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Next Man Up Mentality for Linebackers
It’s been a tough year health-wise for the San Diego Chargers linebackers.
First, Melvin Ingram tore his ACL during OTA’s, and has been rehabbing ever since that fateful day in May. Next up, in the early days of training camp, inside linebacker Jonas Mouton also tore his ACL and was lost for the season. A few weeks later, second-round pick Manti Te’o sprained his foot in the first preseason game and didn’t return to the field until Week 4 of the regular season, the same game, Dwight Freeney tore his quad and was placed on the season-ending reserve-injured list. Joining him on IR recently was fellow outside linebacker Larry English, who suffered a pectoral injury while sacking Peyton Manning on Sunday. In addition to this myriad of injuries, add in the fact that Jarret Johnson and Donald Butler have both missed three games due to their own number of injuries. Needless to say, it’s been a tough luck position for the Bolts linebacker unit.
However, the Chargers aren’t feeling sorry for themselves. Every team suffers multiple injuries over the course of the year, and it’s up to the team as to how they want to respond.
“I can't control injuries,” said Head Coach Mike McCoy. “You have no control over them. It's all part of the game. No one is going to feel sorry for us on Sunday. I don't have the best answer for you. If I had the answer for why they were happening, hopefully I would have prevented them. Every team deals with it throughout the year. We have had our fair share of them."
For the Chargers, it’s a next man up mentality. All you have to do is look at the amount of games started by different players at the position to understand how deep the team’s depth is being tested; Johnson (6), Te’o (6), Butler (5), Freeney (4), Andrew Gachkar (3), Bront Bird (2), Reggie Walker (2), Tourek Williams (2) and Thomas Keiser (1).
The last two on that list, Williams and Keiser, have embodied that notion of stepping up. Williams had the first sack of his career last week on a strip-sack of Peyton Manning, while Keiser had a two sack game against the Jacksonville Jaguars then led the entire team with three QB hits against Denver.
“This is all about having a next man up mentality,” said Williams, the team’s sixth-round pick out of Florida International. “That is what Coach McCoy always tells us. We just have to go out there and do whatever is necessary to get the job done. I’ve learned a lot by the veterans that are here. I learned a lot from Freeney when he was here and told me I have to go as hard as I can and as fast as I can. He taught me how to read offensive linemen. From Jarret I learned about being a professional and the work ethic needed to be successful. He works as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Like Williams, Te’o is a rookie. He’s gotten better each and every week after missing the vast majority of training camp and the preseason. Now that the team has a fair amount of tape on him, Pagano said they have a better understanding of the second-round pick. And as a result, he’s eager to add a few new wrinkles into how he’s been used.
“We are finally through our evaluation process of Te'o through like a preseason atmosphere,” he said. “We have enough plays on him now that we can do some different things on him because when you miss a full preseason and only play nine plays, but then I think he came back in Dallas and got 14, then getting up to the 30 level and now you have played a bunch of games where Manti is getting comfortable in the things he is doing.”
Te’o for one is looking forward to adding more to his plate now that he feels he has his feet under him.
“My comfort level is a lot higher now than when I first got back,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn, but for the most part I’m starting to branch out and the coaches are trusting me a lot more. They are giving me a lot more opportunities to make plays, so I’m going to continue to work hard so when my time comes, I have done everything I can to be successful.”
Having a guy like Donald Butler next to him certainly goes a long way toward meeting that goal. Te’o and Butler have played just three games together, but Pagano likes what he sees in the pair when they are out on the field at the same time.
"You see a guy that has played for three or four years (Butler) and you see someone as a younger player (Te’o),” he said. “When you have a veteran next to him that has played the game, it helps just to have them talking with one another. That's a big plus… (For Butler) I think the biggest thing I want him to do out there on the field is be that leader of our defense where he is making the calls and getting everything out. He has had his ups and downs through injuries, coming back and getting back to that playing speed. His number one is study habits, how he practices and how he is in the meeting rooms. That is where his growth has come from. He just doesn't assume to show up and play. You have to put a lot of work in. He's doing that and you see the growth in him."
The Bolts got Butler back last week against the Broncos, and the hope is that Johnson can return this week against the Miami Dolphins. The veteran linebacker returned to practice Thursday on a limited basis.
"Anytime you can get a veteran player back is great,” said Pagano. “Any chance you have of getting a guy back, and hopefully we do get Jarret back, is definitely going to help us."