Re-Charged: San Diego's Defense Poised To Regain Form

William RisserCorrespondent IAugust 3, 2009

SAN DIEGO - SEPTEMBER 07:  Linebacker Shawne Merriman #56 of the San Diego Chargers sets on the line of scrimmage against the Carolina Panthers on September 7, 2008 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Panthers won 26-24.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

I confess, I love defense. Watching a really great defense dismantle an opponent into utter submission is one of my favorite things. And I've got to tell you, the San Diego Chargers have the potential to be a seriously dominant defensive unit this season.

Training camp has opened and everyone is healthy and hungry after a roller coaster 2008 season. Ron Rivera brings new focus as well as credentials in his first Chargers camp as defensive coordinator.

The man was on the '85 Bears; they were animals racking up 64 sacks and 34 interceptions. Not much more needs to be said there.

But Rivera, in his entire nine-year career in Chicago, only started five of the 137 games he played in. And those were in his next to last season. Sounds like the consummate team player to me.

I don't expect the schemes to be too exotic seeing as Rivera is only in his first full season at the helm of San Diego's defense, but he's got to be drooling over the vast abilities of the players he has to tinker with.

The Chargers will still run a base 3-4, but will incorporate some 4-3 looks to mix up coverages and send pressure from wherever a la the Ravens and Eagles when called for.

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It's not an easy scheme to execute but the Chargers have the unique personnel that can make it work. And when it works, it's a beautifully orchestrated chaos even the best offenses can't contend with.

Fortunately, the Bolts defenders will be able to simply beat the man in front of him most days. They're that talented. Now they're driven, too.

Everything starts with the big boys up front and expands through each layer of the defense. Run stuffing defensive linemen Jamal Williams and Luis Castillo will continue to make life miserable for opposing offensive lines. Throw in the recently drafted 6-4, 320 lb. man-child known as Vaughn Martin and the group has a far more brutish feel than previous years.

Inside linebackers Stephen Cooper, out of Maine of all places, and newly promoted Tim Dobbins can better diagnose where the play is going and get to the ball with the guards and center tied up. Cooper had a breakout season and should continue to improve and inspire teammates.

The release of longtime Charger Matt Wilhelm elevated the emerging Dobbins on the depth chart. This just adds another playmaker and more athleticism.

Also, the addition of linebacker Kevin Burnett from Dallas will give the defense some much needed versatility in coverage against tight ends which was a problem spot last season.

And we all know about the bookend outside linebackers. The blue hair and twitter rantings aside,  Shawne Merriman's return after knee surgery really does elevate the defense. The attention he will again garner will give Shaun Phillips better match-ups rushing the passer.

Although Merriman will be doubled, tripled and chip blocked mercilessly, he will still destroy pockets, blow up backs and crush quarterbacks despite it all. Just a joy to watch. 

After having to step into Merriman's shoes last year on the weak-side, Phillips will be back on the strong-side a more experienced and versatile defender. That, and the experience Jyles Tucker got at Phillips' spot last season provides depth few will be able to stop.

And we can't forget the drafting of Larry English in the First Round. The former defensive end is being converted to outside linebacker which adds even more firepower. The shift from three-point stance to a two-point stance playing in space is always a tricky adjustment but I expect English to flourish with mentors like Merriman and Phillips.

With such a formidable front seven wreaking havoc, the secondary will once again be able to prey on passers who are constantly under duress. Last season the secondary was in disarray dropping to 31st in the league against the pass from 14th the previous season. Interceptions also fell off a staggering 50 percent, from 30 to 15.

Antonio Cromartie's healthy hip will be a big reason for the resurgence at corner for sure. Combined with sage veteran Quentin Jammer and the blossoming Antoine Cason, the AFC West quarterbacks are going to be in some trouble.

Safety is the one spot on the defense that doesn't have a freakish specimen. That said, free safety Eric Weddle is a cerebral player that's always in the right place (well, except on a particularly important punt return coverage in the playoffs) and led the team in tackles with 127.

It's the strong safety spot that is more a of a question mark at this point. Kevin Ellison was drafted out of USC and embattled starter Clinton Hart is going to be pushed by the persistent Steve Gregory for time. It's the most depth at the position in some time and the competition will only help make the secondary better.

New quarterbacks, coaches and coordinators litter the Chargers division which should make for some easy picks and numerous sacks. Not to mention keeping Philip Rivers and Co. on the field.

Now, while numbers are nice, the real dividends will be payed in wins and better playoff seeding. Making the other AFC contenders travel to glorious San Diego on the road to the Super Bowl should be great motivation. Well that, and not having to go to Pittsburgh or Foxboro in January.

They will also have a chance to see firsthand how they measure up against the leagues best defenses. Facing the Ravens, Steelers, Titans, Giants, Eagles and Cowboys will be challenges that will pump up the defense.

But for now it's just the beginning of training camp and all the pieces are still being assembled. Merriman's knee is being watched closely and Cromartie's hip has had no set-backs which is to say everything is on schedule.

There is a sense that this collection of players might be a special group but nobody wants to jinx it early. Last season was too much of a struggle when previously it was seemingly effortless.

That seems to have had a humbling effect that will provide hunger and focus, which I expect to result in some devastating defensive plays. And I for one, will be looking forward to a season full of them.