With the extra day of practice work under their belts in preparation for the Sunday night preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Chargers looked to continue their rehabilitation of a damaged special teams group versus the Boys. San Diego saw some promising signs from nearly every facet of their kick coverage and return units in their first preseason action with some solid punting as always from Mike Scifres as well as a kick return for a score from undrafted rookie free agent Bryan Walters.
During the regular season in 2010 however, these areas of the team were less than memorable as Scifres reflected on the mishaps of a year ago in an interview with CBS Sports saying: "It was tough. I don't know that we bought into what we were trying to do. Sometimes, I think we kind of gave up on what we were used to doing, and it just got tough. Other teams saw it, and it was like sharks in the water. It was definitely frustrating." The frustration that Scifres is referring to is still fresh in the minds of many Bolts fans as the team allowed 4 returns for touchdowns, had 5 kicks blocked, and gave up 150.5 yards per game on average in the return game.
The team’s move to a new special teams coach in Rich Bisaccia for the 2011 season was looked at mostly as a pass the buck type of decision, but it turns out that Bisaccia’s attitude has been a much needed breath of fresh air for a team with a philosophy that had grown tired. Head Coach Norv Turner spoke on those issues saying: "We changed a lot of the players in the kicking game -- a lot of those guys on the kickoff and coverage punt team are no longer on our football team -- and we changed coaches. And I think it's gotten everyone's attention. When I stand up there and talk about how important special teams are, no one's going to roll his eyes and say, 'Aw, every coach says that.' We lived it."
Hopefully the misfortune from the past is behind the Bolts for good in the kicking game and the solid effort from the coverage teams against the Cowboys went a long way toward solidifying that fact. The kickoff rule has been causing plenty of controversy around the league, but for a team like the Chargers who were burned so badly in kick coverage last year, the rule change is just what the doctor ordered. The extra five yards given to the kicking team forces the returners to either bring the ball out of the end zone or start on the 20 yard line and that added ultimatum clearly benefits the kicking side. San Diego’s punt coverage was equally impressive versus Dallas so it seems that Bisaccia’s addition in combination with the rule changes and turnover in special teams personnel has solved the riddle that was the Bolts special teams conundrum.
In the other two more heavily discussed aspects of the team, the Bolts showed some flashes of brilliance on Sunday evening. Philip Rivers again was spectacular hooking up with Vincent Jackson and Patrick Crayton on a number of great deliveries. His touchdown throw to Randy McMichael in the end zone was unquestionably his best toss of the night on a sideline delivery for the score. The running game showed signs of significant progress with Ryan Mathews making quicker decisions finding the holes decisively and making the most of any daylight he saw throughout the night. His development is going to be crucial in maintaining balance on offense while getting the running game back on solid ground.
As for the defense, they too had plenty of positives to take away from the evening’s work as the team’s safeties were impressive with Eric Weddle hauling in an interception and Bob Sanders flying around like the Bob Sanders of old. For a position that was once considered the team’s vulnerability, the safety spot might be the strongest area of the Bolts’ depth chart looking forward to the regular season. One place that could be a weakness however is the linebacking corps where play diagnosis and recognition seems to be lagging behind a bit. The defense looked susceptible to the opposing tight ends inside of the hash marks as well as screen passes underneath where they failed to corral the receiver on several occasions in the open field.
When asked about the defense following the game, Norv Turner said: “We did a good job going after the ball. We had a big hit to knock a ball out. I think we pressured the quarterback well. I was pleased with the way we tackled. A lot of things were good. I liked, obviously, the energy we're playing with.” Where the Bolts may have taken the biggest step forward on defense Sunday night was with their younger players including incoming rookie first rounder Corey Liuget as well as now second year pro Cam Thomas and third year player Vaughn Martin.
Martin led the team on the night with four solo tackles and two sacks while Thomas was strong in the trenches holding up well at the point of attack. The night belonged to Liuget however as his relentless pressure on the quarterback was quite noticeable right down to his fourth quarter strip sack of Stephen McGee. Turner offered some high praise for each of these guys as well saying: "Those guys, they've put a lot of time in. Cam, Vaughn and Corey, who is, as I've said a number of times, he's what we thought he was, hoped he was. They're getting opportunities to play, and that's how they're going to get better. Vaughn has grown up a great deal. He's such a physical player. He's such a physical presence. It's nice seeing him have production."
All in all, the Bolts have to be thrilled with the progress they saw week over week from game one to game two of the preseason. This team is really coming together and will only continue to grow as a unit as the season moves along and the confidence in the locker room swells. On the national scope, the Chargers may be under the radar as far as contenders go looking into the 2011 season, but it won’t be a surprise if this is their best year yet of the Philip Rivers era.
It’s time for you to chime in. Do you attribute the newfound success on special teams to the hiring of Rich Bisaccia or more to different personnel on those units? Will the kickoff rule change benefit the Chargers this year or will it end up hurting them? Has Philip Rivers been the most impressive Charger thus far in the preseason or is there another player making a bigger statement? Is it possible that the safety position is the deepest on the Bolts’ entire roster? Which young defensive player has impressed you the most this preseason: Vaughn Martin, Cam Thomas, or Corey Liuget? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
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