Schedule Begs for Better Pass Rush

LB Larry English (Kevin Terrell/Getty)

In coming weeks the Chargers hope to get up-close-and-personal with the Jets' Mark Sanchez, the Chiefs' Matt Cassel, MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Carson Palmer of the Raiders.

As the Chargers began work in preparing for Sunday's visit to the East Coast to face the Jets, the next month features a fair foursome of quarterbacks.

What the Chargers are banking on saying 'hello' to is a better pass rush.

While the Chargers leading the league in forcing the most three-and-outs is a good thing, the inability to reach the quarterback isn't so swell for San Diego.

The Chargers have but eight sacks in five games, hardly what was expected with the addition of aggressive defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. At this pace, the team will finish with 26 sacks, its lowest total since the strike-shortened 1976 season.

But so far, that aggressiveness has yet to bloom into takedowns in opposing backfields.

Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, the team's sack leader last year with 11, will maybe find another gear after having but one sack before the bye week. A tender hamstring might be some of the cause for that, and it's possible a week off will re-charge his boost.

Travis LaBoy, a pass-rushing specialist, was brought in from San Francisco, but so far he's not been much of a treat with zero sacks.

Instead the Chargers top two in sacks are players not expected to be anywhere near the team lead. Oft-injured Larry English is tied with situational player Antwan Barnes for the team lead headed to New York.

Only three teams have fewer sacks than the Chargers, a stat that is alarming considering the top-flight quarterbacks remaining on their challenging schedule.

"We've been able to get after quarterbacks pretty good, but it's something we're always working on," coach Norv Turner said about the lack of sacks. "We've taken the week to look at ways to get more pressure. We certainly want to try and get more pressure up the middle, because I believe that affects quarterbacks more than simply rushing off the edge."

--The Chargers' attention goes toward the Jets, hoping to come off their best bye in team history.

Really?

Doesn't every team, every time say its bye is perfectly placed on their schedule? Although the Chargers, after winning four of five, possibly could have disputed that with their fast start.

But if a week off means the return of Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, well, they'll take it.

The Chargers' wish is that Gates being idle since the Sept. 18 loss in New England -- thanks in part to the bye -- will mend his aching right foot.

It's the same plantar fasciitis issue Gates has had since last October, and where it goes no one is quite sure. But Gates is going to attempt to practice this week, and play Sunday when the Chargers visit MetLife Stadium to face the Jets.

"I'm just hoping that the worst part of it is over and I'm able to play and keep playing," Gates said.

Gates was durable until this ailment, an iron horse in the Chargers' explosive and balanced offense. But this setback has been different, and so have the Chargers -- especially in the red zone.

Their struggles inside their rivals' 20 was among items needing tidying up last week with no game. But if Gates is game Sunday, and then moving forward, that shortcoming gets a considerable boost.

Of Gates' 69 career touchdown receptions, all but 20 have come inside the red zone. Gates, along with lanky wideouts Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, flood Philip Rivers with goal-line options.

But the wide receivers have been gimpy; Gates has missed three straight games.

That could change Sunday with Gates returning. But Gates is a proud man with a pragmatic vision regarding his production and the team's cohesiveness.

"The bottom line is that I need to be in a position to go out and contribute," Gates said. "I don't want to be a decoy. I'm on a team that's playing well, and I want to do as much as I can."

"He always looks good when he's out there," Turner said after watching Gates work Monday. "He went through part of practice, but we're going to make evaluations every day. Hopefully he's able to continue and he doesn't have a setback during the week.

"I'm excited to have him out there. I'm hopeful he can play, but I don't want to put that burden of a guarantee on him or us. Hopefully he can continue to work this week and play on Sunday."

Spikes hoping for that elusive playoff appearance


LB Takeo Spikes
Donald Miralle/Getty
--Don't think a certain Chargers inside linebacker hasn't noticed the 49ers' 5-1 start? Takeo Spikes spent the last three seasons in San Francisco, and out of the playoffs. That extended a baffling string that has Spikes missing the playoffs in all 14 of his productive NFL seasons.

"But you forgot one thing," Spikes said. "We're going to make it. We're going to make it big. I know that. My boys promised me that already."

Spikes has fit well with the Chargers, although their inexperienced defensive line could tax him as the season matures. Free safety Eric Weddle thinks otherwise of a teammate with 37 tackles. "We didn't bring him in here just to lead," Weddle said. "He's a great player. He can still run around and make plays. He leads both by the way he plays and how he acts."

--The Chargers worked a bit earlier than usual Monday, but there doesn't figure to be many practice tweaks in preparation for Sunday. When the Chargers play the Jets at 1 p.m. EST, it will be their lone game at 10 a.m. on their West Coast body clock. The Chargers look to flip last year's road record of 3-5, and so far have split their two away games (loss at New England, win at Denver). The team does figure to leave Friday, as is the custom when traveling three time zones.

--The linebacking unit could add some depth Sunday, depending on how quickly recent pickup Gerald Hayes gets acclimated. The Chargers are trying to get the veteran linebacker, an eight-year pro, up to speed quickly after he replaced Stephen Cooper, although it's uncertain whether Hayes will be ready for the Jets game. "We're going to try and get him up to pace as quickly as possible," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "See what he's absorbed and what's left to do."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Philip Rivers is likely among the most eager Chargers to re-start the season after struggling in the majority of the first five games. Rivers has thrown for just six touchdowns, while committing nine turnovers, which includes seven interceptions. Rivers' rating is about 10 points off his career mark and he's eager to get back on track. A week of rest likely did wonders for his sore rib/chest area.

--RB Ryan Mathews was chased from the last game before the bye week with a strained quad, but all indications are he will be in the lineup Sunday. Mathews came on strong in the last month, as he has proved he can handle the pass-blocking assignments, which keeps him on the field more. He's also proven a reliable receiver out of the backfield. Mathews' combined yardage continues to be among the league leaders.

--RB Mike Tolbert was last seen wobbly, leaving the field in Denver with a concussion. But he has passed all the baseline tests and has been working this week. Tolbert still delivers the punishing yards and remains an option in the red zone.

--TE Antonio Gates did practice on Monday, his first work since the Sept. 18 loss at New England. Gates made no promises regarding his availability on Sunday and said he has yet to really push his foot at a game-like pace.

--WR Vincent Jackson is expected to work on Wednesday, after sitting out all of last week and Monday's session with a tender hamstring. The Chargers are hoping this extensive rest will result in this not being a chronic injury through the year. Jackson is confident he can go Sunday.

--WR Malcom Floyd has seemingly put his groin issues behind him and is a full go this week in practice and in the games. Floyd's production is never a question, even if it comes in small doses. He proved it in the last game when reaching the 100-yard receiving mark on just three catches.

--TE Randy McMichael has proven to be a nice fall back for the Chargers in case Gates can't play or is compromised. McMichael is coming off a performance in which he lead the Chargers with four catches; he was targeted six times, one off the the team-high. If Gates is out, McMichael makes sure the tight end spot remains a viable option for Rivers.

--DE Jacques Cesaire is back practicing after sitting out two games with a knee injury. Cesaire has a great veteran presence, important considering the Chargers two young starting defensive linemen.

--ILB Gerald Hayes is making progress and he could be active for the first time for the Chargers on Sunday. Hayes could possibly spell first-year starter Donald Butler and give a blow to 15-year pro Takeo Spikes.

--WR Patrick Crayton is a reliable No. 3 receiver, and his contributions are especially important considering teammates Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd are often battling leg injuries. But don't overlook Crayton's production on punt returns, where he has given that part of the Chargers' game a lift.

--ILB Takeo Spikes continues to play a high level and his enthusiasm and energy seems to be rubbing off on the other players. Spikes seldom takes a play off, and his emotional motor is running just as hard. But the key is making sure Spikes doesn't go so hard that he is worn out when possibly reaching a destination he's never been: the playoffs. In 14 years, Spikes' teams have never qualified for the postseason.

--K Nick Novak continues to shine and the confidence he is gaining from his impressive start should bode well with the Chargers likely to be facing some situations where they will need him to be clutch. Novak, who replaced the injured Nate Kaeding, has converted all 11 of his field-goal attempts, including a career-long of 51 yards in the win over Denver.

REPORT CARD AFTER FIVE GAMES


QB Philip Rivers
Doug Pensinger/Getty
PASSING OFFENSE: C -- With Philip Rivers churning out one inconsistent game after another -- two interceptions in each of his first three games -- and losing two fumbles as well, this is far cry from what the Chargers expected. Rivers had nine turnovers against only six touchdown pass as his accuracy was hampered, to some degree, by sore ribs. Plus Antonio Gates has missed a significant chunk of time and wideouts Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd have struggled to stay fit. The good news is the Chargers still won four of five with a shaky Rivers. Pass protection -- eight sacks -- needs tightening up as well.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Ryan Mathews has bloomed as an emerging star, ranked among the leaders in combined yardage as his production has risen every week. Mike Tolbert has been dogged by ball-security and health issues, but he still has contributed a team-high four touchdowns. Run blocking has been pretty good, especially on the left side. Mathews has shown more patience to take advantage of it.

PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- Not bad here, especially considering the team lost Bob Sanders after two games and steady cornerback Quentin Jammer has missed time with a hamstring injury. Still, the time the Chargers faced a quality quarterback in Tom Brady, they were exposed as a unit still struggling with communication issues. That's been cleaned up, but the true test is still on the horizon as the competition improves. Pass rush hasn't been consistent, with a Larry English sighting with two sacks in a game among the highlights. Shaun Phillips has but one sack and no one is penetrating the pocket on a consistent basis.

RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus -- The addition of veteran Takeo Spikes and the somewhat unexpected play of first-year starter Donald Butler is encouraging, but there's still work to be done. The safeties have to become more forceful in run support, with teams going for 114 yards per game and an average of 4.6 yards a carry. Sometimes it's a struggle for the Chargers to get off the field against a ground-control offense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus -- After giving up a touchdown on the season-opening kickoff, it couldn't get worse, right? It didn't, although the Chargers' coverage units are still a work in progress. The kick return game hasn't shown much but the punt-return yardage has increased since Patrick Crayton took over after the first two games. Nick Novak has been a gem, converting all 11 field-goal attempt since replacing the injured Nate Kaeding.

COACHING: B -- Norv Turner has done a nice job of showing some offensive balance, turning to a running game and running backs as receivers more with Rivers struggling with the down-field throws because of accuracy and protection issues. The defense, while stout at times, hasn't shown the consistency in getting to the pocket or in stopping the run. Still, in both areas, enough has been done to win four of five and that can't be overlooked, even if coming against the NFL's lower-tier teams.



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