The Chargers under Norv Turner have made a mark for always being good, but brushing just close enough to greatness to whet the appetite.
Philip Rivers has been the anchor on the team, a strong-armed quarterback perfect for Turner’s Air Coryell-inspired downfield attack.
What is the difference between the team and quarterback over which Turner currently presides and the Troy Aikman-led Cowboys?
When Turner was the offensive coordinator for the Cowboys, Aikman was surrounded by pieces to help him succeed.
He had a great running back in Emmitt Smith, an overwhelming offensive line, and a defense that allowed Aikman to play with a lead.
After a disappointing 2011 season in which Rivers struggled trying to carry the club, how have GM A.J. Smith and Turner addressed the following three questions?
Is Ryan Mathews ready to become one of the NFL’s elite running backs?
Even though it was largely overshadowed by the Chargers’ struggles as a team, Mathews broke out last year. He ran for 5.5 yards per attempt in the last five games of the season and the team began looking like the offensive juggernaut of old.
Turner, who coached Ricky Williams in Miami, has made a very favorable comparison of the two backs. Although overshadowed by suspensions and detours into yoga instruction, Williams could have been a great back if not for his lack of passion.
Mathews also has the skills to be a dual-threat back: he runs very well north and south in addition to adequate speed to turn the corner. He is also a plus receiver who works well in the flats.
Mathews ended with 4.9 YPA on the year, although the Chargers were so often playing from behind that Turner did not get to lean as heavily on him as he would have liked. Mathews also recorded 50 receptions on the season, despite splitting time with Mike Tolbert and his 54 catches.
With Tolbert joining the Panthers and the Chargers’ addition of bruising fullback Le’Ron McClain, San Diego has set the table for Mathews to prove that he can become an elite NFL back. Turner prefers a workhorse running back, and the depth chart behind Mathews can perform spot duty at best.
To overcome the injury bug this season and shoulder the load, Mathews has been working to be in better shape than he ever has as a pro. By improving his strength, he also hopes to cut back on the fumbles that have plagued him his first two seasons.
A strong running game will take the pressure off Rivers to carry the offense, and open up the play-action game for the vertical attack. Malcom Floyd, Robert Meachem and Vincent Brown will take advantage of safeties over-committing to run defense. Of course, if the offense is always playing from behind it is impossible to develop the running game.
Can the defensive front seven crank up the pressure on opposing offenses?
While the Chargers’ defensive backfield plays tight man coverage, the anemic pass rush allowed opposing quarterbacks to take plenty of time in the pocket to wait for an opening.
The usually solid Shaun Phillips was bitten by the injury bug and Larry English has failed to convert his first-round potential into production. As San Diego revamps their linebacking corps, English will see the chopping block without a strong camp.
The bright side in 2011 was the play of Antonio Garay, a penetrating nose tackle who can split double teams, and Cam Thomas, another nose tackle who excels at run stuffing. Thomas was often used in tandem with Garay in four man fronts. Antwan Barnes had a breakout year at outside linebacker, but is better utilized as a pure speed rusher. He can get up the field playing with his hand in the dirt or standing.
The first round draft pick of Melvin Ingram is a perfect move for new defensive coordinator John Pagano. Ingram can play outside linebacker, middle linebacker, and can rush from anywhere on the defensive line. He will be a match-up nightmare, used to attack the weaknesses of an offense in multiple ways, much like John’s brother Chuck used Terrell Suggs in Baltimore.
Speaking of Baltimore, the Chargers signed outside linebacker Jarrett Johnson from the Ravens, an underrated signing. Although Johnson struggles to rush the passer, he excels setting the edge against the run. He will be able to split time with Barnes, allowing both to concentrate on their strengths.
Look for San Diego to continue to run a hybrid defense – a Pagano specialty – with the success they had rushing the passer in four man fronts last season. Barnes has the speed to run around offensive tackles, and Travis LaBoy has experience rushing with his hand in the dirt from his time in Tennessee.
Last year’s first round selection, Corey Liuget, might be better suited to play the 3-technique defensive tackle in a 4-3 than a 5-technique in a 3-4, anyway.
If the defense can slow down opposing offenses, Rivers can play with a lead or smaller deficit later in games. He will be able to eliminate turnovers caused by forcing passes in desperation, and the offense can spend more time running the ball.
Will the offensive line show sufficient improvement to carry the Bolts' offense back to elite status?
Already in a poor state, the Chargers’ offensive line went through a sea of change last year due to injuries. Marcus McNeil, a formerly dominant left tackle, finally succumbed to the chronic back injuries that plagued him throughout his career.
Pro Bowl guard Kris Dielman suffered a concussion against the Jets in October. The after-effects included a seizure which caused Dielman to call it a career.
To compensate for the loss of McNeil, the Chargers claimed tackle Jared Gaither off waivers from the Chiefs. The mercurial tackle played only one snap for the Chiefs after an up and down career with Baltimore.
Gaither finished the season playing at a pro-bowl-caliber level, contributing to San Diego’s eventual improvement. After moving back to the left side of the line in San Diego, Gaither has responded by playing at the level he was at before being displaced by Michael Oher.
The only significant move in free agency along the offensive line was to sign right tackle Mario Henderson from the Raiders. Henderson has a great deal of untapped potential, although tapping just a portion of that potential would unseat incumbent right tackle Jeromey Clary.
The Chargers were pleased with the performance of Tyronne Green at left guard after losing Dielman. The presence of Nick Hardwick leading the line at center enables his neighboring guards to play at a higher level.
The men in the trenches must continue to build upon the late-season improvement in their play and keep Rivers upright. Their deficiencies in run blocking can be negated by Ryan Mathews’ outstanding vision and ability to accelerate through the smallest amount of daylight.
For Rivers to be successful in the Norv Turner offense, however, he must keep his eyes downfield during long-developing routes, which is difficult under pressure. Although statistically the offensive line did not give up a very large amount of sacks, Rivers was often forced to check down before routes could develop downfield. Pressure also prevented Rivers from stepping into throws, causing underthrown balls and interceptions.
The line must continue the improvement that it showed towards the end of last season. Keep Rivers clean and the Chargers can make it back to the postseason. If not, Rivers will once again watch the playoffs on television.