IN THE second-floor room where the Chargers hold their defensive staff meetings, a sign speaks to new coordinator John Pagano's philosophy:
SIMPLE = FAST
THINK = SLOW
The only thing speedy about the Chargers' defense in 2011 was the change coach Norv Turner made after the season. Out after one year went coordinator Greg Manusky, who oversaw a unit that ranked last in opponents' third-down efficiency and 29th in opponents' red zone touchdown percentage. In came Pagano, a longtime Chargers assistant—he had worked with the linebackers since 2005—whom Turner had passed over for the coordinator job twice before. If the defense changes as quickly and as dramatically as Turner wants it to, this might be the year the Chargers fulfill the Super Bowl expectations that have followed them for so many seasons.
Though starting running back Ryan Mathews is doubtful for the opener after breaking his collarbone in the first preseason game, the offense is in the capable hands of Philip Rivers—who despite a career-high 20 interceptions in 2011 ranks second in NFL passing yards and third in touchdown passes and yards per attempt since Turner arrived in '07. The kicking game is among the league's best. That leaves the defense.
"Our approach is, Know your job, do your job, go out and play," says Pagano, whose brother, Chuck, is coach of the Colts. "If guys are thinking out there, they're not going to react. They're going to slow down a little. If the defense is simple and something they all understand, they're going to play fast."
Schematically the defense won't look dramatically different, but rather than employ complicated checks and adjustments when an offense shifts, the Chargers plan to remain mostly static and rely on execution over deception. "Obviously we have some tweaks, but the mentality [Pagano] brings is that we're going to be aggressive and play smart football," says linebacker Shaun Phillips, who is entering his ninth season. "Over the years it wasn't for lack of talent that we didn't succeed. It was lack of intelligence on some things, whether it was an interception that we tried to return [and fumbled away], or a stupid penalty, or not managing the two-minute situation. That comes from football IQ, and he's preaching to us to be smarter football players."
The defense will be better if only because it has no place to go but up. Opponents converted 96 of 195 third downs, a staggering 49.2% rate that was 11.2 points higher than the league average. In third-and-10 or longer, teams earned first downs 30.4% of the time, second-most in the league and 10.7 above the average. It was even worse in short-yardage situations, with opponents converting 91.7% of their third-and-ones, 24.6 points above the average. In the red zone, teams scored touchdowns on 59.2% of their possessions and averaged 5.1 points per trip inside the San Diego 20-yard line, the second-highest total in the league.
As Turner likes to say, when you're that bad, the finger can point simultaneously at the coaches and personnel. He addressed the former by promoting Pagano, and general manager A.J. Smith addressed the latter by adding several intriguing pieces, most notably linebacker Jarret Johnson and safety Atari Bigby in free agency, and pass rusher Melvin Ingram and defensive end Kendall Reyes in the draft.
Ingram, a first-rounder out of South Carolina, could be the ideal complement for Phillips, who often has had little help on the pass rush. The Chargers likely will use Ingram situationally to keep him fresh for four quarters. If 2009 first-round pick Larry English can overcome the injuries that have limited him to just 13 games and two starts at outside linebacker for the past two seasons, San Diego could have a wrecking crew of rushers.
"The personnel changes are getting us back to some things we did under previous coordinators," says Pagano. "I've seen what it looks like when it's good, and I've seen what it looks like when it's bad. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel; it's about going out and playing with fundamentals, technique and effort. My job is to put these guys in positions to make plays. That means playing smart and playing fast."
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 6
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 8--8
10 at Oakland (Mon)
30 at Kansas City
7 at New Orleans
15 Denver (Mon)
28 at Cleveland
1 Kansas City (Thu)
11 at Tampa Bay
18 at Denver
9 at Pittsburgh
23 at New York Jets
Teams don't normally let quality left tackles out of the building, so it raised eyebrows last year when Baltimore let Gaither go as a free agent after four years, and Kansas City, which had signed Gaither in August, released him in November. But the 6'9", 340-pound sixth-year pro was a lifesaver for the Chargers in the five games he played after they claimed him off waivers. The San Diego line was in disarray, particularly on the left side, where tackle Marcus McNeill and guard Kris Dielman had gone down with injuries. It's no coincidence that quarterback Philip Rivers found his rhythm after Gaither stepped into the lineup. Such was Gaither's effectiveness that San Diego signed him in March to a potential $24.6 million deal with $13.5 million all but guaranteed.
Now there's real concern about that investment. Gaither missed nearly all of training camp because of back spasms, a recurrence of an injury that caused him to miss the entire 2010 season. If the problem persists, the options are not attractive. McNeill and Dielman have retired, and rookie Michael Harris, an undrafted free agent, is listed as the backup. He is so obscure that, well into August, the Chargers' website had no photo or bio of him.
Opponents' receptions for every 46 snaps that Eric Weddle was in coverage in 2011, the best ratio of any safety in the league.
Opposing quarterbacks' combined passer rating when throwing at Quentin Jammer, the highest against any NFL cornerback with at least 200 snaps.
Deep balls on which Vincent Jackson was targeted, tied with Hakeem Nicks for the NFL lead. Where will San Diego go vertical now that Jackson is a Buccaneer?
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (PHILLIPS)
Phillips, a ninth-year Bolt, believes the D has never lacked for talent, only for the wisdom to make smart plays.
KEVIN TERRELL/AP (GAITHER)