The Benefits Of Extra Practice

Among the many things affected by the lockout this offseason, perhaps the most negative impact was felt on the incoming rookies and first year players with new teams who have yet to log many practice hours in their new schemes. For the Chargers with many young faces on this year’s roster, that is certainly a concern of the coaching staff as they attempt to ready their club for the fast approaching regular season.

With an upcoming game on the preseason docket against the Dallas Cowboys slated for Saturday, the Bolts were pressed to get anything new installed in their game plan before that contest was set to kickoff. Thanks to NBC moving that game to Sunday evening instead, San Diego was given an additional 24 hours and two practices to fine tune things on their 10 day break between games.

A number of new players have been trying to get acclimated to the Chargers’ system over the past few weeks and any added practice time is welcome according to the coaching staff. Of the extra days, Head Coach Norv Turner said: "This week, to me, is about our football team taking a big step and when we're done with the Dallas game, us being significantly better than we are right now.” Much of that anticipated improvement is expected to take place because the starters are expected to play a great deal more than the 10 snaps they saw against the Seattle Seahawks.

The first team offense looked absolutely amazing on their one series against the Seahawks with Philip Rivers marching the team down the field for a touchdown in no time at all on that drive. Where the offense could really use some improvement however is in the running game where second year back Ryan Mathews needs to make more decisive moves at the line of scrimmage and get his pad level low while gaining positive yardage. His hesitance when approaching the line is definitely troubling to see as the Bolts desperately need a more balanced attack to keep opposing defenses honest during the coming season.

Mathews’ lack of stark improvement coupled with Mike Tolbert’s solid showing during the 2010 campaign nearly forced Coach Turner to pronounce the two as a shared backfield. There was plenty of talk about Mathews not being in great shape coming into camp, but he is trying to get past that already as he says that this year: "I'm not as nervous. It's my second year. I haven't been through my second year, but coming into this camp it shows me it's a lot different.” Even though Mathews doesn’t lack confidence, Turner was quite resolute in his declaration that there would be a two-back system in place saying at the end of last year: "This game has become so physical. You see so many eight-man fronts, and you want to run the ball. It saves them for a season and for a career." So while Mathews will see plenty of time, Turner has indicated that the starting running back will be dictated by the defense and the situation of the game.”

There should be plenty of opportunities for either back to have success this year as the Bolts look to balance things out in 2011, but don’t expect the philosophy to take a total one-eighty by any means.

Where the offense could receive an unexpected lift however is in the wide receiving corps where Patrick Crayton is one hundred percent and ready to contribute while many believe that last year’s underground phenom Seyi Ajirotutu is primed for a breakout season. Given the fact that the team drafted Vincent Brown in the third round and still has both Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson at the position as well, it seemed as if Ajirotutu would be a roster cut coming into the year.

That forced the relative unknown until midway through the 2010 season to dedicate himself into becoming a more complete player and really improving on his special teams play. The once long shot to even make the team is now one of the most enthusiastic players on kick coverage in practice and has shown a real passion for the little things within the game. Having a player like Ajirotutu showing heart and desire to make things happen on special teams goes a long way in setting a great example for everyone in the locker room in what is important for this team in 2011.

Perhaps the final piece to solidifying that fervor for making a deep playoff run in 2011 was set in place this past Friday afternoon when the Bolts officially welcomed back inside linebacker Stephen Cooper on a one-year deal at the veteran minimum salary. Many thought that Coop would be a cap casualty this season with more lucrative offers elsewhere, but as it turned out the Chargers were able to keep him in house at a bargain basement price. Getting his leadership back in the locker room is a huge positive for the young linebackers that the team is trying to groom for this season as well as years down the line. Obviously the signing of Takeo Spikes was also made with that same mindset as his 14 years experience along with Cooper’s 9 years will provide the young players like Donald Butler and Jonas Mouton with veteran standards to live up to.

With everything coming together for this Chargers team in these heightened weeks of preparation leading up to the start of the regular season, hopes are rightfully high among the majority of the fan base. There is definite reason for optimism and the Bolts will be trying to validate that confidence with their good play on the field as the preseason progresses.

Now it’s your turn to give your take. How important do you think the extra day with two practices is to the team’s preparation leading up to the preseason game against Dallas on Sunday? Do you expect to see Mathews carry the load in the Chargers’ backfield this season or will he and Tolbert have a pretty even split when it’s all said and done? Will Ajirotutu still have some spot duty at wide receiver this season or do you see him as solely a contributor on special teams in 2011? What kind of an impact will both Cooper and Spikes being in the linebacking corps have on the Chargers’ extremely young yet talented group? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

August 17, 2011

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