The San Diego Chargers have been bitten hard by the injury bug in 2013. First, it was the wide receivers, but at least the team had depth at the position. The Chargers didn't have as much depth on the offensive line or in the secondary, but those injuries also haven't been season-ending.
In terms of the drop-off from the starter to the backups, none of the injuries have been nearly as severe as losing pass-rusher Dwight Freeney. The Chargers placed Freeney on injured reserve on Tuesday with a torn quad, ending his season, according to the team's official website.
San Diego's defense was in rough shape even with Freeney in the lineup, so trying to survive without him is going to be extremely tough. The Chargers will need Larry English to play better than he ever has before, with rookie Tourek Williams and the recently signed Thomas Keiser to play key roles.
"Anytime you lose a great player like Dwight Freeney, it's a blow to your football team," head coach Mike McCoy said, via the team's official website. "When you lose one of the greatest players of all-time on your team with an injury like that during a game, it's tough."
There's no doubt that Freeney's loss will be tough on the Chargers. Freeney was having a great start to his season with 19 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The only 3-4 outside linebacker with more pressures than Freeney is Kansas City's Tamba Hali, and he is tied with four players who have played a full four games.
To put it into perspective, Freeney has 11.1 percent of the team's sacks, 42.9 percent of their quarterback hits and 29.4 percent of the team's quarterback hurries this season. In total, Freeney has 28.4 percent of the team's total pressures in 2013, despite playing only half the snaps he normally would in Week 4.
Trying to find even two or three players who can produce 9.5 percent of the team's pressures on their own is going to be extremely difficult. The candidates the Chargers have to replace Freeney also lack the talent to make anyone forget about him.
Keiser had a good preseason as a pass-rusher and was signed from the team's practice squad to take Freeney's spot on the roster. Williams has primarily played on special teams, but received 11 snaps as a pass-rusher after Freeney went down last week and didn't have a single pressure, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
English is rushing more than he has since 2010 and playing more snaps than he has in his entire career to this point. He'll be expected to play even more with Williams and Keiser giving him some occasional relief.
There just aren't a lot of good options to replace a player like Freeney, and the Chargers were especially vulnerable with the lack of depth or quality pass-rushers on the team.
If there is good news for the Chargers, it's that English has actually been a productive pass-rusher in 2013. English has a sack, a quarterback hit and seven hurries this season on 74 pass-rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
However, Pro Football Focus also has given English the second-worst pass-rush grade on the team this year (minus-2.0). That doesn't bode well for his continued production as a pass-rusher, and the Chargers may have to lean more heavily on Keiser and Williams.
The Collaborative Approach
Outside of Freeney's obvious replacements, the Chargers may need to lean more on the defensive line and secondary. The secondary is dealing with its own issues, but the defensive line has not played as well as expected.
Defensive ends Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget have struggled to apply much pressure on opposing quarterbacks like they did last season. Reyes and Liuget combined for 12.5 sacks in 2012, but only have two between them in four games in 2013; they are 4.5 sacks off their pace from a year ago.
Perhaps, Liuget and Reyes were not ever as good as advertised as pass-rushers because they combined for 5.0 sacks last season against the New York Jets. It was quarterback Greg McElroy's one and only career start, and it came in San Diego.
Remove those five sacks and the two would roughly be on pace to replicate their 2012 performance. In all fairness, 3-4 ends are not always the greatest pass-rushers, but the Chargers will need to get more of it from their young ends. If the Chargers can't get a little more out of everyone on defense, their pass defense is going to be exposed all year.
Good Offense the Best Defense?
Quarterback Philip Rivers is having a bounce-back year, so far, and even more of the weight for the team's success is about to be placed on his shoulders. Scoring early and often is going to help the defense more than anything, but close games are asking for trouble.
When the Chargers offense has left the door open for opponents, the defense hasn't been able to slam it shut. The Chargers have to start scoring earlier in games to take the pressure off a bad defense without Freeney.
Avoiding situations where the defense has to make a late stop for the team to win is going to be necessary, but the Chargers have only managed to do that once this season. Failure to put the Houston Texans or Tennesse Titans away, when the offense had the opportunity, exposed their defense and resulted in two losses.
Since the start of 2011, teams that have a two-score lead at halftime are 226-32, a .876 winning percentage. The Chargers are 10-4 (.714 winning percentage) over that span, but also the only team with four losses.
Getting early leads usually makes things easier for the defense, and that translates into more wins. A two-score lead after the first quarter over the last three years has translated to a 98-14 record, which is a .872 winning percentage which is nearly identical to the winning percentage when leading at the half.
The Chargers offense has hidden the defensive weakness, so far this season, but they will have to get even better to make up for a defense without Freeney. The offense has already been beyond what anyone expected, so that could be a tough task.
Even a slight dip could be very damaging to the Chargers because their poor defensive numbers are nearly cancelling out their great offensive numbers at this point.
A big part of the reason the team is 2-2 instead of 4-0 right now is because of the defense with Freeney, so the thought of going without him is going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the offense just as much as his backups and the players who play around him.
The Chargers will certainly try to cover up for the loss of Freeney, but outside of Rivers, he was probably the only guy on the roster who was irreplaceable during the season. The Chargers won't be able to rely on any one guy to replace Freeney and will have to use every strategy they can to make sure his loss goes unnoticed.