There's a truism in pro football: If you don't have good cornerbacks, you'd better have really good pass rushers, or vice versa. Without either you're usually on the fast track to a top 10 draft pick—unless you have an extraordinarily savvy defensive coordinator.
Game-planning and especially play-calling are talked about more with offenses, but the concepts are just as relevant on defense. Last season the Chargers' John Pagano was as crafty in these departments as any coordinator in the league.
Pagano, whom coach Mike McCoy retained from predecessor Norv Turner's staff, had neither quality corners nor quality pass rushers. The entire 2013 cast was underwhelming, except for versatile free safety Eric Weddle. But the 47-year-old Pagano seemed to know just what to call and when, and he rarely dialed up the same thing twice. This was a big reason the Chargers, who entered Week 14 with a 5--7 record, went on a five-game winning streak, including a playoff victory at Cincinnati in the wild-card round, before falling to a simply superior Broncos club.
While the Chargers run a 3--4 base defense, Pagano's creativity, like most coordinators', comes out in sub packages, mostly on third down. (Due to a shortage at linebacker last season, his sub package of choice was a three-safety dime instead of a traditional nickel.) In these, Pagano has a great feel for disguising coverages to take advantage of a quarterback's habits, and as the Bengals found out, he knows how to order blitzes and D-line stunts that exploit an offensive line's tendencies.
Now Pagano enters this year with quality pass rushers and corners. Veteran Dwight Freeney is looking to come back from a torn left quad muscle that ended his 2013 season in Week 4. Before the injury Freeney had regained his dominant form as a 3--4 outside linebacker, which, even after moving to that position in '12 with the Colts, is still a huge adjustment after 10 years as a 4--3 defensive end. At 34, there's no guarantee he can fully recover from such a significant injury, which is one reason second-year GM Tom Telesco drafted Jeremiah Attaochu out of Georgia Tech in the second round.
Also healthy is outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, who performed well after returning late last season from a torn left ACL he suffered in May OTAs. In addition to edge-rushing prowess, Ingram has the nimbleness to work through traffic against the run and the agility to drop back and cover the flats. Twelfth-year veteran Jarret Johnson is similarly resourceful (though less explosive), giving Pagano two players up front whom he can use creatively.
Sturdy outside run defenders operating behind high-quality defensive ends Kendall Reyes (a deft mover) and Corey Liuget (a forceful thumper) should keep lanes clean for inside linebackers Manti Te'o and Donald Butler against the run. Te'o is methodical—maybe even stiff—but Butler has shown playmaking ability, including against the pass.
At cornerback, the most critical upgrade is free agent Brandon Flowers (one year, $3 million with an extra $2 million in incentives), formerly of the Chiefs. Not only can he stymie quality receivers—a feat that his predecessor, Derek Cox, couldn't manage—but he can also do it in press-man coverage. That gives Pagano new options for how to use his linebackers and safeties in pass defense. Before signing Flowers in June, the Chargers spent a first-round pick on Jason Verrett of TCU, a mighty mite of a corner who has drawn comparisons to former Bill and Viking Antoine Winfield. The 5'10", 178-pound Verrett will fill the increasingly important role of slot corner, while long-armed, 5'11" Shareece Wright, who floundered before coming on strong down the stretch, will retain the No. 2 cornerback job.
The added firepower on defense should force more turnovers (the Chargers finished 30th last year in that category), which quarterback Philip Rivers should capitalize on consistently. After helping the defense late last year by going to more of a ball-control run offense, McCoy will likely revert to his quick-passing scheme. Many of the calls will be determined at the line, where Rivers has evolved into one of the smartest players in football. That he faces Pagano on weekdays no doubt has enhanced his education.
2013 Record: 9--7
ARI MON [AWAY]
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With an offensive line that is extremely average, it makes sense that coach Mike McCoy will get away from the methodical rushing attack he leaned on late in 2013 and go back to his preferred fast-clip, pass-oriented offense, which lessens the importance of the front five. Two players that give McCoy great flexibility in such a scheme are 6'6", 240-pound tight end Ladarius Green and 5'8", 200-pound running back Danny Woodhead. Green, a fourth-round pick in 2012, has just 21 career catches to his name but has been called by Rivers the fastest player on the team, a rarity for a tight end. His ability to line up anywhere will generate mismatches in his favor—or perhaps in Woodhead's favor, since the attention paid to Green and tight end Antonio Gates creates space out of the backfield or on shallow routes out wide. Woodhead knows how to work those openings. Last year he had 76 receptions, making him second by one to the Saints' Pierre Thomas for the most by a running back.
THE CASE FOR
Receiver Keenan Allen
Antonio Gates has long been Philip Rivers's favorite target, and even though he's 34, the eight-time Pro Bowl tight end is still the focus of most defenses' double teams. But even as Gates continues to be a superb box-out and on-the-move receiver, Allen, a 2013 third-round pick who probably would have been selected in round 1 if he'd entered the draft with a healthy left knee, will become Rivers's top target. As a rookie Allen became the go-to guy in pivotal moments. He has superb fundamentals, including nuanced route running, which meshes well with the anticipation passing of Rivers. The 6'2", 211-pound Allen is not physically imposing, but he moves better than corners expect, and he has sharp instincts, which expands his catching radius. Allen stands out in a receiving group that has willowy deep threat Malcom Floyd, who in his 10th season is hoping to come back from a career-threatening neck injury; Vincent Brown, who's just a little too swift to call a mere possession receiver; and diminutive veteran slot man Eddie Royal. Both Brown and Royal could again catch 40 or so balls— but expect Allen to more than match their combined receptions.
ROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
CB BRANDON FLOWERS