Defensive Depth Lifts Chargers into Playoffs

LB Stephen Cooper (Stephen Dunn/Getty)

It's the offense which hogs the spotlight for the Chargers, but don't overlook their improving defense.

Since taking the initial shock of losing Pro Bowl tackle Jamal Williams in the opener and others on the line falling to injuries, the Chargers are keeping afloat.

Among the reasons is the play from the inside linebackers, a group led by Stephen Cooper, the team's top tackler.

Coach Norv Turner praises his strength and smarts.

"Because he's done the football things that you are talking about, and he's stepped up another level in terms of being a leader and the quarterback of the defense," Turner said, with the Chargers continuing workouts during their playoff bye week.

"He makes things go by getting people lined up and runs the show when they get out on the field. Stephen (Cooper) is a very smart player who doesn't make mistakes. He's always been a real good tackler and has a good year in that area."

Cooper is among the group which includes steady, if not spectacular players. The linebacking unit has felt the influx of lunch-pail guys; ditto the secondary.

"I would definitely say guys like (defensive backs) Steve Gregory and Paul Oliver; (linebackers) Brandon Siler and Tim Dobbins," Cooper said, pointing to those getting overlooked. "Those are the kind of guys that go under the radar because they haven't been doing stuff in the past but this year they've been making big plays.

"Brandon Siler is playing great inside linebacker. Tim Dobbins is doing a great job. So are Steve Gregory and Paul Oliver on the back end. If we can keep playing at our level, those guys are going to show that they're stars."

The Chargers will learn where their playoff stars line up after the weekend. The Bengals, Jets or Patriots will head west for a divisional playoff game against the four-time defending AFC West champions and the AFC's No. 2 seed.

If the Chargers go deep into the postseason it's because of their defensive depth.

"Our defense, due to a lot of injuries this year, it showed how much depth we have," Cooper said. "Our coaches are doing a great job of putting us in position to make plays and putting us in positions where our strengths are and not our weaknesses."

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--With the extended rest OLB Shawne Merriman is getting for his sore foot -- he didn't play in the last regular-season game -- coach Norv Turner said he will be as fit as he has been in some time. The Chargers need Merriman's pass rush.

--WR Vincent Jackson (Achilles) is still being bothered by his ailment and the Chargers are being cautious here. Jackson is the key to the Chargers' deep passing game.

--K Nate Kaeding was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week. The weird part about it, despite all of the Chargers' offensive stars, he's the only Charger to be honored as a player of the week this season.

--WR Legedu Naanee (foot) is being watched closely but should be a full go by next week.

--DE Jacques Cesaire (elbow) is slowly coming back into practice and will start next week after missing the previous game. Cesaire's play -- and leadership -- is critical on a defensive line filled with backups.

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