The San Diego Chargers hosted the Seattle Seahawks in their preseason opener and although the Chargers dropped the game 20-14, the defense performed admirably. Free agent linebacker Kevin Burnett, along rookies Vaughn Martin and Kevin Ellison, stood out as the Chargers defense hopes to turn things around in 2009...
NEW STARS EMERGE ON CHARGERS DEFENSE
Welcome to San Diego, Kevin Burnett. As we expected all along, Burnett came to the Chargers to compete for a starting job, and as far as I'm concerned he earned it. Burnett's emergence as more than just a capable inside linebacker is a big reason why the Chargers didn't draft a player like Rey Maualuga and released Matt Wilhelm. AJ Smith and his staff saw something in Burnett, and on Saturday the fans got an opportunity to share in that view. Burnett was dynamic, making plays all over the field. They guy is freaky athletic; he's smooth and yet at the same time he's stout and powerful. He is a great tackler, he can shed blocks, and he even showed that he can pressure the QB when sent in on blitzes. Burnett is a monster, and he's put himself in position to be the starting 'MO' linebacker opposite Stephen Cooper.
Showing that he is ready to make that leap in year two, Antoine Cason played up to his billing as one of the best young nickel cornerbacks in the league. Cason was borderline dominant. Not only is the guy able to defense passes in the air, he can make a play on the ball and come down with the interception. Cason's tackling is very underrated; he's not at all afraid to get his jersey dirty. Cason will clean up the play and makes the stops that he's supposed to make. He's already at least as good as Drayton Florence was in San Diego, and he is entering only his second year. Cason will be a good player for a long time in this league.
Rookie Safety Kevin Ellison showcased his physicality and aggressive nature with a big hit on the running back behind the line of scrimmage. That was exactly the type of play that we haven't seen much of from the incumbent strong safety in years past. Ellison will continue to improve in his coverage assignments over the next few weeks, but he already displays excellent football IQ. Ellison understands the game, and is able to anticipate where the play is going. His "lack of timed speed" is rectified by his ability to diagnose and react. Ellison times his hits well, often resulting in a dropped pass by the receiver. Clinton Hart will be pushed by Ellison early for playing time.
Making steady progress into his development as an NFL player, Vaughn Martin seized his opportunity to start the first preseason game. Martin was active and powerful, running down the ball carrier at times, and getting a good push on the pocket. Martin still has areas in which he'll work on improving. Martin played a lot of snaps, and was noticeably winded during stretches of the game. Coach Norv Turner explains "I knew he'd be winded early. At the end of pregame warmups, he looked like he'd already played three quarters. The adrenaline and the excitement...can you imagine how he was feeling?"
Martin tends to play a little too high, and as a result he is susceptible at being knocked off of his base. He was pushed around by the offensive line at times because he plays too upright. If he can play with better leverage, he'll be impossibly stout at the line of scrimmage. He has an incredible tutor in his all-pro teammate Jamal Williams. If Martin can learn from Williams, he'll be a beast. As it stands, Martin has a chance to develop into an early starter but must continue to improve his technique and his consistency.
OTHER DEFENSIVE NOTES
Shawne Merriman played and looked okay - at least from my perspective, it did look a little like he was favoring his knee. He was a bit lopsided in running around, obviously compensating for his left knee. Merriman explained during training camp that part of his battle is to get back to the basics in terms of mechanics and positioning. As he grows to trust his knee, he'll fly around with the reckless abandon that we are used to seeing. For now though, it's probably better that he ease his way into playing full speed.
Jyles Tucker and Antoine Applewhite are fine backups and really add strong depth at outside linebacker. Tucker is the more athletic of the two, and was a quick burst up the field. He makes for a good WILL linebacker, backing up Shaun Phillips in that role. Applewhite on the other hand, plays a power game and uses his bulk and strength to take on blocks and stop the run. With English and Merriman ahead of him at SAM backer, he will likely become the fifth outside linebacker. If the Chargers do decided to carry six outside linebackers, Eric Bakhtiari is doing some nice work. He could push Jyles Tucker for that backup WILL linebacker spot. Bakhtiari probably needs to bulk up a bit more, but he has the frame to do so and already possesses some great natural athleticism.
The Chargers still need to find a backup nose tackle. They might be okay going into the season with the guys they have, but I don't see any way the Chargers go into next year's draft without targeting a nose tackle. Ian Scott is a good player, but he didn't really hold up too well against double teams. He's still making that transition from playing in a 4-3 to a 3-4 and has some work to do.
I liked what I saw out of rookie Brandon Hughes. He is a physical corner who isn't overwhelmed by the NFL game. Hughes has done some nice things in training camp, and has carried that over to the preseason. He made some coverage mistakes; not getting deep enough the endzone and allowing a touchdown. But Hughes has upside and a chance to make the team.
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