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Analyst: Chargers’ best is coming

Posted Oct 14, 2011

Former NFL general manager Charley Casserly likes the Chargers’ improvements in the running game and feels San Diego will continue to play better as the season progresses.

SAN DIEGO – Charley Casserly was general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans during a long NFL career.

Among players that Casserly drafted: Brian Mitchell, Champ Bailey, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams.

Now part of the media, Casserly answered a few questions about NFL trends and the San Diego Chargers this week.

It’s obvious the NFL is trending toward more points and more passing yards, but through the first five weeks of this season, do you think offenses are ahead of the pace you might expect to see in the near future?

It’s surprised me. Coming out of preseason without an offseason and less practice time, I thought the defenses could’ve been ahead, especially with blitzing and pass protection issues. But it’s kind of been reversed. The offenses have put up all the yards and points.

I think it’s a couple of things: teams are using more spread, and that’s always been a trend, more shotgun, more wide-open. Carolina’s probably the best example. They drafted a quarterback and they put him out there with a wide open offense.

Another thing, it’s hard to judge this, but I’ve got to believe that the lack of offseason time and the diminished practice time in preseason has hurt defenses. There hasn’t been enough time to put in new schemes and get practice reps on all the different schemes and situations that you have to react to. In the end, I think the defenses are a little bit behind the offenses. They’re catching up.

Kansas City and Oakland have been in the top 10 in the NFL rushing the ball the last two years, and now you have Willis McGahee getting going pretty good in Denver. Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert lead the NFL with more than 1,000 total yards of offense. How important is it in the AFC West at this point to have a good run defense?

You’ve got an excellent point. Everybody’s running the ball well. Having a good run defense is going to be essential here. At the end of the day, to be a championship team, you have to be able to stop the run. If you’re weak stopping the run, that’s a slow death. If you can’t stop the pass, that becomes a much quicker death, if you will. Ultimately, you do have to have balance, though.

Mathews is third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and Tolbert has 28 catches through five games. What do you see in terms of their development?

First of all, give (General Manager) A.J. Smith credit for making a bold move to move up (16 spots) with a trade and pick Mathews (at No. 12 overall). They were concerned that he wasn’t going to be there, and they were right. He wouldn’t have been there with that pick. I think that’s No. 1. In watching him, I see a guy that’s improved a lot from last year. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. I think you can see where he’s improved is in the passing game. His pass protection. He can catch the ball well coming out of the backfield. He’s got instincts. He’s got speed. So I think that in everything you see, he’s improved. I think his decision-making is better than it was a year ago. All of those areas he’s improved in, but I don’t think he’s doing anything that the Chargers didn’t expect when they traded up to get him.

What do you make of the Chargers’ offensive line?

I think it’s a group that has played well together. Getting Marcus McNeill back for an entire training camp and preseason, that’s a big plus for him. I mean, this guy’s going to the Pro Bowl. Another thing, offensive lines like to run the ball. They like to be physical. They like to take it to their opponent. And the more you run the ball, the better you’re going to run it, because there’s a certain rhythm to the running game that you get when you get into a pattern or a groove on it, and I think the Chargers are doing a good job with that.

It seems like defenses have dropped everyone in deep coverage against the Chargers this year and tried to force San Diego to execute down the field five, six yards at a time. What have you made of that, and the way the Chargers’ offense tends to evolve based on what defenses do?

I think the thing you have to think about with Norv Turner’s offense, what people will tell you is that it’s a deep passing game. They do a good job of scheming to get people open. When Vincent Jackson is in the game, you have a legitimate Pro Bowl receiver. At some point, hopefully Antonio Gates comes back and then you’ve got a tight end who’s a legitimate Pro Bowl player and that will especially help you in the red zone. Because of the Chargers’ ability to throw deep and Philip Rivers’ ability to throw deep, you’ve got to respect that game. You know they’re always going to challenge you and stretch the field that way. So it’s logical people will play it. That’s where the running game puts people in a bind. You can’t really defend a good running game with a seven-man front. But if you walk up the eighth man, it’s going to open up the passing game. So with that balance, especially when the Chargers get everybody back, their best football is yet to come.

We’re five games into the tenure of Greg Manusky on defense and Rich Bisaccia on special teams. What do you see from them early in their time with the Chargers?

A year ago, it was just one bad break after another on special teams that cost the Chargers games. So obviously they’ve eliminated that part of it there. That’s improved, and then Greg Manusky’s a proven defensive coordinator. He did an outstanding job in San Francisco. And he’s a hard-nosed guy. I think as time goes on the defense will continue to improve as they play the techniques he wants them to. I think slowly but surely the defense will continue to improve from where it is right now.

The Chargers are 4-1. It seems like based on the opponents they’ve played and the score of the games, there’s varying opinions or perceptions about how the team’s playing or how good they are. What’s your take on them?

I think they’re a little inconsistent at this point on offense. I think that will improve just with time and execution and getting some healthy people back. Defensively I think they’ll continue to improve with their scheme. The New England game on the road, a tough one to win, they lost, but clearly it was a winnable game for them. And that’s one thing you have to look at there. They certainly weren’t outplayed by New England to the point where they couldn’t go back and beat them if they played them again. Obviously the Chargers have shown a pattern under Norv Turner to finish strong and to me, based on people getting healthy on offense and more time in the scheme for the defense, this team should continue to get better for the rest of the season. The important thing is you’re 4-1 and you’re in first place in the division and you’ve been the best team in the division over the first month of the season.

Charley Casserly serves as an NFL insider for The NFL Today on CBS. You can follow him on Twitter: @CasserlyCBS.
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