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Sunday, September 21, 2008
Turnaround in San Diego depends on defense

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

 
 AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
 Antoine Cason and the San Diego Chargers hope to bounce back after their 0-2 start.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The last time Brett Favre played in an AFC West stadium on Monday Night Football, he won the game on a pass on the final play.

Sound familiar, Chargers fans? The nausea is understandable.

San Diego has seen enough last-minute passing heroics, thank you. If Favre, who beat Denver with a long strike in overtime last year on Monday night when he was still with Green Bay, sticks a dagger in the Chargers on Monday night, San Diego's once very realistic Super Bowl hopes will be on life support.

"We just can't have this stuff," said San Diego safety Eric Weddle, who has gotten an up-close view of the Chargers' two heartbreaking defeats. "We're killing ourselves. We can't keep giving away games or we're going to be in trouble."

Make that big trouble, Eric.

San Diego staggers into the matchup with Favre and the Jets stung like no other team in the history of the NFL.

The only souvenir, other than an 0-2 record, that San Diego has from the first two weeks of the 2008 season is the fact that it became the first team in league history to lose back-to-back games after having the lead in each with 30 seconds remaining.

On opening day, San Diego ruined a fourth-quarter comeback by allowing Carolina to drive down the field. The Panthers culminated the drive on fourth down with a 14-yard strike from Jake Delhomme to tight end Dante Rosario to give Carolina a 26-24 win.

Then, last Sunday, San Diego, which fought back from a 21-3 deficit, lost 39-38 in Denver when the Broncos scored on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Jay Cutler to rookie receiver Eddie Royal. Shocking the league, Denver coach Mike Shanahan decided to go for two and try to win the game. The Broncos ran the same pass play to Royal on the two-pointer as they did on the touchdown. It worked again.

Of course, the Chargers were the victims of a terrible call by official Ed Hochuli in which they should have been rewarded the ball on a Cutler fumble two plays before the touchdown. However, Hochuli blew the whistle early.

While the Chargers and Hochuli's call will be linked for the rest of the season, many San Diego defenders said they still had three more downs to make a big play and win the game. It never happened.

 
 Greg Trott/Getty Images
 Antonio Cromartie and the San Diego defense know they need to perform better to turn things around.

The Chargers are 0-2 because the pass defense betrayed them when it counted the most. The team knows it. The San Diego Union Tribune reported that the defense had a players' meeting Friday in which film was watched and some veterans spoke.

"We have to get better," said San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who was burned by Denver receiver Brandon Marshall as Marshall caught 18 passes, which is tied for the second most total in a game. "We have to."

After two brutal defeats, the Chargers realize they have to get themselves out of shock and try to remedy the problem. If the Chargers don't get better, they will be in the same situation they were in last year. That's the last thing coach Norv Turner wants this year. After San Diego advanced to the AFC Championship Game last season, the natural talk was that the Chargers were ready to take the final step and become a Super Bowl team.

Armed with one of the best rosters in the league, quarterback Philip Rivers said this spring that there was some urgency to get to the Super Bowl. This summer, linebacker Shawne Merriman said this season was San Diego's "best opportunity" to go to the Super Bowl.

The key, Merriman said, was to take control of September. Last year, the Chargers won their opener and then lost three games in a row. It made San Diego play from a hole all season. The Chargers were struggling even in November, as they were 5-5. Finally, the Chargers went on a roll, winning their final six games of the regular season.

The Chargers maintained all summer long that they had to avoid that type of stress this year.

It is high-blood pressure time in San Diego again.

"We can't put ourselves that same position again," San Diego defensive tackle Luis Castillo said. "We need to find a way to get better earlier."

Unfortunately for San Diego, its task may be more daunting this year after another slow start. Merriman is out for the season with a left knee injury. In the Chargers' first game without him, last week at Denver, they were unable to muster any pass rush, allowing Cutler to carve them up.

Without Merriman, the Chargers don't seem to have the defensive swagger they had in the recent past. Plus, Cromartie was exposed last week and the San Diego run defense doesn't seem to be as stout as it used to be.

All is not lost here. The defense still has plenty of talent. But there are certainly glaring repairs that need to be made on defense. And they have to be made now or the Chargers will be known as the best 59-minute, 30-second team in league history.