AFC West: Corey Liuget

SAN DIEGO -- I wanted to share leftover notes from the only open session for the San Diego Chargers' organized team activities this week.

The Chargers have another OTA practice closed to reporters Wednesday but will open things up to the media again Monday.

Oliver impresses: Undrafted rookie free-agent running back Branden Oliver caught my eye again Monday. The University of Buffalo product does not have elite top-end speed, running a 4.56-second, 40-yard time at his pro day. But he consistently showed good vision and quickness through the hole during 11-on-11 drills, with the ability to make defenders miss. Again, take this with a grain of salt because guys do not have pads on and no one is tackling anybody. But Oliver looks like he belongs so far running with the second and third units.

Depth at defensive end: The Chargers have a pretty good defensive end combination with Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes but not much depth behind those two. Lawrence Guy provided good minutes and had an impact as a spot guy last year. Sean Lissemore can slide out from nose guard and play defensive end. The Chargers also are hopefulDamik Scafe can stay healthy and play to his potential. The Boston College product had chance to make the final roster last season but suffered a foot injury and was released with an injury settlement. The Chargers brought Scafe back on the practice squad at the end of last season and signed him to a futures contract in January. Undrafted rookie free agent Tenny Palepoi also has shown flashes at times during practice.

Open competition at returner: San Diego has a lot of bodies competing for punt return duties so far during offseason work. Rookie receivers Brelan Chancellor, Javontee Herndon and Tevin Reese, along with veterans Eddie Royal and Keenan Allen, caught punts during the specialty period. I wouldn't rule out Royal or Allen handling punt return duties come September. Royal started 2013 as San Diego's main punt returner but yielded to Allen during the second half of the season due to a nagging toe injury. And Allen has said that he'd like to return punts again, although San Diego coach Mike McCoy might not like the idea of his No. 1 receiver fielding punts for a second straight year.

Competition at punter: A player to keep an eye on is undrafted rookie free-agent punter Chase Tenpenny, whose presence is viewed as a move to save veteran punter Mike Scifres' leg during the offseason. At 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds, the Nevada product looks more like a defensive end than a punter. Tenpenny, a left-footed punter, averaged 44 yards a boot at Nevada and finished with 30 punts out of 100 attempts downed inside the 20-yard line. Scifres had a solid 2013 season. He was among the best punters in the NFL in placing the ball inside the 20-yard line, finishing with a league-best 30 of 56 punts inside the 20. He can also kick field goals in a pinch. But Scifres turns 34 in October and is set to earn the second-highest salary among punters for the upcoming season at $3.25 million. Competition at the position could have Scifres thinking about taking a pay cut.

Chargers offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
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With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the San Diego Chargers’ offseason moves.

Best move: Some NFL analysts panned San Diego's signing of running back Donald Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million deal in free agency. Critics surmised that San Diego had more pressing needs on defense and the Chargers could get a cheaper alternative through the draft. But by signing Brown, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco locked up a known entity that will lessen the load for workhorse Ryan Mathews, particularly if San Diego advances deep in the playoffs for a second straight season.

[+] EnlargeDonald Brown
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDonald Brown, 31, adds depth to a Chargers backfield that already includes Ryan Mathews.
Brown also protects the Chargers should Mathews or Danny Woodhead not come back after the 2014 season. Both are set to hit free agency in 2015. Finally, with as much as head coach Mike McCoy likes to run the ball, the Chargers cannot have too much depth at running back and actually drafted Marion Grice in the sixth round to further bolster that group.

Riskiest move: There is no doubt cornerback Jason Verrett has the skills and mentality to be an effective cover cornerback in the NFL. Still, drafting a smaller cornerback when the trend is to use bigger players on the perimeter is a risky proposition for the Chargers. That Verrett is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and will not be ready to practice until August could leave San Diego looking at a slow transition for the TCU product. That is not good news for a defense that needs immediate help in the secondary.

Most surprising move: Perhaps the most surprising move is one San Diego chose not to make by passing on bringing in a big-name receiver in free agency and waiting until the seventh round to select Baylor speedster Tevin Reese. Receiver was considered a need position for the Chargers heading into this offseason. But as a seventh-round pick, Reese is not guaranteed to make the final roster. So perhaps the Chargers believe Vincent Brown will finally play up to his potential in 2014 and Malcom Floyd can return healthy from a serious neck injury that cut short his 2013 season. The Chargers need a consistent deep threat to emerge opposite second-year pro Keenan Allen.

Double-digit sack guy needed: Corey Liuget led the Chargers in sacks for the second year in a row with 5.5 in 2013. That can’t happen again in 2014. Someone from among a group of edge-rushers that includes Dwight Freeney, Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu must emerge as double-digit sack guy for this team to generate a more consistent pass rush and help a young secondary.
This has always been a critical year in the relationship between Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller and the Denver Broncos.

With Miller still recovering from ACL surgery and slated to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2014 season, team officials face their first major decision about Miller's contract. The team has until May 3 to exercise an option year in Miller's rookie deal that would put him under contract for 2015. With 15 days before the deadline, the Broncos had not yet reached a decision as Friday's business day drew to a close.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesDenver has two weeks to decide whether it will exercise an option on Von Miller's rookie contract.
In 2011, the first year of the current collective bargaining agreement, teams were given the option of a fifth year for first-round draft picks as part of the transition to the new rookie wage scale.

The "fifth-year option" must be engaged by May 3 and the option-year salary doesn't become guaranteed until March of 2015. So, it is possible for teams to engage the option year and potentially release the player at a later date before the base salary is guaranteed.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Friday that the San Francisco 49ers did not plan to engage the fifth-year option on defensive end Aldon Smith, who was the No. 7 pick of that draft, but several players have been informed their teams would pick up the option. This includes Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (the No. 11 pick), Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (No. 5) and San Diego Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget (No. 18).

The Broncos made Miller the No. 2 pick of that draft, behind Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. With 30 sacks over his first two seasons, including 18.5 in 2012, Miller looked to be on the fast track to elite status in the league.

Miller then opened the 2013 season with a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy -- a violation that now subjects him to testing up to 10 times a month for the rest of his career. Several off-the-field issues, including an arrest last summer on a failure-to-appear warrant and several traffic violations, also dogged him last year.

He then tore his ACL against the Texans' in December and again raised some eyebrows with the team when he tried to attend a Seattle Seahawks victory party following the Broncos' 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

For the first 10 picks of the 2011 draft, the salary for the option is this year's transition tag salary in free agency at their respective positions. The figure is calculated as an average of the top 10 salaries at those spots. For Miller that would mean a $9.754 million salary if he's on the roster when the new league year begins next March.

If the Broncos decline the option and Miller returns from his injury and shows his former speed and explosiveness and more maturity off the field, the team could still use the franchise tag to keep him.

That scenario would cost slightly more since the franchise tag salary for linebackers was $11.455 million this year and could be higher next season. A franchise player's salary is guaranteed the moment the player signs the tender. Some players sign them as soon as they receive them to guarantee the money, and some wait until training camp, hoping a long-term deal is worked out instead.

The Broncos and Miller could, if both sides found some common ground, still negotiate a long-term extension.

Miller said at an appearance for his foundation Monday that he continues to work hard to return from his knee injury, and that he wants to return "a better player" than he was. The Broncos open their offseason conditioning program Monday, but Miller will not participate. He will continue with his knee rehab with the team's trainers and strength and conditioning staff.
SAN DIEGO – Defensive end Corey Liuget was a surprise addition to the San Diego Chargers' injury report on Thursday, apparently suffering a knee injury during practice. He was listed as a limited participant.

And for a second day in a row, center Nick Hardwick (neck) and receiver Eddie Royal (toe/chest) did not practice. Hardwick is expected to play against the New York Giants on Sunday.

Other than that, everyone practiced fully for the Chargers. Coach Mike McCoy said this week that his team is the healthiest it's been all season.

“It’s nice when you can come off of the field like we did the other day after the game and not have to worry about X number of guys being injured,” McCoy said “And on Monday morning worrying about what did the tests reveal. We’ve been as healthy as we’ve been in a long time.”

Left tackle King Dunlap (neck), right tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle), defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe), receiver Lavelle Hawkins (knee) and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (hand) were full participants.

No happy homecoming for Liuget

November, 17, 2013
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- It’s not the homecoming San Diego Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget imagined, playing in front of his family and friends in his return to his hometown of Miami.

The third-year pro out of Illinois finished with three tackles, no sacks and no quarterback hurries.

Liuget
Even worse, Liuget totaled two penalties against the Miami Dolphins, including a costly roughing the passer personal foul that wiped out a defensive turnover for the Chargers.

“I have to do my job, and I did it very poorly today,” Liuget said. “I had some of the biggest and costly penalties of the game. I had a pretty awful game. It was different today.”

Liuget attended Hialeah High in Miami, where he earn all-state honors in football and also wrestled. Liuget had been San Diego’s most consistent defensive lineman up until Sunday’s game.

His costly penalty occurred in the second quarter. On second-and-6 from San Diego’s 12-yard line, safety Eric Weddle forced Miami receiver Brian Hartline to fumble while trying to cross the goal line.

Cornerback Shareece Wright recovered the fumble, and the Chargers appeared to thwart a promising Miami scoring drive.

However, Liuget was whistled for taking Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill down late on the play.

“Once I hit him I was like, ‘Oh crap, the ball is gone,’” Liuget said. “When I saw him on the ground, at first I thought I had a sack and I was like, ‘Let me help him up.’ And then I saw the flags coming.”

Liuget had one of five defensive off sides penalties for San Diego, as Tannehill did a nice job of altering his cadence to take advantage of the Chargers’ antsy defensive linemen. Although he had a sack, Thomas Keiser also had three of the five defensive line of scrimmage infractions.

“It was shown a little bit on film,” Weddle said. “But after the first couple series you should be adjusted to it. And we weren’t. So there’s no explanation you can give us as to why you should continue to be off sides. It’s unacceptable, and they know that. And our guys will learn from it.”

Brenner faces hometown team: A San Diego-area native who prepped at nearby Oceanside High, Miami offensive lineman Sam Brenner got his first career start against his hometown Chargers.

With guard Richie Incognito and tackle Jonathan Martin already out indefinitely due to the controversy involving those two, and center Maurkice Pouncey a late scratch due to an illness, Brenner was added from Miami’s practice squad to the team’s active roster this weekend, and started at left guard for the Dolphins.

Brenner was an undrafted rookie free agent out of Utah who went to training camp with the Dolphins, was released during final roster cut downs and signed to Miami’s practice squad.

“I was just really grateful for the opportunity -- that these coaches gave me this opportunity to come up and play tonight – the opportunity to make this team better and contribute to a win,” Brenner said. “I was just really excited about that.”

Injury update: Cornerback Johnny Patrick suffered a head injury and did not return for San Diego. Rookie receiver Keenan Allen appeared to suffer a knee injury late in the second half, and was replaced by Seyi Aijrotutu, who had a couple big catches on San Diego’s final drive of the game during the two-minute drill.

Rapid Reaction: San Diego Chargers

November, 17, 2013
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MIAMI -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 20-16 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Chargers lost their third game in a row to a very beatable opponent. At 4-6, San Diego faces an uphill climb to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009. According to ESPN Stats & Info, under the current playoff format, which began in 1990, only seven percent of teams to start 4-6 went on to make the playoffs.

More tackling practice needed: The Chargers missed at least eight open-field tackles defensively, including four on one play when Miami tight end Charles Clay took a route in the flat to the end zone for a 39-yard score. San Diego gave up a 74-yard touchdown reception to Denver tight end Julius Thomas last week on a similar pattern.

Penalties prove costly: Heading into the game against Miami, the Dolphins averaged six penalties a game. The Chargers finished with a season-high 10 penalties for 76 yards against Miami. Costly penalties by San Diego included Corey Liuget's roughing the passer penalty that erased a fumble recovery by cornerback Shareece Wright. Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas scored two plays later from a yard out. Philip Rivers also was called for an illegal forward pass while crossing the line of scrimmage in delivering a 5-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Gates. The Chargers had to settle for a Nick Novak 27-yard field goal.

Mathews tops 100 yards: For the third time this season, running back Ryan Mathews eclipsed 100 yards rushing, finishing with 127 yards on 19 carries. Mathews’ total included a career-high 51-yard run.

Red-zone woes continue: Once again, the Chargers settled for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns in the red zone. San Diego finished 1-for-3 inside the 20-yard line, twice settling for Novak field goals, from 29 and 27 yards out. On the final play of the game, Rivers failed to connect with receiver Seyi Ajirotutu from 25 yards on a go route in the end zone.

What’s next: The Chargers hit the road for a second straight week, looking for the team’s first AFC West division win, at Kansas City, next Sunday.
SAN DIEGO -- For the first time, San Diego Chargers defensive lineman Corey Liuget discussed his hit on Denver quarterback Peyton Manning during the final minutes of his team's loss to the Broncos last week.

Liuget
Manning injured his right ankle on the play, and the Broncos sent the play into the league as a questionable hit because there was contact below the knee. Check out the play here.

However, the league said that Liuget's hit was a legal play. Liguet was not flagged for the play and will not be fined by the NFL. On the play, Liuget made initial contact above Manning's knees to his thigh area before wrapping below the knees and taking him down.

"I didn't really pay too much attention to it," Liuget said. "But the NFL said it was a legal hit, so I guess it is a good hit then."

Liuget was asked if he was concerned that some would think he intentionally tried to injure Manning.

"That's Peyton Manning," he said. "I'm never in the game to hurt anyone or go after anyone. And my whole thing was to just try and make a play.

"I know my real true intentions. And the league knows that it wasn't a dirty hit or anything. So I'm totally fine with what I did on the play."

Injury update: Five players did not practice Wednesday according to San Diego's injury report -- outside linebacker Jarret Johnson (hamstring), receiver Eddie Royal (toe), center Nick Hardwick (neck), left tackle King Dunlap (neck) and fullback Le'Ron McClain (ankle).

Guard Chad Rinehart (toe) and safety Jahleel Addae (ankle) were limited participants. Defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe), running back Ryan Mathews (hamstring), tackle Mike Remmers (ankle) and linebacker Manti Te'o (elbow) were full participants.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy said that Dunlap suffered a neck strain and not his third concussion, as the team previously reported during the Denver game last week.

McCoy does not know how long Dunlap will be out.

McCoy also got his first look at outside linebacker Adrian Robinson, who replaces Larry English on the 53-man active roster. English was placed on the injured reserve list with a season-ending pectoral injury.

"He was a player that we worked out earlier this season that we were looking at if we needed to add an outside linebacker," McCoy said about Robinson. "He's played in a scheme similar to ours obviously in the past in Pittsburgh a little bit. And then he was in Denver this past offseason, so it's a good fit for what we're looking for."
 
SAN DIEGO -- At 4-4 overall at the midpoint, the San Diego Chargers are about where they should be heading into the season's backstretch.

Quarterback Philip Rivers' bounce-back season has been one of the main storylines for this team, along with the return of a competitive spirit established by first-year head coach Mike McCoy.

Still, the Chargers face a daunting schedule if they want to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. San Diego still has five AFC West division contests left -- two each against division leaders Kansas City and Denver.

 
Philip Rivers and DeAngelo Hall USA Today SportsDeAngelo Hall, right, and the Redskins' secondary will try to slow down Philip Rivers, who has completed a league-best 73.9 percent of his passes.
This isn’t a compelling game when it comes to storylines. No big-name player is facing his former team. There’s no grudge match. And, in fact, San Diego and Washington have played each other only three times in the past 14 years, and not since 2010.

Still, there is a lot going on in this game. If the 2-5 Washington Redskins are intent on turning their season around, they need to win. Even in a bad division, a 2-6 record would be tough to overcome. At some point, teams just have to play well, and the Redskins must prove that can happen.

For San Diego, the Chargers’ 4-3 start is a good one. However, if they want to stay in the AFC playoff race or remain a threat in the AFC West, they can’t afford to lose to a sub-.500 team.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Redskins reporter John Keim break down this week's game:

Robert Griffin III threw 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions in winning rookie of the year honors in 2012. This season, he’s thrown nine touchdowns and eight interceptions through seven games. What has changed with his decision-making?

Keim: Griffin is used to making big plays, and last year, a number of them occurred because of his legs, whether running or extending plays. But that’s not always happening, and in games where his legs aren't a weapon, he has forced some throws. Not all the interceptions are his fault, of course, but in general, that’s been a theme: forcing throws. Also, they’re not able to use as much play-action throws as last year because of game situations, and when that happens, he and the passing game are very, very ordinary. They need to move defenders around, causing chaos in drops, with their zone-read fakes and play fakes. Denver also kept seven in coverage last week, and that’s always trouble for a unit that has just one receiver who threatens a defense in Pierre Garcon (although tight end Jordan Reed does now, too).

Philip Rivers’ stock has dropped the past couple of seasons. But under a new coach, he’s playing at a high level. Why?

Williams: Coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt installed an up-tempo, no-huddle offense focused on the short passing game and getting the ball out quickly. The result has been better decision-making for Rivers. He leads the league in completion percentage this season at 73.9 percent, which is nearly 10 percent more than his career average (64.3). And his 111.1 passer rating (second in the NFL) is more than 15 points higher than his career rating of 95.6. San Diego’s offensive line also has done an excellent job of protecting Rivers. The Chargers have allowed just 11 sacks through seven games, tied for second-best in the NFL.

Washington’s defense is allowing 32.7 points a contest, second-worst in the NFL. Why is Jim Haslett’s defense struggling to keep teams out of the end zone?

Keim: The defense struggled mightily in the first four games but has mostly done its job in the past three games, when the Redskins have been hurt by special teams (two punt returns for a score; a 90-yarder to set up another one) and the offense (turnovers deep in their own territory; an interception return for a score). But this is not a top-level unit by any means. The Redskins' secondary has holes, especially at safety, and the linebackers, as a group, aren't great at coverage. But they've played the run better of late, and they’re causing turnovers. They have two good but not great pass-rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. They have a good nose tackle in Barry Cofield. So they have good parts. They played great for three quarters against Denver; alas, the game went four.

Why has the Chargers’ pass rush been more productive lately?

Williams: Defensive coordinator John Pagano has used some creative defensive fronts and exotic blitz packages to manufacture pressure. Along with that, the ability of interior defensive linemen such as Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes to push the pocket inside have created one-on-one matchups for San Diego’s inexperienced edge rushers. And guys such as Thomas Keiser and Larry English have taken advantage of their opportunities.

Speaking of opportunities, Alfred Morris has followed up an impressive rookie campaign by rushing for 565 yards and four touchdowns through seven games. He leads all running backs with a robust 5.23 yards per carry. How has Morris remained effective, even with Griffin struggling?

Keim: Good question. Morris is better than he was a year ago, thanks to even better vision and stronger legs. Both qualities were good last year, too. Defenses have keyed more on him, knowing that on zone reads, for example, Griffin would not hurt them (until recently). Also, Denver rarely used an eight-man front against Washington in an attempt to play better in coverage. The Redskins usually receive good blocking from their tight ends and receivers, which helps Morris as well. And the line’s continuity shows up in the run game. But Morris deserves a lot of credit. He’s a patient runner who knows how to set up a defense, then cut back once it overcommits. Morris has proved this year that he’s not a creation of the zone read. The key for Washington is giving him more carries; this season's high is 19. Last season he had 10 games with more than 19 carries. Of course, that stems from winning and being in control of games. The Redskins have done little of both this season.

Eric, do you believe in this team yet, or do you still see a lot of holes? If so, where?

Williams: Offensively, San Diego has what it takes to make the playoffs in the AFC. The Chargers are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL. Rivers’ ability to move the ball in the passing game has been nicely complemented by the emergence of bruising runner Ryan Mathews, who had back-to-back, 100-yard rushing games. But defensively, the Chargers remain a question mark, even though they have not allowed a touchdown in 11 quarters. The Chargers’ defensive backfield has just two interceptions this season, and Jarret Johnson leads the team with just three sacks through seven games. The Chargers still lack elite playmakers on defense.

As the San Diego Chargers head into the bye week on a two-game winning for the first time this season, is the glass half-full or half-empty for Mike McCoy’s team?

You certainly could argue for half-full just looking at the offense. Led by a resurgent Philip Rivers, the Chargers are in the top 10 offensively in total yards (No. 5, 402.9 yards per game), passing yards (No. 6, 294.1 yards per game) and third-down efficiency (No. 2, 49.4 percent).

Defensively, the Chargers are in the top 10 in perhaps the most meaningful statistic, points allowed (No. 9, allowing 20.6 points a game). Defensive coordinator John Pagano’s defense also has gone 11 quarters without giving up a touchdown.

Still, San Diego has allowed 378.6 yards a contest (No. 23 in the NFL) and forced just four turnovers. They’ve been resilient and resourceful defensively, but not dominant.

And the Chargers need to get healthy on the defensive side of the ball as they head into the second half of the season. Key players like outside linebackers Jarret Johnson (hamstring) and Melvin Ingram (knee), along with inside linebacker Donald Butler (groin) are still nursing injuries.

The Chargers still face the meaty part of their schedule, with three of their next four games on the road and five AFC West divisional games left on the schedule, including two each against Denver and Kansas City.

So McCoy understands that while his team is playing better, there’s a tough road ahead.

“It’s a long year,” McCoy said. “Now is a time where you’ve got to start talking to the younger players, because we’re making the turn now, and it’s coming at a good time.

“But we’ve got a lot of football left. So No. 1, we’ve got to take care of our bodies and enjoy the time off that we’re going to have at the end of this week. I think they are improving every day and have done a lot of good things.”

With that, here’s a look at midseason position grades for the Chargers.

QUARTERBACKS
Rivers
Rivers’ turnaround this season has been remarkable. McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whishenhunt have done a nice job tailoring the passing game around the 31-year-old quarterback’s strengths, and it shows in his statistics this season.

Through seven games, Rivers leads the league in completion percentage (73.9) and is second in the NFL in passing yards (2,132) and passer rating (111.1).

But the head-scratching decision to try and run for a touchdown at the end of the first half against Jacksonville is Rivers at his worst. As a 10-year veteran, Rivers cannot let the competitor in him make decisions that are bad for the rest of the team. Rivers could have easily been injured on that scramble, making the choice to run an even more costly decision. Know and understand your limitations.

Rivers also threw three interceptions against Oakland, one of the worst teams in the league. Though he is playing at an elite level, there’s still room for improvement.
Grade: B-plus

RUNNING BACKS
With back-to-back rushing games of more than 100 yards, the emergence of Ryan Mathews as a focal point of the offense has been fun to watch. The Chargers have had more rushing attempts than passing attempts in the past two games. Let’s see if that continues during the second half of the season.

Mathews has 446 rushing yards, and is averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Even more impressive, Mathews has just one fumble on 110 rushing attempts.

The signing of Danny Woodhead during the offseason has proved one of the best additions during free agency. Woodhead has 40 receptions for 311 yards and three touchdowns, which is first in receptions among running backs in the NFL.
Grade: B-plus

WIDE RECEIVERS
Allen
Keenan Allen has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Chargers. With Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd suffering season-ending injuries, Allen has stepped in to fill the void, posting 26 catches for 399 yards and two touchdowns through seven games.

Slot receiver Eddie Royal has created some big plays, with 22 receptions for 285 yards and a team-leading six touchdowns. And Vincent Brown also has been consistent, with 26 catches for 265 yards.

The Chargers are No. 4 in the league in passing plays of 20 yards or more with 28. San Diego has just three passing plays of 40 yards or more, so they could produce more chunk plays in the passing game. But that’s a minor critique.
Grade: B

TIGHT ENDS
At 33 years old, Antonio Gates is healthy and back playing at an elite level. With a team-leading 42 receptions for 497 yards and two touchdowns, Gates is second in the NFL among tight ends in receptions (Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron has 45 receptions). Gates has a great rapport with Rivers, and also has held his own blocking in the run game.

Second-year pro Ladarius Green only has five receptions, but he’s averaging an impressive 22.6 yards per catch.
Grade: B-plus

OFFENSIVE LINE
With as many injuries as this group has suffered, the offensive line’s performance so far in my opinion has been commendable, and the most impressive feat for the Chargers this season.

Offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris deserves credit for keeping this group playing at a high level. Center Nick Hardwick is the only member of the offensive line to start every game this season. The Chargers have had five different starting offensive line combinations in seven games, and five different players see time at left tackle.

San Diego’s offensive line has given up just 11 sacks, which is tied for second-best in the NFL. The addition of second-year pro Johnnie Troutman at left guard has helped San Diego run the ball more effectively, although Troutman’s five false-start penalties in three starts needs to be cleaned up.
Grade: A-minus

DEFENSIVE LINE
Liuget
Liuget
This group is the most improved unit on the defensive side of the ball, with defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes anchoring this group. Both have played well against the run, and by pushing the pocket have allowed pass-rushers like Thomas Keiser and Larry English to get sacks.

After a slow start, the Chargers have 14 sacks in the past four games, including a season-high six-sack effort against Jacksonville. And San Diego has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.
Grade: B

LINEBACKERS
Starting middle linebacker Donald Butler has missed three games with a groin injury. And even when he has been active, Butler has not made many game-changing plays.

The same can be said of rookie linebacker Manti Te’o. Although he missed most of the preseason and the first three games of the year with a sprained foot, Te’o by his own admission has not played up to his potential, with just 17 tackles, no sacks and no forced turnovers in four starts.

Besides Liuget, Jarret Johnson has been San Diego’s most consistent player on defense. Johnson is tied for the team lead in sacks with Liuget (3).
Grade: C-plus

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Weddle
Weddle
Versatile safety Eric Weddle leads the team in tackles with 47, and has been a steadying influence in the back end with his consistent approach each week. But this unit has just two interceptions this season. The Chargers also have given up 27 passing plays of 20 or more yards, which is fourth-worst in the NFL.

The Chargers have not scored a defensive touchdown this season. Cornerback Derek Cox understands that he has to play better, particularly with the contract he received in free agency (four-years, $20 million). The return of Shareece Wright gives San Diego some much-needed speed in the back end. And in limited roles, Johnny Patrick and Jahleel Addae have been effective.
Grade: C

SPECIAL TEAMS
Kicker Nick Novak has only missed two field goals, and both were blocked. However, Novak has just eight touchbacks on 38 kickoffs (21.1 percent) -- which is the worst in the NFL. Punter Mike Scifres has 11 punts inside the 20 yard line, but is averaging just 43.9 yards a punt. The Chargers have not gotten much out of the return game to help improve field position.
Grade: C

COACHING
In his first season, McCoy has paid attention to the little things, instilled confidence in his players and surrounded himself with an experienced coaching staff. He’s made his share of mistakes, but overall has San Diego headed in the right direction.
Grade: B
SAN DIEGO -- Ken Whisenhunt, offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers, says his offense shouldn’t be surprised by anything the Indianapolis Colts do defensively in Monday’s matchup here at Qualcomm Stadium.

The Colts, led by defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, and more important, defensive-minded head coach Chuck Pagano, run a similar style 3-4 defensive front as little brother John Pagano, defensive coordinator for the Chargers.

“There are some similarities,” Whisenhunt said. “When you watch tape, you’ll see some things and say, ‘Hey I recognize that.’ But it’s different players. They run some things differently and when you get into some of the different varieties of it, whether it’s the sub packages, there are differences.

“But there’s no question that it helps that we’ve been able to go against the base defense when we’re going against Pags [John Pagano]. John [Pagano] does a nice job with our guys as far as what we see and that’ll help.”

While the schemes may be similar, the Colts pose more of a threat on defense because of the personnel on the side of the ball, including the NFL’s leading sack man Robert Mathis (9.5 sacks), along with ball-hawking cornreback Darius Butler (2 interceptions, one returned for a TD).

So the Chargers will have to do a much better job protecting the football than they accomplished against the Raiders last week, which leads to the first thing I’ll be looking for in tonight’s contest.

1. Ball security: Through five games, Indianapolis has forced 10 turnovers, including seven interceptions. The Colts forced just 15 turnovers all of last season, so this year’s defense is doing a much better job getting after the football. The Chargers turned it over five times against Oakland last week. If San Diego has a repeat performance, this game could be over by halftime.

2. Run the football: Yes, it would be great to see Philip Rivers sling the rock and put up another 400-yard passing day, right? Wrong. The Chargers ran for a paltry 32 yards last week. That’s not going to get it done. If Ryan Mathews is healthy, he should get at least 15 touches to keep the Colts’ defense honest.

3. Wrap-up: Indianapolis is in the top five in the league in rushing, averaging 142 rushing yards a contest. They’ve got a new toy in running back Trent Richardson, and they plan on using him. The Chargers are only giving up 117 yards a contest. It will be important for Corey Liuget, Cam Thomas and Kendall Reyes to play tough up front defensively, and for the back end of San Diego’s defense to make sure tackles in open space.

4. Make a play on defense: It’s been five games, and San Diego’s secondary has yet to haul in an interception. Defensive tackle Cam Thomas has the team’s only pick, and that happened on San Diego’s first defensive play of 2013. The Chargers need to make a couple of game-changing plays on defense to help flip field position, and steal a few possessions from Andrew Luck.

5. A special play on special teams: San Diego’s return game has yet to make a big play this season. Today would be a good day for one. Again, the Chargers will need to match scores with a pretty potent Indianapolis offense. And getting an impact play on special teams could help San Diego’s chances to stay in the game.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It’s not uncommon for first-year coaches to have the type of see-saw season the San Diego Chargers are currently experiencing under Mike McCoy.

At 2-3 after a disappointing 27-17 loss to AFC West division rival Oakland, the Chargers have yet to win or lose two in a row through five games.

In order to develop into a championship-caliber team with sustained success, McCoy understands his team has to do the little things. And that means the Chargers can’t turn the ball over five times and expect to win.

The Chargers can’t have a 37-yard field goal blocked. Good teams don’t fail to recover a fumble defensively deep in their opponents’ territory.

Playoff teams get into the end zone on fourth-and-1 from the other team’s 1-yard line. Good teams don’t fall behind 17-0 to a team they’re favored to beat by five points.

Good teams aren’t lucky; they create their own luck. And if San Diego wants to be considered a good team, then the Chargers need to win the games they are supposed to, like the one they lost to Oakland on Sunday night -- even on the road.

“We’re a good football team,” McCoy said. “You’ve just got to keep playing, and that’s what we’re doing. You’ve just got to keep playing and keep going. Don’t worry about one play -- one score. That’s why you play for 60 minutes.”

Moral victories are for weak-minded people. The NFL is a bottom-line league, and if you have more losses than wins over a few seasons, you likely will not be in the league long.

So even though the Chargers rallied from a 24-3 deficit in the fourth quarter to actually have a chance to tie the game at 24-17 with a little over 10 minutes left, the fact is the Raiders dominated play on both sides of the ball for a majority of the contest.

“I’m not going to make excuses, if that’s what you’re looking for,” San Diego offensive lineman Jeromey Clary said. “We’re all pros here. And we’re expected to perform at a high level.”

The Chargers have experienced leaders on both sides of the ball who know what it takes to win in the NFL, including quarterback Philip Rivers, center Nick Hardwick, tight end Antonio Gates, safety Eric Weddle and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson.

[+] EnlargeMike McCoy
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers have yet to string together consecutive wins under new head coach Mike McCoy.
And they have some emerging young talent, including receivers Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown, defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebackers Donald Butler and Manti Te'o.

However, this team has yet to develop a consistent blueprint to winning that allows them to reel off a streak of four or five wins in a row.

“No excuses, we got beat tonight,” McCoy said. “We came out, and we were outplayed in all three phases. It was tough to go on the road and turn the ball over the way we did and win a football game on the road against a good team.

“Too many big plays -- but it all starts with just executing the system that’s in place. There was a lack of execution. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we just have to keep working.”

Rivers had a September to remember, but a game to forget opening up the month of October. He threw for over 400 yards for a second straight game, completing 36 of 49 passes for 411 yards and three touchdowns.

But Rivers also had three costly interceptions, after throwing just two interceptions in the first four games.

Like the rest of his teammates, Rivers knows he has to perform consistently at a high level for this team to develop into a consistent winner.

“Certainly as an offense, when you turn it over five times, you’re not going to win usually,” Rivers said. “You very rarely overcome it, and then we found ourselves down 24-17 with 10 minutes left.

“That doesn’t make us feel any better. There was a lot more than just turnovers, but certainly on offense, we’ve got to make sure we don’t turn the ball over.”
SAN DIEGO – Eric Weddle, veteran defensive captain for the San Diego Chargers, said it best when asked about the impact of losing pass-rusher Dwight Freeney for the rest of the season with a quadriceps tear will have on the rest of the defense.

“You don’t replace a guy like that,” Weddle said. “Teams have to account for him. He was very rarely getting single-man blocks by one guy. And when he was, he was getting pressure on the quarterback every time.”

[+] EnlargeLarry English
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsFilling in for Dwight Freeney at outside linebacker, Larry English (center) will have a chance to make good on the promise San Diego once saw in him.
Freeney has amassed 108 sacks in 12 seasons, which puts him at fifth among active players in the NFL. Freeney’s replacement, Larry English, has 9.5 sacks in five seasons.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy isn’t expecting a Freeney-like performance from English. However, just as reserves at offensive line, receiver and cornerback have capably stepped in to fill to voids for injured starters, McCoy believes English can offer the same type of effort at outside linebacker.

“It’s the next man up,” McCoy said. “Larry did a nice job when Dwight went down. Larry has played all year long. The whole entire defense, the guys who have rotated in there, Tourek [Williams] and everybody in the game did a nice job when Dwight went down.”

Selected No. 16 overall by San Diego in the 2009 draft, English has yet to fulfill lofty expectations. He finished with 31.5 sacks at Northern Illinois as a defensive end in a 4-3 defensive scheme.

English, 27, is in the final year of a rookie contract that pays him a base salary of $1.275 million this season. And he’s part of a 2009 first-round draft class that has underwhelmed in terms of performance so far in the NFL.

Of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, eight are no longer with the team that drafted them, and four (Jason Smith, Aaron Curry, Aaron Maybin and Chris “Beanie” Wells) are out of the league.

For the 6-foot-2, 255-pound English, making the transition to a rush outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment proved tougher than expected.

“I’ve definitely turned into a different player,” English said. “Obviously, coming in from a defensive end position in a 4-3 scheme, it was a position change. So your whole mentality’s got to change because you’re asked to do a lot more, from dropping back into coverage, and being able to get after the passer and stop the run. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, I’ve just added a lot of knowledge to my game.”

English also said he’s learned from playing with a talented pass-rusher like Freeney the importance of preparation and focusing on the details of his position.

“One of the things with Dwight was how much he paid attention to, and how knowledgeable he was of offensive line blocking schemes,” English said. “He really comes up with a game plan for all four of us to be able to win as a defensive front. He was really good at studying and really diagnosing what an offensive line was going to come with each week.”

Chargers defensive lineman Corey Liuget agreed.

“He was just teaching us how to get to the quarterback, more than anything – the pursuit to be great in our craft,” Liuget said. “It was crazy to see him go down, a guy that’s been helping me since the day he got here. He’s been helping to keep me grounded, on and off the field. So to lose him is big, for the team, and me as an individual because I was learning so much from him.”

Now, English and Liuget will see if they can transfer the knowledge Freeney provided during practice weeks into impactful performances on game days.

Manti Te'o missing valuable time

September, 2, 2013
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What was supposed to be a minor obstacle has put Manti Te’o’s chances of being ready for the season opener in major jeopardy.

Te’o was not practicing Monday. He was hurt Aug. 8 in the preseason opener. When Te’o appeared in a walking boot Aug. 10 San Diego coach Mike McCoy said he’d be in it for a week. Yet, it has now been more than three weeks.

Theoretically, Te’o can practice Wednesday and be ready to play against Houston in the season opener Sept. 9. But right now it appears Bront Bird will be in Te’o’s inside linebacker spot.

This injury hurts Te’o and the Chargers. The team was counting on him. For a rookie to play just a couple of series in the preseason and to miss three weeks of practice, it will certainly thwart his progress. Te’o, a second-round pick, can catch up, but it may take several weeks.

However, the Chargers did get some good injury news Monday as they began to prepare for Houston in earnest.

Star defensive end Corey Liuget returned to practice after being out with a shoulder injury. Receiver Eddie Royal is also back after being out with a bruised lung and concussion.

A case for Corey Liuget

August, 21, 2013
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In an Insider piece, Mike Sando thinks San Diego defensive end Corey Liuget is on the cusp of being one of the top 100 defensive players in the NFL .

I think Liuget, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, should already be on the list. He is a monster.

In other AFC West notes:

Oakland backup quarterback Terrelle Pryor has switched from No. 6 to No. 2. He wore No. 2 at Ohio State. Perhaps the Raiders thought enough time has passed since the last No. 2 played quarterback in Oakland. Yes, JaMarcus Russell. Pryor said when he was drafted that then-coach Hue Jackson wouldn’t let him wear No. 2. Punter Marquette King moved from No. 2 to No. 7.

Oakland rookie tackle Menelik Watson is practicing for the second time this camp. He had a calf injury. If he can stay healthy, he has a chance to play early.

U-T San Diego reports Chicago rookie linebacker Jon Bostic was fined $21,000 for a hit on San Diego receiver Mike Willie last week.

Scott Pioli, the man who drafted Jon Baldwin in the first round two years ago, stuck up for Baldwin. He was traded to San Francisco for fellow former first-round pick A.J. Jenkins.

San Diego tight end Antonio Gates doesn’t think the Broncos “will miss a beat” during the six-game suspension of star pass-rusher Von Miller.

New Orleans cut tackle Jason Smith. Oakland needs depth at the spot.

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