WR Legedu Naanee (Doug Pensinger/Getty)
The good news: The Chargers ride into Tampa Bay on a two-game winning streak. The bad news: Those wins came over the Raiders and Chiefs, who are a combined 5-23. The Buccaneers, sitting at 9-5 and in the thick of the playoff race, are an entirely different animal. Here’s a look at five Chargers players who must step up and help tame the beast.
1. WR Legedu Naanee – After spending much of the season buried on the depth chart, Naanee anticipates big minutes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thanks to Malcom Floyd’s collapsed lung. Naanee will spend much of the game matched up against rookie first-round pick Aqib Talib (four interceptions) in a battle of talented yet inexperienced players.
Naanee has earned have reviews from the Chargers coaches for his hands and athletcism. However, he’s failed to build on his promising rookie season and has just five catches for 27 yards this year. He’ll have a chance to top those numbers in one game on Sunday, especially if the Chargers are forced to play from behind.
To read an exclusive interview with Naanee from earlier this week, click here.
2. FB Mike Tolbert – After missing the last three games with a shoulder injury, Tolbert returned to practice this week and is expected to play against the Buccaneers. He could play a big role as a check-down receiver, as he has excelled in that capacity all season. Tolbert averages 13.2 yards per catch, second only to Miami Dolphins RB Patrick Cobbs amongst running backs with at least 10 receptions.
Of course, Tolbert also must up his game as a lead blocker. The Buccaneers are vulnerable against the run, giving up an average of 237 yards rushing over the last two games, and Tolbert must help LaDainian Tomlinson expose that weakness.
3. DE Luis Castillo – The Chargers need a strong interior pass rush to disrupt Tampa Bay’s short passing game. The player most capable of making that happen is Castillo, although he’s mired in a 10-game sack-less slump. Now is as good a time as any to break that streak, as Buccaneers QB Jeff Garcia is expected to return this week after missing Week 15 with a calf injury.
Garcia loves to break the pocket and improvise plays. That means Castillo must stay disciplined and control the backside of plays while winning his one-on-one matchups with RT Jeremy Trueblood. It’s a tall task, but that’s what the Chargers expected when they inked Castillo to a five-year, $43 million extension during the offseason.
4. SS Clinton Hart – The San Diego defense has struggled all season long against quality pass-catching tight ends. So imagine the dilemma against the Buccaneers, who have three tight ends with at least 15 receptions: Jerramy Stevens (32), Alex Smith (21) and John Gilmore (15).
Hart is back at practice this week after missing the last two games with a shoulder injury. He’ll play on Sunday and get his shots at every member of Tampa Bay’s three-headed monster. Hart will have to shake off the rust in a hurry and make sure the Bucs don’t get any easy plays over the middle of the field. Hart also must step it up in the red zone, where Tampa Bay has struggled to score touchdowns. That trend must continue on Sunday if the Chargers are going to pull off the upset.
5. KR Darren Sproles – Points will be hard to come by against the Buccaneers, who rank third in the NFL in pass defense and who’ve yet to allow a rushing touchdown at home this season. If Sproles can help the cause with a quick strike on special teams, it will go a long way towards a San Diego victory.
Sproles is plenty motivated after being snubbed during the Pro Bowl announcements on Tuesday. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,153 kickoff return yards (25.6-yard average), including a 103-yard touchdown in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.