightmares on Sundays next season.