Chargers camp report: In tough AFC West, it's make or break for Bolts

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Philip Rivers needs to limit his turnovers if the Chargers want to get back to the playoffs. (US Presswire)  
Philip Rivers needs to limit his turnovers if the Chargers want to get back to the playoffs. (US Presswire)  

SAN DIEGO -- There is no mystery about this season for Norv Turner and his San Diego Chargers: Either they make it to the playoffs, and he's retained, or they don't ... and he isn't.

Simple as that.

There's no need to be coy here. Turner knows the score, and so do his players. Most fans expected a change at head coach after the Chargers missed the playoffs last season for the second straight year, but team president Dean Spanos stood by Turner -- saying he believed in continuity.

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He also believes in winning.

That could be tough. First of all, Peyton Manning just joined the division, and he joined the defending AFC West champs. Second, the Chargers are thin at left tackle, where Jared Gaither may or may not show up for the season opener. Third, look at the schedule: It's a challenge, with 11 of San Diego's 16 opponents winning at least eight games last season -- including four playoff teams (Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) in succession.

Nevertheless, when you talk about a sense of urgency, you're talking about the San Diego Chargers. They don't just want to win; they have to win.

"I'd feel sick if someone the last five years didn't think we had a great sense of urgency coming in," said Turner. "I don't think my sense of urgency is any different than it's always been. There are things you have to get done, and you go do them.

He mentioned free-agent signings. He mentioned draft picks. He mentioned organizational change.

"That's where the sense of urgency started," he said. "It started in February with the need to do things."

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What the Chargers need to do is return to the top of the AFC West. Most experts want to concede the division to Denver, but count me out for now. I want to see how Manning reacts when he's blind-sided, and, guaranteed, that happens when the Broncos open with (in succession) Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Houston.

But Denver is not San Diego's concern. The Chargers are. They had too many turnovers last year. They didn't force enough takeaways. Their pass rush stunk. Their third-down defense was worse. All of that must be cleaned up, and it must be cleaned up immediately.

Or else.

"Everybody understands," said tight end Antonio Gates. "You don't know what the future holds. You get limited opportunities to play on a team that actually has a chance, and you have to take advantage of that. We don't know what the future holds, and I don't know who's going to be here or how it's going to work out. But I do know what we have now -- and that's all we I worry about."

Team Objectives

Limit Philip Rivers' mistakes: Rivers is one of the game's top quarterbacks, but he wasn't last season. The problem: Too many turnovers. He committed 25 of them, including 20 interceptions and a fatal fumble in the closing moments of what should've been a sure win over Kansas City. People close to the Chargers believe he tried too hard to carry the team, and Rivers doesn't deny it. All I know is that it can't happen again. The Chargers are built around Rivers, and one of the strengths throughout his career has been an ability to avoid critical mistakes. That spiked last season, and the club suffered for it.

Create a pass rush: When the Bolts were going well in past years, they had an aggressive, attacking defense that squeezed quarterbacks, with pass rushers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips pushing the edges. Merriman is gone, and Phillips dropped to a career-low 3.5 sacks last season as he battled foot injuries. Nevertheless, help might be on the way. The club spent its first-round draft pick on Melvin Ingram, and he has one sack and two quarterback hits through the first two preseason games. Antwan Barnes, who led the club with 11 sacks in 2011, is back, and Larry English, once considered a prospect, has coaches encouraged after weeks of solid practices. He simply needs to stay healthy. I don't know if the Chargers exceed the 32 sacks they had last season; what I do know is that if they don't they're doomed. "Until we fix the defense," said general manager A.J. Smith, "we're not winning a championship around here."

Get the defense off the field on third downs: Nobody was worse in this department than San Diego, with the Bolts allowing opponents to convert a whopping 49.2 percent of third downs. That's where the pass rush comes in, and, sorry, San Diego's was so ineffective it couldn't shut down anyone on third downs. "Obviously," said Turner, "if you can't rush the passer, you can't play well on third downs. We were last in the league in third-down defense, so that would tell you we probably need to get better in rush, coverage and scheme." The organization first attacked the scheme by hiring John Pagano to replace Greg Manusky. Then it spent its first three draft picks on defense after hiring free-agents like safety Atari Bigby and linebacker Jarret Johnson to plug holes in a sinking ship. That's a start. Now let's see how it works.

Somebody to Watch

Tight end Antonio Gates: For the first time since 2008, he says he's healthy, and consider that a warning to upcoming opponents. At his best, Gates is a premier tight end. But he hasn't been right in years, bothered by painful foot injuries that caused him to miss practices and games and reduced his effectiveness. "He was in a lot of pain," said Turner. But Gates fought through it and began to see results at the end of last season when his condition improved. With a full offseason of work, he seems back to normal, which means he will be an important piece in the Chargers' passing attack again. "Here's the difference," said Turner. "Everyone talks about him being healthier now, but the difference is that he was healthier in February. So March, April, May and June he had a normal offseason, and he really worked hard, as hard as I've seen him work. Now he's in great condition, and he can go and not having to miss a day every third day." That is obvious at practice, where Gates glides through workouts and is a frequent target of Rivers' passes -- just like it was when didn't experience discomfort. "I'm just embracing health at this point," he said.

Training Camp Battles

Placekicker: Nick Novak's the incumbent, but he won the job last year after Nate Kaeding bowed out with torn knee ligaments in the season opener. Now that Kaeding is back, the smart money's on him ... though Turner will let he and Novak battle it out through training camp. The problem: There hasn't been much of a battle. The two combined for one field-goal attempt in the first two preseason games, and that was by Novak vs. Green Bay. He missed. Kaeding is the NFL's most accurate kicker of all time, so Novak must do something extraordinary to win the job. So far, he hasn't.

Projected winner: Kaeding. He lost the job only because he was sidelined. He looks decent in practices, but you'd like to see him tee up a few kicks in games before making a decision. Nevertheless, I can't imagine him not surviving.

Strong safety: The Chargers drafted Brandon Taylor for this position, but they also signed former Green Bay safety Atari Bigby. Bigby has experience, and, when he's played, he has been effective. But that's the issue: When he's played. The guy has a history of injuries, and that could help Taylor get on the field. So far, both have looked decent, which means Bigby -- who runs with the first team -- probably wins the job ... until, that is, he's hurt.

Projected winner: Bigby. Coaches with job insecurity don't trust valuable positions like this to rookies. Experience wins out.

Left tackle: Jared Gaither is the front-runner, but stop if you've heard this before: He's hurt, and he's not on the field. He's in the training room with recurring back spasms. Normally, that might not be a concern, only Gaither has been down this road before -- wearing out Baltimore so thoroughly that the Ravens finally decided to get rid of the guy. So did Kansas City. The Chargers believe he'll be back by the fourth preseason game, but Gaither makes no promises -- saying he'll return "whenever I'm 100 percent." Great. In the meantime, undrafted rookie Mike Harris steps in his spot, and that's a problem. First of all, he protects Philip Rivers' back. Second, he's raw. Third, he played right tackle in college. Fourth, he was beaten for a sack on the second snap of the Dallas game, and that's without DeMarcus Ware in the lineup. The Chargers think he'll be OK, but the poor guy needs time. And time is not on anyone's side here.

Injury Roundup

Center Nick Hardwick is recovering from a concussion he suffered this week in practice.

Wide receiver Vincent Brown is sidelined indefinitely with a broken ankle, and while the Chargers say they think it could be an eight-week injury, nobody knows for sure. He's on the 53-man roster now, but expect the Chargers to weigh the options of putting him on injured reserve at the final cut.

Left tackle Jared Gaither didn't make an appearance in training camp, sidelined with back spasms that should have everyone concerned. The club believes he'll be ready for the season opener, but Gaither is making no promises -- saying he won't be back until he's "100 percent." Uh-oh.

Running back Ryan Mathews it out with a broken clavicle suffered after one carry in the preseason opener and may not make it back for the season opener. If that happens, he will have missed at least one game in his last six seasons, including college. Nevertheless, coaches don't appear too concerned, with most hopeful he returns to the lineup sometime in September. Mathews doesn't seem concerned, either, telling a local radio station there's "no doubt" he'll play the Sept. 10 opener.

Wide receiver Eddie Royal had a sore hip that sidelined him the past month, but he returned to the team Wednesday. He jogged through workouts and is not expected to play in the team's third preseason game.

The Last Word

If there's a concern with these guys it's that the injuries that usually get them during the season -- the injuries that two years ago forced them to run through 20 linebackers and 17 pass receivers -- have already begun.

Mathews was supposed to have a big season, yet he bowed out immediately with a clavicle injury that could keep him out of the opener. More serious is the injury to wide receiver Vincent Brown, who will miss considerable time with a broken ankle. The Chargers say he's out eight weeks; others think that is overly optimistic.

But the most important issue to me is the left-tackle position, where Gaither continues to play cat-and-mouse with his injury. He's out with back spasms, and the club thinks he recovers by the opener. But this is a guy with a history of setbacks, so many that people in Baltimore started calling him "The Big Lazy."

If Gaither doesn't return, the Chargers have nothing more than an undrafted rookie to plug in his spot, and, yes, that's a problem. Rivers is the centerpiece of this team, and protecting his back with someone with no NFL experience is not only risky; it could be disastrous.

"If there's a loss of Jared Gaither," said Smith, "the first name you will see is the rookie. But I don't think that's all you will see because we would have to address that -- and I have no idea what we would do or where we would go.

"Obviously it would be something we would do to solidify the left side. I hope we would not have to worry about it, and I hope we have our starter. But you never know. Disappointment lurks around the corner in the NFL."

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