Chargers O-Line Ready to Make Foes Eat Crow

OG Kris Dielman (Jeff Gross/Getty)

The Chargers' offensive line heard the talk. And it can't wait for its detractors to chow on crow this season.

Much was made of running back LaDainian Tomlinson's least productive year last season. Much was made about the inconsistent play from the five big bodies in front of him.

Both, some speculated, didn't have a great year.

"Everyone wants to compare us to 2006," said Pro Bowl left guard Kris Dielman. "That is setting the bar pretty high."

Those were the salad days of Tomlinson and his offensive line. Tomlinson was the NFL's MVP when cranking out 31 touchdowns - 28 on the ground - and the front line was considered among the most effective in the league.

But things changed last year - some of it the line's doing, some not.

"In '06, everything set up right," Dielman said.

But that was under an ex-coach in Marty Schottenheimer who embraced the run like few others. It also was a season in which the Chargers rolled to a 14-2 record and were well in front in many of those games, content to kill the clock by killing rivals on the ground.


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Donald Miralle/Getty
Last year saw coach Norv Turner continue to put his fingerprints on the offense, which meant throwing more than running; can't fault the results as Philip Rivers threw for a franchise record 34 touchdowns with a league-leading 105.5 rating.

And the Chargers, 4-8 at one point in 2008, where forced to rally in numerous games by heaving the ball.

Different times, different results.

But this year is going to be different.

"We're two months ahead of schedule," Dielman said.

Although training camp doesn't start until next week, Dielman points to the offseason workouts.

This time last year Pro Bowl left tackle Marcus McNeill was nursing a sore neck and center Nick Hardwick had a tender foot.

Now both are fit and ready to hit the ground running when the curtain lifts on camp.

Tomlinson? Be wary of a future Hall of Famer eager to show there is plenty of tread on his tires - even at the ripe old age of 30.

"Believe me, there is not a question in my mind he could do what he did in '06," Dielman said. "I hope people got to sleep on him this year because he will embarrass them."

But while McNeill and Hardwick are a go to open holes for Tomlinson, the situation on the right side is a work in progress.

The Chargers decided not to pursue Mike Goff, letting the savvy veteran flee as a free agent to AFC West-foe Kansas City. Instead they will turn to Kynan Forney, who didn't take a snap last year, or Louis Vasquez, who was blocking the Texas Tech's spread offense last year.

"We'll get it figured out," Dielman said.

And when they do, watch out.

"We're all pumped and can't wait to get started," Hardwick said.

In part, to erase a season in which Tomlinson rushed for 1,110 yards and the team collected 13 rushing touchdowns - or just two more than their opponents.

"Everyone points to 2006," Dielman said. "But that was like the year Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs. It's hard to duplicate a year like that."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Like on the offensive side, the defense enters training camp with pretty much a clean bill of health - as long as OLB Shawne Merriman's rebuilt knee responds well to workouts.


LB Shawne Merriman
Donald Miralle/Getty
Luis Castillo is no doctor, but he said players have embraced this offseason differently because they were able to train instead of rehab.

"I think you look around this team and there are a lot of guys that feel that way," Castillo said. "That's why we're motivated. That's why we can't wait to kick this thing off. To be able to have a healthy offseason where the core of our guys are healthy, have been able to train, have been able to work and provide the leadership even in the offseason, it's all going to translate to more and more wins and better things for this team."

Castillo's belief rings true.

Williams, the massive anchor of this 3-4 scheme, is barking that his usually ailing knees aren't barking after some offseason clean-up surgeries.

Merriman, while he didn't participate in the team workouts, is running with the trainers and appears set for camp.

Safety Clinton Hart had his season derailed last year with a broken hand and a neck injury. He's prime to get going.

And cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who said he played with a fracture in his hip last season, is working at 100 percent.

If all those pieces fall the right way, Castillo and crew could be on their way to a deep playoff run.

--For each rushing touchdown the Chargers score this season, each member of the offensive line will donate $100 to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation. Money raised through the charity pays for college educations for kids losing a parent in the line of duty.

"We hope Chargers fans will make pledges, too," LG Kris Dielman said. "Everything and anything is appreciated and it goes to a great cause." Those interested in making pledges can go to mclefsandiego.org.

--The Chargers open on "Monday Night Football" at Oakland and will be in their 1963 powder blue jerseys. The team will also break out the classic look Week 6 against Denver. When visiting the Chiefs in Week 7, the Chargers will be in their old road white outfits.

--The Chargers' training camp, which gets underway on Monday, will have a different feel. No fans will be allowed to be on hand, as a water main break during the offseason has deemed the area where the grandstands sit unsafe. The team will have three public workouts in August at Qualcomm Stadium.

--No word on if the Chargers and QB Philip Rivers have begun preliminary talks on a contract extension. Rivers' current pact runs out at year's end.

--C Nick Hardwick said the number of players staying in San Diego and working at the facility during the offseason was impressive. "This is the most guys I've seen around in the weight room and working out," he said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's obvious (LaDainian) Tomlinson can be as productive as he ever has been." - Pro Bowl LG Kris Dielman on what he expects out of the running back after watching the offseason workouts.

PLAYERS TO WATCH


DE Luis Castillo
Doug Pensinger/Getty
Defensive end Luis Castillo: Castillo, as well as the team, sets the bar higher than his production last year. After signing a multi-year contract last year, the expectations for Castillo increased.

He responded with 53 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Not bad. But not great.

This year it figures Castillo could be another benefactor if Shawne Merriman returns. With offensive blocking schemes focused on Merriman, a three-time Pro Bowler, it should give Castillo more room to roam.

Castillo, who tweaked his back in last year's camp, is also fit.

"I've been able to train that way and work that way," Castillo said. "That's a great feeling when you feel like you can push your body at that level and you feel like you're ready to go."

Castillo is one of those unsung Chargers defenders needing to shine. If he, and other complementary players to the team's difference-makers - Merriman, tackle Jamal Williams - produce, the Chargers' defense will be stout.

Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman: While he didn't participate in the team workouts, Merriman is running with the trainers and appears set for camp. It's a big year for Merriman in many ways. Not only does he want to regain his status as being among the NFL's premier pass-rushers, but his contract expires at the end of the year. To date, the Chargers have not made a move toward a contract extension.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie: Cromartie, who said he played with a fracture in his hip last season, is working at 100 percent. He set a single-season record with 10 interceptions in his first season as a starter. His second season, he predicted he'd have 15 picks -- and fell short by just 13.

"I feel a whole lot stronger," Cromartie said during offseason workouts. "I still have to work the tightness out of (the hip). That's the main thing for me right now. I feel comfortable on the field, mostly because I'm breaking a lot better and I'm able to react to what I' m reading."

Positional battle: General manager A.J. Smith let right guard Mike Goff leave as a free agent, then watched him sign with division-rival Kansas City. Goff has certainly lost a step, but he was also a dependable anchor next to the somewhat unsteady right tackle spot held by Jeromey Clary.

Keenan Forney will enter training camp atop the depth chart, but he will be pushed by veteran Scott Mruczkowski and rookie Louis Vasquez. Vasquez is interesting because the 6-foot-5, 333-pounder out of Texas Tech is built for the position, but must prove he is ready to block NFL-caliber defensive linemen after playing in wide splits in the Red Raiders' spread passing attack.

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