Chargers Defenders on Hot Seat, Time for These Guys To Light a Fire

Mike KranzlerContributor IOctober 8, 2009

SAN DIEGO - NOVEMBER 30:  Cornerback Antonio Cromartie #31 of the San Diego Chargers walks on the field during the game with the Atlanta Falcons on November 30, 2008 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California.  The Falcons won 22-16.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

After a dreadful performance in a 38-28 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chargers GM A.J. Smith and defensive coordinator Ron Rivera have hinted at some major changes to come with the defensive lineup.

Be it through trades, demotions, or shuffling responsibilities, it seems like something big could be looming on the horizon. The trading deadline is Oct. 20, and all signs point toward some sort of major shake-up before then.

At this point, there are improvements that could be made at nearly every position, but here is an analysis of which Chargers defenders will need to step up most in order to keep their jobs:


Antonio Cromartie

All offseason, the news out of Chargers Park was that Cro was in for a bounce-back season after having a chance to heal both physically (a broken hip limited him all last season) and emotionally (at least five paternity suits in the past two years). But he still looks hesitant out on the field, giving opposing wide receivers enormous cushions off the line and committing an inordinate amount of penalties (including one that nullified his interception and touchdown last week).

He has a flair for the spectacular, but often finds himself out of position as he gambles to make game-changing interceptions. Right now, the Chargers defense needs consistency more than anything else, and he is not helping his own cause.

Coupled with the fact that 2008 No. 1 pick Antoine Cason has looked fantastic in his nickel corner role this season, Cromartie could soon lose his starting spot to his fellow first-round pick.


Shawne Merriman

Still recovering from a knee injury, it seems like someone has pulled the plug on "Lights Out." He is still nowhere near his previously explosive self, and he is now struggling with a sore groin that is hampering his recovery even more.

The Chargers' 3-4 scheme is predicated on pressuring the quarterback, and Merriman has barely sniffed an opposing backfield all season. He has mustered only eight tackles all season without a single play behind the line of scrimmage, and he is no longer the feared sackmaster he once was.

The fact that he is in the last year of his contract does not help his cause one bit, as the Chargers will likely balk at paying him the sort of money he believes he deserves. With several other players' contracts up at the end of this season, Merriman is quickly becoming a lower and lower priority on Smith's list.

2009 first-rounder Larry English has seemed to progress more with every game, which may soon make Merriman expendable. Do not be surprised to see Smith dangle him in trade talks over the next two weeks if he thinks he can get good value for the former Pro Bowler.


Jacques Cesaire

The seven-year veteran entered this season as the unquestioned starter at defensive end for the first time in his career, but has done little so far to put Chargers fans at ease. He has struggled with injuries and (along with the rest of the defensive line) has struggled to hold his ground and anchor against the run.

With Jamal Williams out for the season, it seems that they are no longer able to mask their deficiencies as well as they did when he was clogging up the middle of the line every week.

The Chargers like what they have seen so far with raw rookie Vaughn Martin, but he is nowhere near a finished product. Additionally, they traded for Travis Johnson to bolster their depth at all three positions, only to have him on the sideline for most of the time with injuries.

It is possible that the trade for Johnson might prevent Smith for making a play for another body at defensive tackle, but it is not out of the question for him to try to bring in some competition at defensive end to push Cesaire (and to a lesser extent, Luis Castillo).


Clinton Hart

Having previously been put on notice after his disappointing season last year and the drafting of Kevin Ellison out of USC, Hart managed to beat out Ellison and several younger veterans for the starting role to open the season. However, he has recently been seen as more of a caretaker for the position until Ellison (or perhaps Steve Gregory or Paul Oliver) is ready to take over as the starter later in the season.

He tends to be out of position quite a bit, and suffers major lapses in concentration and communication that lead to plays like Louis Murphy's fourth quarter touchdown reception in the Chargers' narrow victory against a woeful Raiders squad.

If no move is made here before the trading deadline, this is a position to watch in the NFL Draft, as there are several elite safeties who will be attractive to the Chargers (and just about every other team in the NFL, for that matter). It may take a significant trade, but do not be surprised if Smith tries to move heaven and earth for the right to move up and draft Tennessee's Eric Barry or USC's Taylor Mays.


When A.J. Smith makes a comment to the media, it is almost never in vain. He has left the door open for the Chargers to bring in some impact additions to the defensive lineup, and it will be a key storyline to watch for the next two weeks. But there are already some options on the Chargers' roster who may get a shot at increased playing time, so it remains to be seen how exactly Smith will shake up the roster.

But this much is obvious: The Chargers defense needs a serious shot in the arm, and this may be just the way to do so.