By Dan Durkin-
A weekly glimpse at the Bears’ upcoming opponent. This week: San Diego.
(CBS) Every season, the San Diego Chargers seem to do less with more. In 2010, the Chargers ranked number one in both total offense and total defense, yet missed the playoffs. The 2011 Chargers find themselves in the top ten in both total offense and defense, yet are in the midst of a four-game skid, making this weekend’s match-up against the Bears a must-win game.
Head coach Norv Turner is about as popular in San Diego as Ron Burgundy was after his teleprompter slip. The Chargers’ formula under Turner has been to sleepwalk through the first half of the season, wake up and remember you play in the AFC West, dominate down the stretch, and then fall short in the playoffs.
This season, the Chargers flipped-the-script, winning four of their first five games, and entered their bye-week atop the AFC West looking like a legitimate AFC powerhouse. Astute football fans, however, noted that all four of the Chargers wins came against teams with a combined one victory at the time (Vikings, Chiefs, Dolphins, Broncos), indicating that the Chargers really weren’t as strong as their record suggested. Their play since their Week 6 bye supports that, as this team has more questions than answers.
Losses to the Jets and Packers are understandable, but losing to the Chiefs on the road and then the Raiders at home is unacceptable. Star quarterback Philip Rivers shoulders a lot of the blame during this rough patch, throwing more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (seven), and leading an amateur two-minute drill on a potential game-winning drive against the Jets.
Rivers has been a model of consistency, notching three straight 4,000-yard seasons, including 4,710 last season – the 10th highest total in NFL history – making it hard to figure out exactly what has changed. Injuries certainly have played a part, as key contributors like running back Ryan Mathews and tight end Antonio Gates have missed time due to nagging injuries.
For years, Gates’ combination of size, strength, and speed made him a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses. He’s been too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs, drawing double coverage over the top and opening up down-field strikes to star wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Now, perhaps Gates is too fat for the Chargers. Gates looks slow, struggles to gain separation from defenders, and goes down on initial contact.
Make no mistake about it, this is still a deadly offense. The Chargers have no issues moving the ball in-between the 20’s, their issues have come in the red-zone, where they’ve been careless with the ball, and far too often settle for field goals. The Chargers patience on offense will be tested by the technique-sound Bears defense, a unit that is typically stingy in the red-zone. Obviously, there is too much pressure on Rivers and the offense to be perfect each week, as the defense leaves little margin for error.
Losing former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to the Carolina Panthers has impacted the Chargers defense, both in style and production. Outside of outside linebacker Shaun Phillips (who is dealing with a foot injury), the Chargers really struggle to put pressure on the quarterback.
The Chargers front seven features several local ties, from former NIU Huskie and first-round bust Larry English, former Bears Antonio Garay and Tommie Harris, and former Illini defensive tackle Corey Liuget. When Antonio Garay is your team’s most productive defensive lineman, you have issues.
The Chargers do have a few playmakers in the back-seven of their defense. Second-year linebacker Donald Butler has been a pleasant surprise for the Chargers. Butler lost his rookie season to a torn Achilles, but has been a strong tackler who plays with grit, and has registered the Chargers only defensive touchdown of the season. All-Pro safety Eric Weddle’s five interceptions lead the NFL.
To drudge up a bit of bad Bears draft history, in 2007, the Bears traded the second-round pick they obtained in the Thomas Jones trade to San Diego who selected Weddle, while the Bears chose defensive end Dan Bazuin. Weddle has gone on to become a perennial All-Pro, while Bazuin has never played a snap in the NFL. Ouch.
While the popular refrain is to make Turner the scapegoat for the Chargers failings, general manager AJ Smith is just as much to blame. Four seasons ago, the Chargers had LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, and Darren Sproles on their roster. Now they have none of them. Making things worse, Smith let all of them walk in free-agency, receiving no compensation.
Smith’s failures extend to the defensive side of the ball as well, as the last impact player he selected was Weddle in the ’07 draft. Considering talent acquisition is Smith’s job, he’s in just as much of a rut as his team, and there is a correlation between the two.
Despite all the negativity surrounding the Chargers, they are still a dangerous team. Their enigmatic play makes them a difficult team to root for, but also a difficult team to prepare for. In the end, I think the Bears will be able to get pressure without blitzing (especially if Marcus McNeil doesn’t play), bracket Vincent Jackson to force someone else to beat them, establish the running game with Matt Forte, and come out of Sunday’s game victorious.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball:
Bears Interior Offensive Line vs. Chargers Defensive Tackles: Losing offensive guard Chris Williams (wrist surgery) for the season hurts the Bears. While the line was pushed around last weekend against the Lions, they had started to build some chemistry and continuity, so reshuffling the deck with Edwin Williams bears watching. Granted, the Chargers aren’t stout on the defensive line, but I expect them to blitz the A and B gaps often to test the Bears communication and preparation.
What to watch for when the Chargers have the ball:
Cornerback Charles Tillman vs. Wide Receiver Vincent Jackson: Charles Tillman has always been overlooked on the Bears defense, lost behind Urlacher, Briggs, and Peppers. This season, Tillman is playing at a Pro-Bowl level, and his performances the past two games have been nearly perfect. Over the past two weeks, Tillman has been tasked with following a particular receiver around the field, which is a departure from the typical Lovie Smith game plan. This weekend, I’m assuming the Bears will match him up against the ultra-talented Vincent Jackson. This will be a great battle to watch, as Jackson is a rare combination of size and strength, enabling him to out-muscle you or beat you deep.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.