Shawne Merriman's Injury Impact Biggest of All

Alex MarvezCorrespondent IOctober 29, 2008

As San Diego routed New England earlier this month, the Patriots were clearly more affected by Tom Brady's absence than a Chargers squad playing without Shawne Merriman.

In the big picture, that isn't the case.

No offense to Tom Terrific, the decade's top quarterback and reigning NFL Most Valuable Player. New England's odds of reaching a second consecutive Super Bowl plummeted when Brady went down with a mangled knee in the season opener against Kansas City.

But when identifying the sidelined star whose injury has hurt his team most through the first half of the season, Merriman best fits the bill.

The Tuesday firing of Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell reinforces the claim.

The final straw for Cottrell came when San Diego failed to register a sack—let alone a good hit—on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees in last Sunday's 37-32 loss to the Saints. Once Merriman underwent season-ending knee surgery following Week One, Cottrell could never find a way to compensate for what the hulking outside linebacker brings to a defense besides outstanding leadership.

Even with the less-heralded Matt Cassel replacing Brady, the Patriots still have a skill-position player (Randy Moss) who draws consistent double teams. None of San Diego's pass rushers command nearly the same respect as Merriman, who averaged 13 sacks in his first three NFL seasons.

Opposing offenses were forced to structure their game plans around him. At 6'4" and 272 pounds, Merriman was big enough to stuff the run and fast enough to snare running backs from behind when teams attacked the opposite side.

Merriman's impact in the passing game was even greater. Rather than immediately release into patterns, running backs had to hover in the pocket waiting to chip a rushing Merriman. Tackles would often need further blocking help by guards when Merriman would come storming from the perimeter. All the attention Merriman received would create opportunities for others.

Jyles Tucker, Merriman's inexperienced replacement, doesn't generate the same respect. He also has missed three games with a hamstring injury.

Note the tepid production of the two Chargers aligned in front and to the opposite side of where Merriman played. Right defensive end Luis Castillo has a ho-hum 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits and four tackles for losses in eight games. Left outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, who averaged 10 sacks the past two seasons, has notched only 3.5.

The problems have trickled down to a struggling secondary, where cornerback Antonio Cromartie isn't playing at the same high level as he was during last year's breakthrough season. While the Chargers have the same number of sacks (17) as they did at this point in 2007, San Diego fields the NFL's lowest-rated pass defense.

In comparison, New England's offense ranks No. 23 in passing and No. 19 overall under Cassel. Despite having taken 28 sacks largely because of indecisiveness, Cassel has completed a Brady-like 65.8 percent of his throws with more touchdowns (seven) than interceptions (six).

The most important numbers, though, are wins and losses. Even with a middle-of-the-pack defense, New England (5-2) is tied with Buffalo for the AFC East lead. The Chargers have the NFL's 11th-ranked offense but are the NFL's most disappointing team at 3-5.

New England's coaching staff deserves credit for tweaking an offensive system run masterfully by Brady to cover for Cassel's inexperience and weaknesses. This is what Chargers coach Norv Turner hopes will happen to his defense after replacing Cottrell with linebackers coach Ron Rivera.

During a season and a half in San Diego, one of the biggest internal knocks on Cottrell was the belief he didn't best utilize the strengths of his personnel. For example, Cottrell had Merriman and Phillips drop into coverage more frequently than blitz-happy predecessor Wade Phillips.

With input from outside linebackers coach and 3-4 specialist John Pagano, Rivera is expected to redefine player roles, deploy a more aggressive pass rush and trust that the secondary can hold up.

The tactics had better work. Otherwise, Merriman's nickname—"Lights Out"—will take on a whole new meaning when it comes to San Diego's postseason fate.

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