Chargers Training Camp Impressions: Defense & Special Teams

On Monday we reviewed our overall impressions from Chargers training camp and took a closer look at the offensive unit in practice. And in case you missed them, there were a number of training camp pictures posted on Monday and Wednesday here at BOLTHYPE. Today we take a closer look at the Chargers defense and special teams based on our visit to the Chargers’ compound in Mission Valley.

The Chargers 2011 draft and offseason acquisitions had a decidedly defensive focus to them. One might think that so much change would be surprising for a unit ranked number one overall, but the Chargers defense in 2010 seemed to be at times as much smoke-and-mirrors as consistent, dominating defense. A unit that was often very good had too many 4th quarter struggles and just enough complete collapses (versus the Bengals in particular) to contribute to the Chargers post season absence for the first time since 2005.

With an eye toward improving a unit with a number of highly regarded defensive studs- names like Quentin Jammer, Shaun Phillips, Antonio Garay, and Antoine Cason, the Chargers made resigning safety Eric Weddle a priority while searching outside of the team to bring in additional veteran leadership and toughness. Safety Bob Sanders, and linebackers Takeo Spikes and Travis LaBoy join the team in 2011, and there presence has made an immediate impact in training camp.

While watching Chargers players warm-up and go through drills, you can typically expect Philip Rivers and Norv Turner to be close and talking to each other for a majority of practice. It’s almost like those two are stuck like glue. If Rivers and Turner’s bond is like Elmers glue, then Sanders and Weddle are stuck like Crazy Glue- seriously, those two are practically inseparable in practice. When the first unit is on the field, they are in constant communication. When on the sideline, they are never apart and always talking about what’s happening on the field.

What has received less attention is the relationship between Spikes and LaBoy, who prior to 2011 formed their bond while with the 49ers. Along with new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, the veteran linebackers could often be found huddling together reviewing different schemes and plays, and taking an active role in coaching the younger guys around them. Spikes in particular seems to be a part of everything happening defensively.

In fact, the additional veteran presence in camp was most obvious in the amount of coaching and communication happening on the field and on the sideline. The defensive unit in particular seemed to be playing more than ever as one unit rather than a group of individuals, with greater accountability and higher expectations. It was rare to hear a coach critique defensive players on the field, as the players themselves seemed to take on that responsibility. Naturally, players made mistakes (in particular, Phillips could be heard shouting a loud expletive after blowing a read and leaving a tight end open), but the important thing is that these guys are talking and learning together. Overall in 11-on-11 drills, the defense was killing it.

That communication will be key to helping young guys like inside linebacker Donald Butler, who took every 1st team snap with the defense (there was no sign of Jonas Mouton in this particular practice), cornerback Marcus Gilchrist, who took most of the snaps in place of an injured Antoine Cason, and Corey Liuget, who ceded 1st team snaps to Jacques Cesaire but is already being praised for his knowledge and talent on the field.

Manusky himself was not the loud, boisterous personality whom I expected to see on the field, but you could not say the same about new special teams coach Rich Bisaccia. When it was time for the special teams units to perform, Bisaccia ran a very tight practice and held nothing back. He had 1st and 2nd team units lined up and ready to perform, and he ran each unit like an assembly line sending cogs through a machine- line-up, kick, run, line-up, kick, run. Things seemed to move much more quickly on special teams than in previous years. Bisaccia expected maximum effort on every play, and did not let up after the play, demanding players move quickly and maintain their focus.

In a camp that seemed more physical than in recent years, special teams drills were no exception. While these drills are most non-tackling drills, there were a few hits because players are already trying to maintain their lanes and not give up any room to an opposing player. Alternately fielding punts on punt return teams in this practice were Patrick Crayton and Brian Walters, while later the kickoff unit was the focus, with Seyi Ajirotutu bringing a smile to my face as the gunner, reminiscent of Kassim Osgood.

With all of the changes on defense and special teams, which players do you believe to be the keys to the Chargers’ success or failure this year? Sound off below and let your voice be heard!

Check out Chargers Training Camp Impressions, Part I here.

Check out Chargers Training Camp photos here and here.

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August 11, 2011

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