Strength in Numbers Not the Answer for Bolts

LB Donald Butler (U.S. Presswire)

Now the fun starts, and just who will be starting in the middle for the Chargers when they wrestle with the Vikings and Adrian Peterson Sunday is the question.

The Chargers got down to their 53-man roster, and really, all 53 aren't linebackers -- it just seems the way.

The biggest news is that the team retained 11 linebacker as it continues to mix and match combinations, hoping to find something that works.

That's especially true at inside linebacker, where things are so desperate they signed a Rams castoff in Na'il Diggs.

Diggs, an outside linebacker by trade, is going to be plopped on the inside with the Chargers hoping he can contribute to what has been a shaky run defense.

In two series against the 49ers in wrapping up the preseason, the first team was pushed around in a manner few expected. True, starting tackle Antonio Garay and outside linebacker Shaun Phillips didn't play. But nine others expected to be starters did and they couldn't stop the Niners on the ground, allowing 100 yards and two rushing scores in the first half.

The Chargers don't have much time, or the luxury of a pass-happy offense to slow, in the opener. And the Chargers' options to shore up the inside spot aren't that appealing.

What the coaches are doing is crossing their fingers because the answer must come from an inside linebacking corps that features someone turning 35 during the season (Takeo Spikes), someone who has never taken an NFL snap (Donald Butler), a rookie (Jonas Mouton), a player with one biceps tendon attached (Stephen Cooper) and now someone playing out of position (Diggs).

There's also another rookie, Andrew Gachkar, for some depth, but he's not expected to play a big role.

One of the keys will be the health of nose tackle Antonio Garay. He didn't play the final two preseason games in resting his cranky knee.

Garay needs to be healthy on Sunday and really, for the rest of the season.

The Chargers are going to see plenty of strong running attacks and must prove time and again they can stop it. With the excellence of Philip Rivers, rival coaches are going to be tempted to run the ball and drain the clock to keep Rivers on the bench.

Plus, the Chargers play the top four rushing teams of last year -- that includes the Chiefs and Raiders twice.

So while there is little doubt the Chargers have a dynamite offense and enough guys to rush the passer, how far the squad goes will depend on how little rivals can run. Tightening up the run defense is the No. 1 job this week, especially with the Vikings and Peterson on-deck for the opener.

Turner happy with makeup of roster


WR Bryan Walters
Jake Roth/U.S. Presswire
No matter how long or jaded you are as an NFL coach, cut-down day is always difficult. The same was true for coach Norv Turner on Saturday.

"This is a tough day," Turner said. "You know that a lot of these guys will get opportunities somewhere else, but you go through the morning explaining to (27) different guys why you're moving in a different direction and that's not easy. It's certainly disappointing for them, and going through it so many times also takes its toll on the coach."

Despite some difficult decisions, Turner is upbeat with the final -- for now -- 53. "I'm excited about our team and the guys we have left."

-- Two players the Chargers really liked and hope to sneak through the practice squad didn't make it that far. Quarterback Scott Tolzien was snatched up by the 49ers and center Colin Baxter found a landing spot with the Jets.

-- Outside linebacker Darryl Gamble, an undrafted free agent who made the team, gave props to veteran Takeo Spikes; both are from Georgia and Spikes took Gamble under his wing.

"He gave me a pep talk every day, just to keep my mind focused on performing well," Gamble said. "He said I couldn't afford a bad day as a rookie free agent, and I believed him. I think that really kept me motivated and on task at all times. I tried to be humble, but I was confident that I showed what I can do during the preseason. I took the majority of the snaps during the preseason, and I was thankful for the opportunity and happy with what I did with it."

-- The Chargers have signed these players to their practice squad: LB Bront Bird, DT Charlie Bryant, T Steve Schilling, CB Traye Simmon, FB Frank Summers and TE Brad Taylor.

-- The Chargers were upbeat over Ryan Mathews' 56-yard rushing touchdown in the preseason finale against the 49ers. But Mathews almost got backup QB Billy Volek killed when whiffing on a block; the sack caused a fumble. Pass-protection has been among Mathews' shortcomings. "It was just a basic blitz," Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "Running backs like to cut and once they don't cut, you give them one move and get around them."

-- The Chargers have yet to sell out their opening game.

-- Seven of the Chargers' eight draft picks made the active roster; T Steve Schilling ended up on the practice squad.

PLAYER NOTES


OT Marcus McNeill
Jacob de Golish
-- LT Marcus McNeill, who missed the majority of camp and the preseason games, is expected to be fit for the opener. McNeill is rebounding from minor knee surgery.

-- OLB Larry English (groin) will likely be OK for the opener.

-- OLB Shaun Phillips (hamstring) is expected to play in the opener; he missed the final two preseason games.

-- WR Vincent Brown, who was bothered by a quad injury for most of camp, is now down with a hamstring strain. His availability for the opener is in doubt.

-- DE Corey Liuget could be starting as a rookie come Sunday. Regardless, the team's top pick will see plenty of action in the rotation.

-- DT Cam Thomas continues to prove he has turned the corner. With the Chargers releasing Ogemdi Nwagbuo, it shows their confidence is growing in Thomas.

-- CB Marcus Gilchrist, who did well in the final preseason game, will be the team's top backup at the position.

-- CB Dante Hughes is penciled in as the team's nickel back.

-- WR Patrick Crayton, the team's No. 3 receiver, is recovering from having some bone spurs removed from his ankle about two weeks ago. The Chargers are optimistic he will be OK for the opener, but that is no guarantee.

-- WR Bryan Walters, a free agent who didn't make it out of camp last year, was among the surprises to make the team. Walters could see action returning punts on Sunday.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK:

Rd. 1/18, DE Corey Liuget, Illinois -- Was an underclassmen who played defensive tackle and has proven to be a quick study, giving the Chargers a push off the edge and being stout against the run. Liuget becomes a starter sooner, rather than later.

Rd. 2/50, CB Marcus Gilchrist, Clemson -- Looks to be the nickel back and could see some action on returns. The team loves his athleticism and versatility.

Rd. 2/61, ILB Jonas Mouton, Michigan -- Plopped into game action because of need, Mouton still has some work to do to get up to speed. It was hoped he would challenge Donald Butler for the starting role; that didn't happen.

Rd. 3/82, WR Vincent Brown, San Diego State -- Will probably stick, but more for what the Chargers hope he will be than what he has shown in camp. A quad injury from the first practice seriously derailed his summer workouts.

Rd. 3/89, CB Shareece Wright, Southern California -- Got off to a slow start but has been coming on of late. It appears he will stick as a backup.

Rd. 6/183, RB Jordan Todman, Connecticut -- Will help fill the void left by Darren Sproles on third downs and is going to be asked to contribute on coverage on special teams. The coaches like this kid.

Rd. 6/201, T Stephen Schilling, Michigan -- He is headed to the practice squad, where the Chargers hope he can clean up his technique and be a contributor down the road.

Rd. 7/234, ILB Andrew Gachkar, Missouri -- Hasn't made much of an impact in the base defense the few times he has seen the field. If he sticks, it will be because of his potential on special teams.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Philip Rivers. Backup -- Billy Volek.

With his quick release and uncanny accuracy, Rivers takes a back seat to few players at his position. Nurtured by offensive guru Norv Turner, Rivers has developed into one of the game's top quarterbacks. Volek gives the Chargers a luxury few teams enjoy: a reliable backup who has proven he can win in the NFL.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Mike Tolbert, RB Ryan Mathews. Backups -- RB Jordan Todman, FB Jacob Hester.

Tolbert and Mathews are 1 and 1A in the Chargers' RB pecking order. Mathews was supposed to be the guy to replace the iconic LaDainian Tomlinson, but pass-protection and ball-security issues restricted his playing time. Tolbert took advantage with a breakout season that saw him score 11 touchdowns. Hester has morphed into a blocker; Todman shows enough promise to keep around.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Antonio Gates. Backups -- Randy McMichael, Kory Sperry.

Gates sets the league-wide standard at this position; he has at least eight touchdown receptions in each of the past seven seasons. But after not playing last season's final month, his plantar fasciitis issues must be kept in mind; so far, he has survived camp and the preseason games. McMichael has proved to be a worthy backup; Sperry's hands might be even better than McMichael's.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd. Backups -- Patrick Crayton, Bryan Walters, Vincent Brown, Richard Goodman.

Jackson and Floyd give the Chargers one of the best tandems in the league. Both can stretch the field; few are better than the athletic Jackson of making the reception on jump-ball situations. He's a Pro Bowler and the Chargers are looking for a full season of his talents after a contract dispute wrecked 2010. Crayton is a reliable No. 3; Walters, Brown and Goodman will be made to look good with Rivers on the other end of the passes.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Marcus McNeill, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups -- G Tyronne Green, T Brandyn Dombrowski, C Scott Mruczkowski.

All five men up front return to give the Chargers' explosive offense continuity. The pass-blocking has been keen and that is a must with the manner in which the Chargers and Rivers fling the ball around. But the run-blocking is still searching from consistency. McNeill missed most the preseason with a knee injury, but is confident he will be fine.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Corey Liuget, NT Antonio Garay, RDE Luis Castillo. Backups -- LDE Vaughn Martin, NT Cam Thomas, RDE Jacques Cesaire.

Liuget has been a pleasant surprise in his rapid development. Garay should be among the benefactors of Liuget's active play. Castillo gets some bum reviews, but he is decent against the run. Martin and Thomas are, slowly, becoming the players the Chargers had hope they would.

LINEBACKERS: LOLB Larry English, ILB Takeo Spikes, ILB Donald Butler, ROLB Shaun Phillips. Backups -- LOLB Travis LaBoy, ROLB Antwan Barnes, ILB Jonas Mouton, ILB Stephen Cooper, LOLB Darryl Gamble.

Spikes has the big name here, as the veteran was brought in to tighten the run defense. But opposite him is Butler, who missed last season and is basically a rookie learning the ropes. Depth here is a concern, especially if the aged Spikes can no longer stiff-arm Father Time. Phillips has a great burst off the edge (team-high 11 sacks last year) and the team is hopeful English, a former first-round pick, does something other than take up space in the training room. LaBoy should help off the edge. The key for the defense is the inside play of Spikes and the kids.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: RCB Antoine Cason, LCB Quentin Jammer, SS Bob Sanders, FS Eric Weddle. Backups -- LCB Dante Hughes, RCB Marcus Gilchrist, LCB Shareece Wright, SS Steve Gregory, FS Darrell Stuckey.

Jammer is as reliable as the day is long; Cason had a coming out season last year with a team-high four interceptions. Weddle was given the richest contract for a free safety in league history; his next forced fumble will be his first. Sanders body of work is impressive but will his body be, after delivering countless hits? He has played in nine games the past three years. Depth at corner is solid with Hughes and Gilchrist.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, LS Michael Windt, KOR Richard Goodman, PR Patrick Crayton.

Kaeding continues to assault the NFL kicking marks for accuracy; the jury remains out if he can do it during the playoffs. Scifres hasn't been gun shy after past failures but after five of his punts last year didn't get off clean, he might have some pause. Goodman has shown speed in returns; Crayton has the sure hands needed to handle punts.



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