Chargers' Defense Shines, Offensive Line Struggles In Arizona

William RisserCorrespondent IAugust 24, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 22:  Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers is sacked by Calais Campbell #93 of the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 22, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The San Diego Chargers got their first win of the preseason, 17-6, over the defending NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals Saturday night with stifling red-zone defense, zero turnovers, and finished with no serious injuries.

So everything's great right?

Not exactly. 

If the Chargers are going to fulfill their Super Bowl aspirations, not to mention start the season strong against the AFC elite, they're going to have to get better in a number of areas.

Kickoff coverage and pass protection come to mind quickly. 

But hey, the game was televised live and Heineken Lights are only $3 at Sandbar this month, so it's hard to be overly critical. And as I mentioned, the defense excelled, Darren Sproles was making people miss as usual, and the Bolts only committed three penalties. So to be sure, a lot of good things happened as well.

By the 4th quarter, all of Sandbar's tables and chairs had been removed to make way for the throngs on the dance floor. Heineken Lights were still only $3 too. So here are some of the things I remember. 

The Good 

The passing game was on it. Precise and efficient to the tune of 69.5% complete to 12 different receivers. They went deep, over the middle and executed some pretty screen passes without throwing an interception. 

Kevin Burnett is good. Really good. He will be a difference maker in the middle of a defense that sorely lacked his physical style of play. Great instincts on diagnosing plays too. This is looking like a tremendously savvy signing by GM A.J. Smith. 

Legadu Naanee continued to show that when given the opportunity all he does is make plays. His 49-yard catch on the opening play was exhibit 1A. His line for the game, one rush for 22 yards, two catches for 54 yards and a TD, might be a regular occurrence this season. 

Rookie defensive linemen Vaughn Martin and Ogemdi Nwagbuo continue to work hard inside. With Ryon Bingham out (triceps) both will be called upon early in the season. Jamal Williams also got some snaps. 

Sproles is a game-changer. Ok, not exactly breaking news, but it's still fun to watch. On a screen pass, punt return or running it, he's a threat to go the distance every time. 

The corners were superb. Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie were just plain nasty. Jammer smothered Larry Fitzgerald, holding him without a catch for the game. Cromartie's end-zone pick of Kurt Warner, which he returned for 38 yards, was textbook. 

Overall, when you hold an accomplished passing team like the 'Cards to 47% complete, two picks and no TDs, things are working. 

The Bad

Starting strong safety Clinton Hart did himself no favors by missing multiple tackles but did snare a red-zone interception. You could tell he knew they were plays he should have made by the way he'd shake his head in disgust. And when he did make the play, he was taking the blow, not delivering it. 

With Steve Gregory out (ribs), rookie strong safety Kevin Ellison got some extra work and made the most of it. He tied Burnett for the team lead in tackles with five. 

The strong safety position is still a question mark for the moment and will continue to be until someone steps up. The tackling just has to be better. If you can't lay out a big tight-end (Heath Miller anyone?) or running back, you gotta make the tackle. 

The pass rush just didn't bring it. One sack on 38 Arizona pass plays isn't enough—not even for the preseason. I know Ron Rivera kept it pretty simple, but that's no excuse. Nobody was winning battles and bringing pressure consistently.

It also appears the expectations for Shawne Merriman's return need to be scaled back. Clearly, it's going to take some time for him to get his mojo back. 

The Ugly

The offensive line was not at it's best giving up five sacks, four while protecting Philip Rivers. Rookie third-round pick Louis Vasquez really struggled in his first NFL action.

Fooled by Darnell Dockett for a sack, Vasquez looked lost in pass protection. Kynan Forney was out (neck) giving him the start. Welcome to the NFL rookie, now don't get the franchise quarterback killed.  

But it was an equal opportunity pass rush with veteran guard Kris Dielman beaten badly by a flawless Calais Campbell swim move.

The running game underwhelmed as well. Getting stuffed on a 4th and 1 on the Arizona 1-yard line was bad. No back had a run longer than nine yards. If you take out the two receiver reverses, the running game mustered a paltry 2.9 yards per carry on 31 rushes. That is not going to get it done.

Special teams coach Steve Crosby can't be thrilled with the kickoff coverage unit after they gave up returns of an 89 and 63 yards. Cletis Gordon missed the tackle that sprung Cardinals rookie Larod Stephens-Howling on his game opening 89 yarder. 

One thing was made eminently clear on those returns: Antoine Cason is one fast mother. The speed he showcased tracking down Stephens-Howling was jaw dropping. 

Odd Bits and More

The Chargers had 34 penalty yards and lost 34 yards to sacks. 

The run defense will be tested next Saturday in Atlanta. Michael Turner, oh yeah that guy, has been sick in his first two preseason games with 13 carries, 128 yards and a TD.

After nine years with the Falcons, guard Kynan Forney should know all the best places to eat this weekend in Hotlanta.

A good number of bars in Pacific Beach and Mission Beach are NFL team specific. For instance, Guava Beach on Mission Blvd. is a Minnesota Vikings bar while Bub's on Garnet is all about the Pittsburgh Steelers.  


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