With the Cowboys set to take on the Chargers this Saturday in San Diego, we took some time to exchange five questions with Bolts From The Blue, SB Nation's San Diego Chargers blog. John Gennaro was kind enough to answer five questions of our own; you can read my answers to his questions here.
1. The Chargers have been on the cusp of making it to the Super Bowl the past few years. What does the team need to improve in order to get over that hump?
The team needs better luck and more balance. When the team has been balanced in the past, they have been killed by injuries in the playoffs (Shawne Merriman's knee, Philip Rivers' knee, LaDainian Tomlinson's groin and/or ankle). When they've been able to avoid the January injury-bug, the team has been too one-sided (either all-offense, or last year when it was all-passing-offense) and that made it easy for the better teams in the league to attack the weaknesses.
This year's team needs to focus on improving the running game, the run defense and the pass-rush, even if those things come at the expense of one of the league's best passing-attacks and a very good secondary. If the first preseason game told us anything, it's that Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera agrees with me and has decided to send Safeties and CBs on blitzes at an alarmingly-high rate as a way to improve the run D and to get more pressure on the opposing QB.
2. What is the running back situation like with the departure of LaDainian Tomlinson? Better? Worse?
Significantly better. Anybody who watched more than a half of Chargers football over the last two years saw that LT was finished. This is a guy who's entire game (speed, cuts, spins) was based around his otherworldly balance on a football field....and he lost it. I don't know if it was too many hard hits or just his legs getting old, but Tomlinson lost his balance and therefore lost the ability to make those cuts and spins without toppling over. The common phrase uttered over the last few years was "LT, tackled by a blade of grass." In short, he was not fit to be a starting RB anymore and the Bolts were relying on him for 20+ carries a game. This is a big reason that the running game was the league's worst last year.
Ryan Mathews has shown everyone who has seen him that he is a future star. He has incredible burst, surprising speed, and may-or-may-not be constructed from high-quality concrete. The most telling play, in the first quarter against the Bears, that the running game has been improved is when Mathews was met in the backfield on the Chargers 1 yard line for what should've been a loss. Somehow, while off-balance, he managed to get his head down and knock Lance Briggs away like a gnat before scampering downfield for an 18 yard gain. That was the moment that the entire Chargers fanbase said "Wow, LT hasn't been able to do that for a few years now." Here it is on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDPMpp2e1X4
Add in the fact that the Chargers played just about the entire season without their best offensive lineman last year (Nick Hardwick), and there's plenty of reason to think the running game will be improved. It really couldn't get any worse than what it was.
3. What is the current situation with Vincent Jackson?
The situation is that there is no situation. Vincent Jackson has not signed a contract with the San Diego Chargers and therefore is not on the roster. This will most likely be the way things remain for the rest of the season, unless he's traded.
VJ wants a long-term deal and wants to be paid like one of the top 2-3 WRs in the league. The Chargers have made it very clear that, due to the uncertain situation with the CBA, they are not willing to sign long-term deals with anyone besides Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers. Also, they seem to think that both Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill are replaceable players.
I tend to think that Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense will be just fine. Like I said earlier, this should be a more-balanced attack, and the Chargers counter-acted the "departure" of Jackson by adding pass-catching TE Randy McMichael. This puts them in a situation where they have 3 TEs that can all block and are good enough receivers that they could lineup and play at WR as well. The shifts this team will put on pre-play are going to be fun to watch. It certainly won't be the high-flying, deep-passing 2009 offense, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
4. Shawne Merrimen had a disappointing season in 2009. Was it just a fluke or are Chargers fans worried?
Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Half of the Chargers fanbase will yell "He was still recovering from his injury!" while the other half screams "He's finished! He needs steroids!" It's a silly debate, but an ongoing one until Shawne gets on the field this season.
I happen to be in the first group, kindof. I think Shawne certianly was not 100% last season, even if his knee was. The year away from football got him away from "game shape", and he spent most of last season battling nagging injuries. On top of that, when I saw him last year I noticed that he was significantly bigger in his upper body than he had been previously. I think it was a case of Shawne not being able to run or play football, so he worked out as much as possible. I think this made him less flexible and took away some of his speed. When I brought up this point this season, when Merriman showed up to camp looking a lot thinner and faster and less like a bodybuilder, Shawne made a point to agree with me whole-heartedly on that being the reason for the weight-loss.
5. Who are the key Chargers players for us to look out for on Saturday?
There's a bunch. Brandon Lang is a highly touted UDFA OLB from Troy that, early in his college career, many people though was better than DeMarcus Ware. I believe injuries derailed him from reaching that potential in college, but in about a half worth of field time against the Bears he moved from the "might make the team" to "somebody is going to lose their job to him". So now there's some legitimate battling going on at OLB for everyone not named Shawne Merriman, Larry English and Shaun Phillips.
Ryan Mathews is obviously the guy in the spotlight during this preseason, but we've gone over this before. He's a beast of epic proportions.
Buster Davis is somebody to keep your eyes on, but keep your mouth shut about. Nothing will rile up a Chargers fan more than mentioning that name. If he plays (and it looks like he will), he might be awesome. He also might get hurt the first time he steps on the field. It really doesn't matter what he does, he will be watched intently and criticized for it.
I'm really interested in two guys: Darrell Stuckey and Antoine Cason. Cason is sliding into the starting CB role left by Antonio Cromartie, and a bad year from him puts him in Buster Davis' shoes. The Cowboys WRs are a significant upgrade over the Bears WRs, and I'll be watching intently to see how he handles larger WRs (like Miles Austin and Roy Williams). Stuckey is a rookie, the Chargers' 4th round pick, and has essentially been handed the starting SS spot (on 1st and 2nd downs). He missed the Bears game and will be looking to impress Chargers fans heading into the season. Look for some big hits to come from him.