2011 San Diego Chargers preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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If Philip Rivers can stay healthy, the Chargers may finally live up to expectations. (US Presswire)  
If Philip Rivers can stay healthy, the Chargers may finally live up to expectations. (US Presswire)  

2010 RECORD: 9-7 (Second, AFC West)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to Jets, 17-14, in AFC Divisional Round

COACH (RECORD): Norv Turner (41-23 in four seasons with the Chargers, 103-109 overall)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Clarence Shelmon

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Manusky

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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 15th rushing, 2nd passing, 2nd scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 4th rushing, 1st passing, 10th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Vincent Brown (third Round, San Diego State), ILB Donald Butler (third round in 2010, Butler tore his Achilles tendon in training camp and missed the entire 2010 season), CB/KR Marcus Gilchrist (second round, Clemson), DE Corey Liuget (first round, Illinois), OLB Travis LaBoy (from 49ers), LB Jonas Mouton (second Round, Michigan), SS Bob Sanders (from Colts), ILB Takeo Spikes (from 49ers), RB Jordan Todman (sixth Round, Connecticut), CB Shareece Wright (third Round, Southern California)

KEY DEPARTURES: OLB Antwan Applewhite (to 49ers), ILB Kevin Burnett (to Dolphins), ILB Stephen Cooper (unrestricted free agent), RB-KR Darren Sproles (to Saints)

BALL SECURITY NO. 1 CONCERN: Coach Norv Turner identified improved ball security as the team's chief priority at the start of camp. In Turner's estimation, untimely turnovers were the primary reason the Chargers failed to reach the postseason last year. "In our first seven games [in 2010], we turned the ball over 18 times and we didn't create very many turnovers," Turner said. "If you are going to be a good football team, you can't turn the football over." Six of those turnovers came from the RB duo of rookie Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert (three each). Tolbert transitioned last season from FB-RB to full-time RB. The hope is that, with experience, offensive players will be better at securing the rock. And they'll get to work on that aspect against their own defense. New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is insisting that his defenders attempt to strip the ball at every opportunity. Manusky's aggressive style should help keep the Chargers positive in the takeaway vs. giveaway column.

WILL SPECIAL TEAMS BE SPECIAL? In 2010 San Diego allowed three kickoffs and one punt to be returned for touchdowns, and P Mike Scifres had four punts blocked. Throughout the season, Turner defended special teams coordinator Steve Crosby, but he promptly fired him when the season was over. General manager A.J. Smith took it upon himself to fix special teams through the draft. Six of the eight players selected were touted for their abilities to contribute to returns. New coordinator Rich Bisaccia has breathed fiery intensity and brought attention to detail to special teams in training camp. With the departure of RB-KR Darren Sproles (Saints), there's an open battle for the kick-returning and punt-returning jobs. It wouldn't be surprising if the jobs go to veterans CB Antoine Cason on kickoffs and WR Patrick Crayton on punts, but they're both key starters, so keeping them healthy is a concern. With that in mind, CB Marcus Gilchrist (second round, 50th overall), RB Jordan Todman (sixth round, 183rd overall), WR Bryan Walters (2010 undrafted free agent) and a host of others will get opportunities to win return jobs.

DEFENSIVE QUESTIONS: San Diego had the top-rated defense in the NFL in 2010, allowing only 271.6 yards per game. However, the defense frequently allowed opponents to convert third-and-long and struggled to put consistent pressure on quarterbacks. The exception: OLB Shaun Phillips, who recorded 11 sacks and earned his first Pro Bowl appearance. To address this issue, general manager A.J. Smith drafted DE Corey Liuget in the first round (18th overall). Smith's hope is that Liuget will draw double-team coverage and create opportunities for the four linebackers. Ideally, OLB Larry English, the Bolts' first-round pick in 2009, will finally reach his potential after struggling through last season with a foot injury. (He had surgery in the off-season and has yet to practice). A lot will also be expected from free-agent acquisition Travis LaBoy (49ers). Additionally, both ILB starters from last season (Kevin Burnett and Stephen Cooper) are no longer with the team. Smith signed Takeo Spikes (49ers), but Donald Butler (third round, 2010) and Jonas Mouton (second round, 50th overall) will need to step up. Butler missed last season after tearing his Achilles' tendon in training camp, and Smith was deeply criticized for selecting Mouton as early as the second-round.

WRs COMPETE FOR JOBS: San Diego had the top-rated offense in 2010, averaging 395.6 yards per game, yet the Chargers receiving corps was in chaos throughout the season. WR Vincent Jackson missed the first 12 games because of a contract dispute, and seemingly every week brought an injury to a different receiver. Franchise QB Philip Rivers managed to lead the league in passing (4,710 yards) while throwing to 17 different targets. This season Jackson signed a franchise-tender contract and all of the WRs are currently healthy, including Patrick Crayton. This creates fierce competition for the final two WR spots. Seyi Ajirotutu, Richard Goodman and Bryan Walters, all 2010 unrestricted free agents, have looked good early in training camp, with Ajirotutu the standout of the three. Vincent Brown (third round, 82nd overall), a San Diego State alum, was a popular draft choice among fans. Brown, however, has missed practices with a sore hamstring and needs to prove himself with every opportunity. Veterans Kelley Washington and newly-signed Laurent Robinson are also on the bubble.

FINAL WORD: Will this regime finally live up to expectations? It's possible, if Rivers can stay healthy. No matter what happens around him, Rivers finds ways to move the chains and get points on the board. The offense must do a better job of hanging on to the ball, the defense must get off the field on a consistent basis, and the special teams must be dramatically improved. If not, the Chargers may be sitting at home for the postseason and the next offseason will bring cataclysmic changes to the organization.

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