Inside Slant 11/15/05

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Jul 6, 2005
USA Today

Some people smell something in San Diego, and it's not a fresh batch of fish tacos. They might smell a trap on Sunday.

The Chargers (5-4) are coming off their bye week while Sunday's opponent, the Bills (4-5), are coming off one of their best games of the season. The Bills dumped the Chiefs 14-3 Sunday in impressive fashion.

But the Chargers, it appears, look at the Bills as a team they should handle at home. Not only will the Bills have to trek across the nation to face the well-rested Chargers, but they will do so with a second-year quarterback, J.P. Losman, who has already been benched this year.

But coach Marty Schottenheimer wasn't buying any talk of traps.

"A trap game? In what context?" he said. "Looking ahead to Buffalo? Beyond Buffalo? Who do we play after Buffalo? Redskins? If that's the definition of a trap game, no."

Instead Schottenheimer is sticking with his spiel that the Chargers are two games into a nine-game season. Before the Chiefs game, that became the team's rallying cry, and it remains so today.

"Right now we're 2-0 with seven to play," Schottenheimer said, "And those seven are going to determine where we are at the end. Everyone here understands that the opportunity to be a playoff team doesn't come along every year."

Especially in San Diego. If the Chargers are able to earn a playoff berth, it would be the first time they did so in consecutive seasons since 1994-95.

To ensure such a distinction, the Chargers need to erase the Broncos' two-game lead in the AFC West. That would seem to be the Chargers' top aspiration, as counting on a wild-card berth when you are one game above .500 is a risky proposition.

Wrong, Schottenheimer said.

"Our team's No. 1 goal is to find a way to beat Buffalo," he said.

Sounds like a man trying to convince his team to avoid a trap.


—The Chargers' coverage teams are getting blasted, and coach Marty Schottenheimer got off a few blasts on them on Monday. He is considering shaking up the special teams as the squad reached this point of the season ranked No 26 covering punts and No. 22 covering kicks. "There are a multitude of options available to us," Schottenheimer said. "We are going to get it fixed or we are going to change people. That could mean somebody on the developmental squad, somebody on somebody else's developmental squad, somebody out on the street. But we are going to fix it."

—How good is the Chargers' run defense? No one does it better. For the first time this year, the team is ranked No. 1 in the NFL, allowing 79.6 rushing yards per game. The same can't be said about a pass defense that allows 248.6 yards per outing and is ranked No. 30. "We had the most passes against us in the league last year, and we'll probably have the most again this year because we play well against the run," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "You've got to stop the running game or you get beat. That's our first priority, and we'll work from there."

—RB LaDainian Tomlinson had his No. 5 jersey retired on Saturday at the TCU-Houston game. The former Horned Frog said became emotional during the halftime ceremony. "Seeing all the (teammates) and being there; it felt like it was just yesterday we were all playing there," Tomlinson said.

—Want a stat that is very uncharacteristic of a Schottenheimer team? Despite a 5-4 mark, the Chargers are minus-three in turnover ratio.

—QB Drew Brees had seven picks all of last year; he has eight through nine games. Brees said all but one of his picks was due to bad passes rather than bad decisions. "The Champ one was (a bad decision)," he said. Denver's Champ Bailey opened the second half with a touchdown off an interception that helped the Broncos rally to a September win over the Chargers.

—It's strange, but true: The Chargers' top four cornerbacks — Quentin Jammer, Drayton Florence, Sammy Davis and Jamar Fletcher — have combined for one interception after 36 quarters of play. It belongs to Fletcher.

—The Chargers' 6.28 average yards on first down trails only Seattle (6.67) for the league lead.

—No team has more touchdowns (23) than the Chargers in the red zone.

—Schottenheimer on his team's knack of playing close games. "We are in the entertainment business," he said.



—LT Roman Oben (foot) still isn't practicing; he missed the last game. If he can't go, Leander Jordan would get his second NFL start at left tackle.

—OLB Steve Foley (abdominal strain) didn't practice Monday but is expected to play on Sunday.

—ILB Randall Godfrey missed the last game with a neck injury and because of a death in his family. He's expected to regain his starting role on Sunday. He did some light work on Monday.

—C Nick Hardwick (ankle) didn't practice Monday but is expected to try to give it a go on Wednesday. Coach Marty Schottenheimer seemed to think Hardwick would be fit for Sunday.

—OLB Shawne Merriman, with a team-high five sacks, and DE Luis Castillo, with four, have a combined nine sacks. That's the same number of the next four Chargers combined: OLB Steve Foley (2.5), DT DeQuincy Scott (2.5), ILB Ben Leber (2) and DE Igor Olshansky (2).


PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus — QB Drew Brees is proving last year was no fluke, as he is on his game once again. Brees is completing 64 percent of his passes and has thrown 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He is directing one of the NFL's most versatile passing attacks, with Antonio Gates leading the way with a team-high 51 receptions, good for 707 yards and six touchdowns. The wide outs are paced by WR Keenan McCardell (six touchdowns as well). The pass blocking has been good enough.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A — RB LaDainian Tomlinson is doing what he does best: running hard and collecting touchdowns with regularity (13 rushing touchdowns; six receiving TDs). Tomlinson seems to have found another gear in his ability to cut back and make people miss. If he's not the NFL's MVP, he's near the top of a very short list. The run-blocking has been good, although the line had its doors blown off in Philadelphia. A lot of injuries along the offensive line have made the going tougher for Tomlinson — not that many people would notice.

PASS DEFENSE: D — A big stand by this unit in the recent win over the Jets, but overall the pass defense remains the Chargers' Achilles' heel. Quentin Jammer, advertised as a shutdown corner, still doesn't have an interception this year. CB Drayton Florence, who starts opposite Jammer, was showing some promise but has been slowed by an ankle injury. What's a positive here is the pass rush, which is being led by rookie Shawne Merriman. He has a team-high five sacks and, along with DT Luis Castillo, is supplying consistent pressure on the quarterbacks.

RUSH DEFENSE: A — While rivals can gobble up yards through the air, the same can't be said of foes' ground attacks. The Chargers' run defense is the NFL's best, allowing 79.6 yards per game. NT Jamal Williams doesn't get much publicity, but he is the main reason the linebackers are swooping in and making plays. DE Igor Olshansky, in his second year, has seen his game improve as well.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C — The return game got a boost with rookie Darren Sproles; he's averaging 25.7 yards on kickoffs and 7.6 yards on punts. And the kicking game is fine with Nate Kaeding; his lone miss was the blocked field goal that the Eagles returned for a game-winning touchdown. P Mike Scifres has found his leg after a slow start. The red flag here is the coverage units, which are getting hit for 23.3 yards per return on kickoffs. That has to be shored up, because if not, what Marty Schottenheimer loves to do — win the field-position game — is going to be tough.

COACHING: B — Schottenheimer has kept the Chargers believing that they can make another playoff run despite a stumbling start from the gate. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been using Tomlinson more after the first two games in which Tomlinson didn't have nearly enough touches. Cameron said he is being cautious so as not to wear out Tomlinson. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has his run defense being mentioned among the NFL's best, but he is still trying to cover the blemish that is his pass defense. But the early contributions by the first-round picks, Merriman and Castillo, is due in part to the coaching of Phillips.