San Diego setting the right tone early

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
11:30
PM ET
ChargersChristopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireSan Diego's defense dominated Tennessee and held the Titans to 212 yards.
SAN DIEGO -- Every year the San Diego Chargers seem to set a tone early in the season.

It’s been only two games, but the Chargers deserve to be excited about what has happened so far. Despite being riddled by injuries on offense, they pushed their record to 2-0 with a convincing 38-10 win over Tennessee on a blazing day by the sea.

“It’s safe to say, after two weeks, that all it is, that this is the best start we’ve had around here in awhile,” Philip Rivers said. “We’ve made some mistakes but really both sides of the ball have been good.”

“Attention to details,” San Diego linebacker Takeo Spikes said. ”Credit goes to the coaching staff.”

We haven’t heard those words attached to Norv Turner lately. In the first few years of his tenure that started in 2007, the Chargers seemed to mostly start poorly only to turn it around late. Last year San Diego began 4-1, but it rarely looked good in the process and then the team went on a six-game tailspin.

What was most impressive about San Diego on Sunday, as was the case in a 22-14 win at Oakland last Monday night, was that it had dominant, smart and timely play by Rivers and that it was aggressive, hard-nosed, and physical on defense. Those were major goals for this team going in this season.

Rivers had his worst NFL campaign in 2011 (he improved after a tough first 10 games) and the defense often betrayed the Chargers, especially on third-down conversions, where they ranked last in the league. On Sunday the Chargers held Tennessee to 1-of-9 on third down.

“Last year, we were 4-1, but it didn’t feel right,” Rivers said. “Everything was a grind. We had to grind for first downs and we had to ground for stops. This feels different.”

It’s vital for this season to be different because this entire team is on the hot seat. Turner was kept by ownership -- despite the urging from much of the fan base -- because the players like and believe in him. The team also didn’t think there was a candidate better suited to lead the Chargers than Turner. But things will change quickly if they fail to make the playoffs for the third year in a row.

With an eighth of the season in the books, San Diego looks like it is serious about keeping Turner around. The Chargers have seen the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders stumble badly and both teams deserve their 0-2 starts. The Denver Broncos, however, were impressive in Peyton Manning's debut last week and they play at Atlanta on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” to end Week 2.

But the Chargers showed Denver they are not going to concede anything to Manning.

They quietly changed the culture of the team by bringing in more than a dozen veterans. The Chargers’ depth has been a problem in recent years and adding quality players throughout the roster was the approach general manager A.J. Smith took this offseason.

The free-agent acquisitions are already paying off for the Chargers, who played without four offensive starters. Tight end Dante Rosario, playing because star Antonio Gates was out with a rib injury, caught three touchdown passes from Rivers. Former Kansas City running back Jackie Battle added 69 yards rushing yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries as the Chargers continued to plug along without starting running back Ryan Mathews.

“I’ve said that all the new guys we brought in this year really add something,” Rivers said. “They are all guys who love football and they really help this team. Today, we saw guys like Rosario and Battle just come in do things when we needed them. We’re just very steady now.”

In addition to Gates and Mathews (they both should be back next week against visiting Atlanta barring setbacks), San Diego is playing without left tackle Jared Gaither and promising receiver Vincent Brown. Undrafted rookie Mike Harris is playing for Gaither. Brown will be back in about six weeks and there is no timetable for Gaither’s return.

Still, the San Diego offense is clicking. After going 1-for-5 in the red zone at Oakland, the Chargers were 5-for-6 against Tennessee.

“It’s all because of [Rivers],” said San Diego receiver Malcom Floyd, who had a game-high six catches for 109 yards. “We have guys out, but he keeps us all together and he makes the plays. He gets this offense going.”

However, the Chargers have been much more than an offensive show in 2012. The defense has been outstanding, even suffocating.

The Chargers have completely bottled up star tailbacks Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson. Last week, McFadden was held to 32 yards on 15 carries. Sunday, Johnson had 17 yards on eight carries and the Titans totaled 38 yards on 10 attempts on the ground.

San Diego’s defense is building an identity. It is swarming, physical and mean. This was a stagnant group last season under the fired Greg Manusky, but linebackers coach John Pagano was promoted and the improvements have been dramatic and immediate.

“The defense has been great,” Rivers said. “Offensively, we had some lulls at times, but they just kept plugging and plugging … That’s what good teams do.”

And for the first time in September under Turner, the Chargers can truly say they are a good team.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter

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