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Chargers aim to reload third-down defense
SAN DIEGO – The Chargers went to New York on Oct. 23 and built a 21-10 halftime lead over the Jets.
At 4-1, San Diego appeared on course for its best six-game record since 2002.
But New York quarterback Mark Sanchez completed a third-and-5 and a third-and-7 during a third-quarter touchdown drive. Later, Sanchez hit Plaxico Burress for a three-yard score on third-and-goal to complete a fourth-quarter comeback.
The Chargers struggled in third-down situations all season, finishing 32nd in the NFL by allowing opponents to convert 49.2 percent of their opportunities. It’s a number San Diego’s coaches and personnel executives have harped upon for months.
“We were last in the National Football League,” General Manager A.J. Smith said. “We could not get off the field. If you can’t get off the field, you’re not going to win. I don’t care what other statistics are there.”
Head Coach Norv Turner put improving third-down defense as the third priority of the entire offseason, behind helping San Diego’s returning players get better and keeping as many of the Chargers’ good free agents as possible.
Good third-down defense constitutes pass rush and coverage, as teams are less likely to run the ball.
“If you can add players who can pressure the quarterback and then help them with the type of scheme we run, those two things are big to me,” Turner said. “And certainly the coverage people. We need to get better at covering the slot and the nickel linebacker to cover backs and tight ends. Those are areas I would think will be of big interest as we evaluate players.”
San Diego’s defense made 32 sacks in 2011, a drop-off of 15 from the previous year. Antwan Barnes (11 sacks) was the only player with more than four last season. Sacks are not the only way of evaluating quarterback pressure, but every NFL team always wants more of them.
“We need pass rushers. Each and every year. And until we get it right and have outstanding production, which always helps the back end, we just aren’t happy with where we are,” Smith said.
Shaun Phillips will help the Chargers if he returns to health as expected in 2012. San Diego’s most consistent pass rusher led the team in sacks from 2008-10, but missed four games with a foot injury last season. Phillips missed a combined four games in the first seven years of his NFL career.
In addition to evaluating players, potential roster changes and healing from injuries, the Chargers hope new linebackers coach Joe Barry, new secondary coach Ron Meeks and promoted defensive coordinator John Pagano can help improve the third-down numbers as well.
“He’s been around a long time and we have great faith in him,” Smith said of Pagano. “He’s going to take this over. It’s going to be his show and his leadership. If he can change that one statistic – by design, by scheme, by players – and we’ll do everything we can to get him the players – I think we’ll see a significant improvement and enhance our chances to be successful.
“That’s just one key stat. Never mind taking the ball away more and all the other stats I can quote at you. That one’s huge. If you don’t change being last in the league, you will fail. We need to correct it.”