The San Diego Chargers' defense headed into the 2008 season with high expectations. The team was loaded with Pro Bowlers and playmakers, able to stuff the run, sack the quarterback, and force turnovers at an alarming rate.
But expectations and performance don't always coincide, and what was supposed to be a strength became a liability. The Chargers limped to a 3-5 start due mainly to a defense that played uninspired at best, horrific at worst. They were so bad that defensive coordinator Ted Cotrell was relieved of his duties at the midway point.
The man who took over, and who will lead the unit in '09, is Ron Rivera. Rivera has guided one defense to a Super Bowl, and looks to double that number this year.
Helping Rivera will be a couple of former assistants from Chicago in Don Johnson (defensive line) and Steve Wilks (secondary). The team will also benefit from two pass-rushers in the lineup—the return of three-time Pro Bowler Shawne Merriman and first-round draft pick Larry English.
So how will the Chargers return to their nasty ways on defense? Let's explore how a full training camp under Rivera, along with the additions to the coaching staff and roster will tweak the Chargers playbook in '09.
Ron Rivera worked for some of the best defensive minds in football, including Buddy Ryan as a player, Jimmy Johnson of the Eagles, and Lovie Smith of the Bears as an assistant coach. He is well-versed in virtually every defensive scheme.
Rivera will keep the base 3-4 defense in San Diego. What will change is some of the techniques used to better use the strengths of his players.
With the addition of line coach Johnson, expect less two-gap technique, where defensive linemen are responsible for containing both gaps to either side of them. San Diego's linemen strength is speed, so expect to see them lined up more frequently in the gaps, penetrating into the backfield, similar to how defensive linemen in a 4-3 defense play.
Under Cotrell, the defensive backs played a lot of cover three zone and off-man coverage, allowing receivers a free release at the line of scrimmage. San Diego's cornerbacks are big and physical.
Rivera and Wilks will put more emphasis on press coverage, both man and cover two zone, where the corners challenge the receivers at the line of scrimmage, trying to disrupt their routes and buying time for the pass-rushers. Defensive backs will also get more blitz opportunities under Rivera and Wilks.
Other changes will occur in sub packages, both nickel and dime packages. Under Cotrell, the Chargers used a straight four-man rush, with Phillips and Merriman lining up at defensive end in a three-point stance.
Too often this allowed better offensive lines to get in the proper blocking assignments, and for backs and tight ends to get chip-blocks on Merriman and Phillips.
Rivera knows he has a wealth of pass-rushers in Merriman, Phillips, Tucker, Applewhite, and now English. Instead of lining up four guys that can be easily spotted, expect Rivera to use three and four of his pass-rushers at the same time, with only one or two defensive linemen in obvious pass situations.
Sometimes two will come, sometimes four will come, but offensive linemen will have a difficult time figuring out which ones are coming and from where.
The Chargers will remain a 3-4 defense, despite speculation to the contrary. What Rivera and his assistants will do is incorporate some of those defensive techniques from the blitzing 4-3 and Tampa 2 into the 3-4 base.
Many of these techniques, such as gap penetration and press coverage, better suit the strengths of San Diego's defenders. Rivera wants a defense that is fast, aggressive, and physical, and he has the players to do it.