AFC West: John Pagano

Pleased with the overall depth he has defensively, San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano believes there will be some intense competition for starting jobs once training camp opens July 24.

Only three starters can be written in pen defensively: safety Eric Weddle, middle linebacker Donald Butler and defensive lineman Corey Liuget. You could add a fourth, Melvin Ingram, because of the way he changes San Diego's defense when he's healthy.

But that leaves seven to eight starting jobs up for grabs, according to Pagano, who talked about his defense in a conversation with Darren Smith of The Mighty 1090 AM radio. You can listen to the conversation here.

[+] EnlargeSan Diego's John Pagano
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi"I got my 11 in mind right now," Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano said. "But I'd probably say that there's seven to eight that depends on the competition we have, and the depth we have."
“I got 11 in my mind right now,” Pagano said. “But I'd probably say that there's seven to eight that depends on the competition we have, and the depth we have. It's good to have these deals to make sure we get the most competition out of these guys. I mean there's going to be a lot of challenges this year, and it makes us better. Depth is probably the biggest asset of any National Football League team.”

Pagano confirmed that Virginia Tech product receiver Eddie Royal was helpful in recruiting his former college teammate cornerback Brandon Flowers to San Diego.

However, Pagano also said that what the organization had to offer, including quarterback Philip Rivers and a winning environment, helped Flowers make a decision to sign with the Chargers.

“I think you have to sell it,” Pagano said. “Everybody says it comes down to money at the professional level. But at the end of the day it's about somebody being excited about their job, and happy about where they want to be, where they want to play and what gives them the best opportunity to win.

“You look at the San Diego Chargers right now, the first thing you see when you walk into that building is Philip Rivers. And when you have a guy like that, you have an opportunity to win a lot of football games. And to me that was very important to him.”

Pagano said Flowers will be used in a number of positions on the field.

“We're going to use him inside, outside, on top, on bottom -- we're going to use him wherever we can,” Pagano said. “He's going to do a lot of things for us. He's going to come in and compete with those guys. We've gotten a lot faster defensively. And those are two things -- the athleticism and the speed defensively -- coaches cannot coach.”

Asked about the nose tackle position, Pagano indicated that Sean Lissemore is the starter, but that he's not as concerned with that position because the Chargers will play base defense about 30 to 35 percent of the time.

Kwame Geathers and Ryan Carrethers are slotted in behind Lissemore heading into training camp.

“Sean Lissemore is our guy right now,” Pagano said. “He can play inside and outside. And then you have two young players who are big, strong, powerful players and can do a lot of different things. So I think the biggest thing is all three of them had a great offseason, and that's going to help us tremendously.

“The big thing that everybody has to understand is that we were in sub defense -- and that's either five defensive backs or six defensive backs that puts you into an even front -- and we were probably in that roughly 65 to 70 percent of the time. So 30 percent of the time we are in base defense.”
SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers lost offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to the Tennessee Titans, but made sure defensive coordinator John Pagano stuck around.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that the Chargers signed Pagano to a new contract on Tuesday. According to Schefter, Pagano’s contract was up, and he had drawn interest to follow Whisenhunt to Tennessee.

In his second season as San Diego’s offensive coordinator, Pagano took a young, inconsistent group and molded them into an effective unit by the end of the season.

The Chargers held the top-ranked offense in the league, the Denver Broncos, to under 30 points three times this season. The Kansas City Chiefs were the only other team the keep Denver’s offense under 30 points during the 2013 season.

Pagano is the longest tenured assistant on San Diego’s coaching staff, having been with the organization for 12 years. So the Chargers keep some continuity on the defensive side of the ball.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy could opt to continue that continuity on the offensive side as well by promoting quarterbacks coach Frank Reich to offensive coordinator, replacing Whisenhunt. But the team has not announced that move yet.

When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.

Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.

It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons. Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.

Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?

Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.

How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?

Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.

Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?

Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.

You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?

Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?

Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.

San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?

Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Perhaps it's because Dave Logan is a former NFL wide receiver.

Perhaps it's because Logan's athletic life is something of a state landmark, having once been selected in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball drafts, or that the Broncos' play-by-play voice is also one of the most successful prep football coaches in the state's history.

By when Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning let down his well-rehearsed guard this season, when Manning pulled back the curtain on his emotions a bit it was to Logan in the moments following the Broncos' Dec. 8 win over the Tennessee Titans.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeThe Chargers were one of just three teams that were able to beat the Broncos during the regular season.
On a day when the kickoff temperature was 18 degrees, Manning had just blistered the Titans' defense on 39-of-59 passing for 397 yards and four touchdowns. And in a postgame interview with Logan, Manning simply said the people who said he couldn't play in the cold could take that "narrative" and "stick it where the sun don't shine."

Those who know Manning well were not surprised and they say, despite his perpetually calm demeanor in interviews, the narratives matter to Manning. Perhaps one of the most driven players to wear a helmet, Manning is often fueled by circumstances.

And at a time when his playoff record is making the rounds -- it's 9-11 -- there is also the matter of Sunday's opponent, the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers are 2-0 against Manning in playoff games -- to close out the 2007 and 2008 seasons, both against the Colts -- and the Chargers are one of three teams to have beaten Manning and the Broncos this season.

It's yet another narrative. And mix in the fact Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was Manning's offensive coordinator in Denver last season so he knows what the quarterback does and doesn't like in a game plan and from a defense.

Also consider that McCoy and Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano put together a defensive game plan Dec. 12 that was essentially one of the best anybody authored against the Broncos this season. And while it is a testament to the Broncos' record-breaking season on offense that the 20 points scored in the 27-20 loss was their fewest of the year, the Chargers were the only team to limit the Broncos' offense to fewer than 61 plays in a game this season. And the Chargers did it in both games, including a season-low 53 plays in the Dec. 12 game.

Asked if his up-close-and-personal time with Manning helped in devising game plans, McCoy deferred to his players' efforts.

"Players play, coaches coach," McCoy said. "There are 11 guys out there on the field, they've got to play. We could call out every play, or call out every defense, whatever it is. The players have to go out and execute it. Peyton is good enough, he knows where to go. He sees a certain coverage and knows where to go with the ball. So it's all the players, give the players all the credit for the way they played last time."

Manning is in just his second season with the Broncos so many of his teammates are still adjusting to the swirl that follows the future Hall of Famer through a season. His sore ankle earlier this season was the stuff live updates were made of in the news cycle and some of his teammates simply shake their heads at all the fuss, even this week.

"I don't really think about it," defensive end Shaun Phillips said. "I try to worry about our side of the ball. Peyton is going to handle his business. He's been doing that for years. That's something -- when you're great, they're going to find something to nitpick at you. He can't be perfect. If he was perfect, he would win every single game and win every single Super Bowl. But no one is perfect. All he can do is go out there and do his job. And we're going to do our part to try to help the way we can on our side of the ball."

Manning did admit, like many of his teammates, that last January's double-overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens, a one-and-done exit from the postseason as the AFC's top seed, provided plenty of fuel this season in many of the team's activities. But Manning has also consistently said if you're just ramping up your intensity now, with the playoffs underway, you probably weren't handling your business properly before that.

"I think we've kind of used that throughout the season," Manning said. "We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our offseason training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squads, whatever it may be. We've used it on the practice field. I don't think that you just get to this week and you start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before. I feel like we've done that and, like I said, we're excited to be at this place right now.

"I think you just sort of focus on the now. I think we've prepared well throughout this season. I don't think you do anything differently here now that you're only one of a few teams left playing. It means you haven't been preparing the right way all along if you try to do something differently now. I'm not sure that you really look much past this season, the games you played against these guys, the games they played last week, our game we played a couple of weeks ago -- and kind of focus on that. I'm not sure any of the other stuff has a whole lot to do with what actually is going to occur in this game."

Bolts bracing for Wreck-It Manning

December, 11, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- He's the ultimate game wrecker.

At different points this season, San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has referred to playmakers like Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green and Dallas receiver Dez Bryant as game wreckers because of their ability to create game-changing plays regardless of what is schemed defensively.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning, Larry English
AP Photo/Denis PoroyThe Chargers held Peyton Manning in check -- relatively speaking -- in the teams' first meeting of the season, but the defense seeks to improve when facing no-huddle situations.
Well, on Thursday the Chargers will face perhaps the ultimate game wrecker for the second time this season: Denver quarterback Peyton Manning.

"We are playing the No. 1 offense in the National Football League on the road in a short week," Pagano said. "That is as big a challenge as it gets. Their receivers are the best. They have a great quarterback. They have great runners. Their offensive line plays at a high level.

"When you look at the categories, they are No. 1 in everything. I think that is a challenge in itself of going into Colorado and playing this game. We will make sure we show up."

Pagano is right. The Broncos are No. 1 in points scored (39.6), total yards per contest (465.6), passing yards (341.2), third-down conversions (48.2 percent) and red zone efficiency (78.9 percent.).

Manning has been deftly handling the controls, and he is on track to finish with the most productive season in his 16-year NFL career.

In San Diego earlier this season, the Chargers lost to the Broncos 28-20 but held them to their second-lowest scoring output this year. Manning threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns, taking advantage of a confused San Diego defense that at times failed to get lined up quickly enough, leading to five passing plays of 18 or more yards for the Broncos.

So how will Pagano's defense attempt to stop the high-octane, Manning-led offense this time?

"We have to be able to handle the no-huddle situations and not give them opportunities to where we don't get the call," Pagano said. "The more we keep working it, the better the communication has been at times over the last few weeks. You still have to deal with those mental errors during plays and you have to overcome them."

Manning has received criticism for his inability to produce in cold temperatures. He entered Sunday's home contest against the Tennessee Titans with a 3-8 record in games in which the kickoff temperature was below 32 degrees. But with the temperature at a frigid 16 degrees at game time, Manning completed a franchise-record 39 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns in Denver's 51-28 victory over the Titans.

Afterward, Manning told his critics to stick it where the sun doesn't shine. Manning's performance did not surprise his former offensive coordinator in Denver, San Diego coach Mike McCoy.

Game-time temperature in Denver for Thursday's contest is expected to be in the 20s.

"His name in the NFL speaks for itself," McCoy said. "He's one of the greatest players of all time. He's a great competitor. He's a winner and his record speaks for itself. It has nothing to do with weather."

Along with playing mistake-free football on defense, the Chargers will rely on quarterback Philip Rivers to dictate tempo with his unit's ball-controlled, short passing game.

In the last meeting between the two teams, the Chargers held the ball for over 38 minutes, but scored only 20 points. That can't happen this time.

"Having it for 38 minutes would be great if we could do that on Thursday night," Rivers said. "But we've got to score touchdowns. To me, if you maintain possession of the ball, you've got to still end it with points, and preferably touchdowns against this team.

"I've never gotten too caught up in that stat. But if you score a bunch of points and have the ball a lot, then yes, I think they can go hand-in-hand."

Most of all, San Diego outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said defensively the Chargers have to make Manning earn everything his offense gets Thursday. That means no blown assignments for 74-yard touchdowns like the last game.

"Absolutely, you've got to," Johnson said. "I mean, if you sit back in one coverage and give him time, it's going to be a long day. You've got to be aggressive with him because he's as good as they come.

"If you sit back and play one coverage or play conservative or play scared, it's going to be a long day."

Chargers plan to rough up Manning

November, 8, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has an easy solution for slowing down Denver quarterback Peyton Manning when the Broncos travel to Qualcomm Stadium this weekend.

“Drop 11 [guys],” he said, laughing. “If they complete it, I'm going to be really disappointed.”

That's what it might take for the Chargers defensively to contain a Denver offense that has been pretty much unstoppable this season.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Colts were able to get pressure on Peyton Manning and disrupt Denver's potent offense.
Denver's franchise quarterback is on pace to throw for nearly 5,838 yards and 58 touchdowns -- both would be NFL single-season highs. At 37 years old, he leads the NFL in passer rating (119.4) and completions (237) and is second to Philip Rivers in completion percentage (72.2 to 71.2).

San Diego's defense is tasked with figuring out a way to disrupt the machinelike precision of Manning and a high-powered Denver offense averaging a league-high 42.9 points a contest (the second-highest-scoring offense, Chicago, is averaging 30.0 points).

“You've got to get lined up and play defense because the minute he sees you're all out of whack, that's when he takes full advantage,” San Diego defensive lineman Corey Liuget said. “So, you have to be lined up in your defensive front and know your coverage calls.”

Although Manning's ability to quickly decipher defenses and accurately deliver the ball on time and on target is unmatched, he has shown a human side.

As with every other quarterback, Manning's play dips when he is moved off his spot and driven to the ground.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning has been hit/under duress on 40 dropbacks this season. In the Broncos' lone loss (Week 7 at Colts), Manning was hit/under duress on 13 dropbacks, including four sacks.

In 2012, Manning was hit/under duress on 63 dropbacks (4.2 per game). His season high was seven (Week 3 loss vs. Texans).

“You always want to hit him,” San Diego safety Eric Weddle said. "You want to hit any quarterback that you can. Sacks are always great from the outside looking at them, but if you're hitting him and getting him off of his spot and force him to run around by creating havoc, quarterbacks don't like that. Then that starts getting their timing off, and they feel like, if they hold on to the ball too long, they're going to get hit.

“So it's always important to get in his face, hit him as much as possible.”

The trick to slowing down Manning is being successful in playing that cat-and-mouse game of whether to bring pressure or play coverage. Manning has seen every blitz imaginable, so defenses have to do a good job of disguising their intentions so he doesn't pick you apart in his pre-snap reads.

And when San Diego does blitz, the Chargers have got to get home.

“He does such a great job of getting the ball out,” Weddle said. “He knows when pressure is coming -- maybe not all the time -- but he can feel it in his time clock. He goes through his progressions the best out of any quarterback you go against.

“If the flat is there -- if the first read is there -- he's going to take it no matter what. He's not overzealous. He's not going to try for the shot if it's not there. He's not going to hold on to the ball if it's not there. When he does hold on to the ball, it's because the coverage may be good and he really doesn't have anywhere to throw it.”

Pagano echoed Weddle's comments. Even though older brother Chuck's Colts defense was successful in containing Manning in Denver's only loss this season, John Pagano said he didn't put in a call this week.

Pagano already has a pretty good idea of what to expect from Manning -- and what his defense needs to do to slow down Denver's offense.

“Our theme of the week is disguise and disrupt,” Pagano said. “Disguise and show the different type of looks, and disrupt as much as we can -- whether it's in the run game or in the passing game.

“And you've got to be able to put pressure on this quarterback. If he sits in the pocket and has the comfort that he needs, it makes it a long day for anyone.”

Power Rankings: No. 15 Chargers

November, 5, 2013
A weekly examination of the Chargers’ Power Ranking:

Preseason ranking: 23 | Last Week: 11 | Power Ranking since 2002

With a disappointing loss at Washington, the San Diego Chargers dropped four spots to No. 15 in this week’s ranking. The Chargers (4-4) are now 2-3 on the road this season, with five of their last eight remaining games at Qualcomm Stadium.

Even though San Diego is just a half-game behind the New York Jets for the final AFC wild-card playoff spot, the Chargers have perhaps the toughest road of any fringe playoff team in earning a postseason berth. The Chargers’ remaining opponents have a combined record of 31-19.

Defensively, the Chargers have to regroup after giving up 500 total yards and four rushing touchdowns in an overtime loss to Washington. Defensive coordinator John Pagano is tasked with devising a scheme to slow down Peyton Manning and Denver’s high-powered offense. The Chargers are 0-2 against Manning since he arrived in Denver last season.

Run game opens things up for Luck

October, 14, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- Andrew Luck has a new weapon at his disposal that was unavailable to him during his rookie season -- a running game.

Heading into the "Monday Night Football" matchup against the San Diego Chargers, the Indianapolis Colts are averaging 142 rushing yards a contest on the ground, No. 4 in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsThanks to an improved run game, Colts QB Andrew Luck has more offensive options this season than he did in his rookie campaign.
Last season, the Colts averaged just 104.4 rushing yards a game, No. 22 in the league. The Colts experienced a makeover on offense this season, with Luck’s offensive coordinator at Stanford, Pep Hamilton, taking over as the Indianapolis offensive coordinator for the departed Bruce Arians, who now serves as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Luck said this year’s offense under Hamilton is more of a run-based approach, with the fullback being more often.

In 2012, Indianapolis relied much more on Luck creating big plays through the passing game. And the results were a good, but not great rookie season for Luck. He threw for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns, but he also had 18 interceptions and a pedestrian 76.5 passer rating. Luck was sacked 41 times, and completed just 54 percent of his passes.

This season, Luck is completing 62.2 percent of his passes through five games, with seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. He’s been sacked 12 times, and has a 94.1 passer rating.

“For the quarterback, the more he’s handing it off, the less hits he’s taking, No. 1,” Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano said. “No. 2, it opens up everything in the pass game for him, too. If you’re having success on the ground, people are going to have to commit more guys to the box to stop the run, and hopefully open up things for you in your pass game on the outside.”

Added Luck: “When the run game’s going, that’s great for the quarterback. It slows down the pass rush, and it helps the passing game get going as well.”

The Colts made a big trade in order to give their run game a boost, giving up a first-round pick in next year’s draft to Cleveland for running back Trent Richardson. It proved a wise move, with Ahmad Bradshaw recently being placed on the injured reserve with a season-ending neck injury.

Richardson has just 151 yards and two touchdowns through three games for the Colts. But more important, he’s added a physical toughness lacking in the Indianapolis running game before he arrived.

“It’s been a great addition,” Luck said. “He’s a phenomenal runner. He always falls forward. He’s a great teammate, so we’re thrilled and very happy that he’s here.”

The Colts also have Donald Brown, who serves a change-of-pace back to Richardson. And with the team’s success running the football, Luck has been more effective pushing the ball down the field in the play-action game.

San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano understands his defense will have its hands full trying to slow down the Colts’ running game.

“They’re doing such a great job with their running attack because it’s power football,” John Pagano said. “It’s downhill, and Trent Richardson coming in there and to be able to bring in Donald Brown, you can really see that they are very committed to the run and want to run the football.

“It’s an attack that you have to be physical at the line of scrimmage with, and you have to hold the point and win those one-on-one matchups. At the end of the day you have to tackle, and that is something, as a defensive unit, that we haven’t been doing well at. We have to go out there, tackle and then stop the run.”

Pagano brothers ready for MNF

October, 11, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- Sam Pagano says he won't be doing any cheering on Monday night when the Indianapolis Colts face the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.

His son Chuck Pagano, head coach of the Colts, takes on Chargers defensive coordinator and younger brother John Pagano in the prime time matchup.

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis' Chuck Pagano
AP Photo/AJ MastChuck Pagano doesn't have the best of luck when facing younger brother John in the NFL. He's 1-7 in the sibling rivalry.
The two brothers have met eight times before as position coaches or coordinators in the NFL. And the younger Pagano isn't shy about acknowledging his 7-1 record.

"John said he's going to outcoach him," San Diego coach Mike McCoy said, smiling. "He said he's been doing it all his life. So I said, 'OK, let's go.'

"No, I think it's great to see brothers like that being in this profession. There's only so many of us that are able to do this at this level, or have the opportunity to do it. So it's great for a family like that with two great guys. They're both phenomenal football coaches, but they're better people."

Sam plans on attending the game with wife Diana.

It's the first time the Paganos have faced each other since Chuck became the head coach of the Colts last year, and John ascended to the defensive coordinator position for San Diego under Norv Turner's final year with the Chargers in 2012.

"The first thing you think about is the one who's going to lose," Sam said. "We'll get together beforehand and take some photos, have some laughs. But it's serious business for both of them. I'll keep my hands in my pockets and wait for it to be over."

Joked John about his father's allegiances: "He's staying at my house, so he'd better be rooting for me, or he might be at a Holiday Inn somewhere."

Chuck, 53, is seven years older than younger brother John. Both were standout players for their father, who spent 26 seasons as the head football coach at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo., winning three state titles. Sam Pagano also coached overseas in France, Italy and Germany.

"It was great," Chuck said about growing up as a son of a football coach. "I think there would be a ton of people that would love to have had the opportunity that Johnny and I had growing up in a football family. ... Having the opportunity to hang out as a young boy in a football office, in a football locker room and at practice and grow up that way."

When Chuck was a hard-hitting strong safety for his father in high school, John served as the ball boy. And John was on the sidelines for games when his older brother starred at Wyoming.

John was a decent player as well, earning all-state honors as a linebacker in high school and going on to play at Mesa State.

"All I can say is, as a big brother, when I could, I'd take advantage of the situation and work him over pretty good," Chuck said during a conference call with San Diego-area reporters this week. "I can't do that now. He's a lot bigger than I am now.

"I'm really proud of John and what he's done professionally. And I'm prouder of him as a man, as a father and as a husband. He's just an outstanding human being, and I'm proud to call him my brother."

John Pagano was there to support his older brother during his time of need. Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia in September 2012, taking an indefinite leave of absence from his coaching duties with the Colts for chemotherapy.

He underwent three months of treatment, and in November doctors announced that Chuck's cancer was in remission. He later rejoined the team in December. John flew to Indianapolis to be with his brother on San Diego's bye week during his treatment.

"He spent all day with him," Sam said. "They talked a lot. They watched film. They cried. They prayed. And then he [John] caught a red-eye back home.

"It was really good that he went out and spent the day with Chuck."

John has been with the Chargers since 2002, joining the organization as a defensive quality control coach and working his way up to the defensive coordinator position.

"He's great," San Diego safety Eric Weddle said. "He's extremely smart, passionate and aggressive. He's no-nonsense, but he's still able to communicate, and is open to his players, whether it's on the field or off, letting us express what we see as players and relating it to him.

"I think it's one of the best qualities as a coach to listen to your players and take what we say -- whether you agree with it or not -- at least listen. He's done a great job."

The two brothers usually talk regularly during the week. However, John said the two have not talked leading up to Monday's matchup.

"At the end of the day, it's the Chargers vs. the Colts on Monday Night Football," John said. "It will be good to see him before kickoff and say hello, but when that ball's kicked off, the only thing on my mind is about San Diego winning, and that's the most important thing."
SAN DIEGO -- Gone is the omnipresent GM lurking from the large deck that hovers over the practice field.

Gone is the comfortable head coach who went at his own pace.

It’s a new day for the San Diego Chargers. There is new energy in America’s Finest City.

Change was badly needed. The Chargers arguably had the best roster in the NFL five years ago, but it never paid off. The lack of success finally cost general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner their jobs after another lackluster season in 2012.

The Chargers’ fans demanded new leadership for the stagnant franchise. They got their wish. The Chargers now have some of the youngest, freshest leaders in football as the team moves past the stale days of the Smith-Turner era.

Smith was famous for watching practice from the deck of his office. New general manager Tom Telesco, 40, watches practice from the sideline. There are no messages of pecking order being sent from the general manager’s office. Telesco, in a camp-issued T-shirt and shorts, could easily be mistaken for an equipment manager.

The head-coaching switch from Turner to Mike McCoy, 41, is almost as distinctive as the change at GM. McCoy’s practices have appeared to be crisper and more detailed-oriented than in the past. There isn’t much downtime in San Diego’s practices. Everyone’s moving at all times. That wasn’t always the case under Turner.

“I think we’re getting a lot done,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Coach McCoy clearly has a plan. It’s been impressive. ... The big thing is everyone has bought in to him. The reality is we are .500 over the past three years. It was pretty easy to buy in what’s now going on here.”


[+] EnlargePhilip Rivers
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziPhilip Rivers threw 15 picks last season to just 26 touchdown passes.
1. The quarterback: Rivers is a major focal point of this training camp. Telesco hired McCoy, Denver’s former offensive coordinator, with an eye toward fixing Rivers. The quarterback has struggled the past couple of years, particularly with turnovers. McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, the former head coach of Arizona, form a strong quarterback-coaching tandem and quarterback coach Frank Reich is also highly regarded. All three men believe in Rivers, and it seems to be paying off. Rivers has looked fantastic in training camp. His confidence is high, and his passes are accurate. It is vital for both Rivers and the Chargers that he has a good season and the team continues build around him. If not, it could be a crossroads season for both the franchise and Rivers’ career.

2. The offensive line: Because of injuries, this unit has been terrible the past couple of years. No matter how much Rivers improves, he won’t have much of a chance if he doesn't have protection. The Chargers' line has four new starters. It is not a great unit, and there will be some growing pains. But the group is getting rave reviews for being athletic and tough. Rivers is impressed and trusts the group. He thinks it’s deeper with players such as rookie D.J. Fluker at right tackle and veterans King Dunlap and Max Starks competing at left tackle. Dunlap is leading the race. But if there are injuries, this group appears better equipped to weather them than last year's squad.

3. The rookie linebacker: The Chargers are thrilled with inside linebacker Manti Te'o. He will start in the team’s 3-4 schemes. He has looked good in training camp and has fit in with the locker room. The hoax he was involved in at Notre Dame is not a factor. The Chargers love the way he works and practices. He is instinctive, and he plays faster on the field than his combine times suggested. The Chargers think Te’o is ready to make a big impact.


[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers are happy with the progress of second-rounder Manti Te'o, who's slated to start at inside linebacker.
The Chargers are loaded with young talent on defense. Any defense that has Eric Weddle at safety, Te’o and Donald Butler at inside linebacker and Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes at defensive end is an impressive group.

I think these players will be the core to one of the better defenses in the coming years. The Chargers are doing backflips over the combination of Liuget and Reyes. Liuget is entering his third NFL season, and Reyes is entering his second. Liuget was terrific all of last season, and Reyes showed serious pass-rush potential toward the end of the season.

While this defense has some holes, there are some exciting pieces here.


The Chargers are pretty thin in a lot of places. I think this team is on the rise, but it may not be a quick fix. There are too many positions where depth is an issue.

San Diego has dealt with the injury bug already. Pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, the No. 18 overall pick in 2012, suffered a torn ACL in May. Starting receiver Danario Alexander and backup linebacker Jonas Mouton suffered the same injury during camp.

Alexander's and Ingram’s injuries are particularly worrisome. This team can’t afford to lose high-end talent before the season starts. Other positions vulnerable to injuries include the offensive line (even though the depth is better than in the past), defensive tackle, edge rushers and the secondary. There isn’t much wiggle room on this roster.


  • The Chargers appear to be well-coached. The influx of offensive coaches and the return of several defensive coaches, led by coordinator John Pagano, makes for a nice mix. Most of the new blood was needed on the offensive side of the ball.
  • The team feels great about Dwight Freeney, who was signed to replace Ingram. The Chargers are convinced Freeney still has something left in the tank and will be a difference-maker.
  • The Chargers like the progress of nose tackle Cam Thomas, who they think is ready for a breakout year. Coaches and teammates are talking him up big.
  • San Diego is looking to add depth on the defensive line. Free agent Justin Bannan on is still on the team’s radar. I think we will see the Chargers be active on the waiver wire at a few positions.
  • Free-agent guard Chad Rinehart is showing solid leadership skills.
  • The team loves free-agent running back Danny Woodhead. He has been a camp star and should take pressure off starter Ryan Mathews. Expect to see Woodhead used in several different ways. He could be a poor man’s Darren Sproles, perhaps.
  • Yes, tight end Antonio Gates hasn’t had a superstar season in years because of injuries, but the team likes what they see from him. He may have another year or two left in the tank.
  • Ladarius Green, Gates’ potential successor, is still growing. But he has shown flashes. He has natural pass-catching ability.
  • While there are questions at cornerback, the Chargers feel like Derek Cox and Shareece Wright will be an upgrade over last year’s starting duo of Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason.
  • Rookie quarterback Brad Sorensen has been up and down. He has a good enough arm to keep him on the 53-man roster.
  • Cornerback Johnny Patrick has looked good. He could see a lot of action in nickel situations.
  • Fifth-round pick Tourek Williams is getting looks at both defensive end and outside linebacker. The team would like for him to contribute at linebacker.
  • Robert Meachem, a big-money, free-agent bust last season, has been given new life after Alexander’s injury. Still, I have my doubts that Meachem will make much of a difference. He hasn’t been a standout in camp.
A look at what to expect as the San Diego Chargers begin the Mike McCoy era:

Biggest change to expect: McCoy is a mystery because he became a head coach for the first time at age 40. But from his days as an offensive coordinator and from watching and listening to him, I expect a very straightforward approach. McCoy is a buttoned-up guy who will not be Mr. Rah-Rah. But he is highly detail-oriented and his new players seem to like him. McCoy is known for adjusting to his talent. Remember, as Denver’s offensive coordinator, McCoy scrapped the Broncos’ entire offense at midseason in 2011 to adjust to Tim Tebow at quarterback. The risk resulted in a division title and a playoff victory. One NFL head coach recently told me it was the greatest in-season coaching move he’d ever seen. McCoy said flexibility will be crucial in every facet as he begins this journey with the Chargers; his approach will be dictated by what his players do best. So there will be a learning process in San Diego as the McCoy era gets going.

[+] EnlargeMike McCoy
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsNew Chargers coach Mike McCoy has a reputation for adjusting to the talent around him.
What success would look like: The Chargers are going to stay the same on defense, where John Pagano remains coordinator. If they are going to make a move from last season's 7-9 record, it will come due to more success on offense. That’s why McCoy was hired -- the Chargers believe he is the man to get the unit on the right track. Norv Turner was a fine offensive mind, but he just couldn’t sustain success as a head coach, and the Chargers definitely needed a new approach. I think the Chargers will be refreshed by a new leader and I expect McCoy to have more success with in-game decisions than Turner.

All about the quarterback: The focal point for McCoy in 2013 will be getting more out of signal-caller Philip Rivers. After playing at a high level, Rivers’ play dipped the past two seasons, with turnovers a particular issue. Not all of Rivers’ problems are on him, however. The talent level on San Diego’s offense has cratered, and the offensive line has been ravaged by injuries. But Rivers does need some fixing. That’s why McCoy was hired: He has had great success with quarterbacks. And the new head coach is on the record as saying Rivers will have a big year in 2013 -- something the Chargers are counting on.

More or fewer wins? This is a difficult team to try to pin down. The talent level is better in some areas than it was during the 7-9 campaign in 2012, but there are still big questions on the offensive line and in the secondary. I think this is the beginning of a good era in San Diego, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chargers stay in the seven- or eight-win range.
Give the San Diego Chargers credit. They were forced into a bad situation, and they answered it by securing arguably the best player remaining on the free-agent market.

Pushed into a corner, rookie San Diego general manager Tom Telesco responded with his highest-profile acquisition of the offseason by signing pass-rusher Dwight Freeney on Saturday. Freeney agreed to a two-year contract, according to ESPN’s Ed Werder. Telesco was in Indianapolis' front office when Freeney played for the Colts from 2002 to 2012.

Their reunion had little chance of occurring until 2012 San Diego first-round draft pick Melvin Ingram tore his ACL in noncontact OTAs on Tuesday. It was a crushing blow. Not only did the Chargers think Ingram was ready to dominate but he was their top pass-rushing option after the free-agent departures of Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes.

[+] EnlargeDwight Freeney
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports At 33 years old, can Dwight Freeney give San Diego's pass rush steady production?
San Diego has a young, exciting defense, but the Ingram injury left a glaring hole. No NFL defense can truly succeed without a legitimate pass rush. There were no better pass-rushing options available than Freeney.

Yes, he is aging at 33 and he has just 13 of his 107.5 career sacks in the past two years. There is no doubt that Freeney, who is known for having one of the best spin moves in the history of the game, is near the end. But this pairing makes sense simply out of desperation. The Chargers weren’t going to find a better replacement for Ingram than Freeney, and Freeney was not going to get a better situation than San Diego. There were few places Freeney would have had a bigger role.

There are questions of whether Freeney is an ideal fit for the Chargers’ 3-4 defense. He played in it last season in Indianapolis and wasn’t as strong of a fit as he was in the 4-3.

I don’t think it is going to be an issue, however. San Diego coach Mike McCoy told Werder that the team would adjust to Freeney. That doesn’t mean the Chargers (whose defensive coordinator is John Pagano -- the brother of Chuck Pagano, who was Freeney’s coach in Indianapolis last year) are going to totally scrap the 3-4 for a 33-year-old player. It means that the Chargers are multiple in their pass-defense looks and that Freeney could line up often in his customary 4-3 defensive end position.

In short, the Chargers will put Freeney in his comfort level. Many think he will succeed in San Diego.

“I like it, and I do think he has something left,” ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson said. “The Chargers are not a super strict 3-4, and Freeney did show that he can still be disruptive last year. … I wouldn’t give him all the snaps, but he certainly should be useful.”

ESPN analyst and former Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen this: "There's no question he can fit with that scheme. There are no strict 3-4 defenses, or not many. … You take Dwight, you get his hand on the ground and play him for 30 to 40 snaps, let him get after the quarterback."

One of the quarterbacks Freeney will be going after twice a season is close friend Peyton Manning. The two were longtime teammates with the Colts. Manning tried to recruit Freeney to Denver this offseason after Elvis Dumervil departed to Baltimore. Denver was considered the front-runner for Freeney, but the two sides couldn’t come to a financial accord. Somewhat ironically, Denver signed Phillips from San Diego instead. Had Freeney ended up in Denver, it likely would have been Phillips who would have replaced Ingram. USA Today reported that Denver had late talks with Freeney, but I suspect those were more cursory just to gauge whether it could steal him at the last moment.

In the end, I’m not sure whether the Chargers are better than they were before Ingram’s injury. They spent more money than expected, especially with a hole remaining at left tackle. The team is still talking to Max Starks, and the Chargers will get some cap relief June 1 as part of the Jared Gaither cut.

But the Ingram injury and Freeney signing are prime examples of the always-changing NFL world. The Chargers were put in an emergency situation. I don’t think they could have responded better than securing a potential Hall of Famer as a solution.

2012 AFC West awards

February, 8, 2013
Manning-CharlesGetty ImagesPeyton Manning is the AFC West MVP, while Jamaal Charles is the top offensive player.

Let’s wrap up the 2012 NFL season by giving our annual AFC West awards:

MVP: Denver quarterback Peyton Manning: Manning finsished second in the voting for the NFL MVP behind Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson. Manning was outstanding in his first season in Denver. He led all NFL quarterbacks in Total QBR, which rates total quarterback impact. He was brilliant as Denver finished the regular season with an 11-game winning streak.

Offensive Player of the Year: Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles. Charles was overshadowed by the great seasons from Manning and Peterson. But Charles was tremendous. After blowing out the ACL in Week 2 of the 2011 season, Charles had a career high 1,509 rushing yards in 2012. He was a bright spot on the league’s worst team.

Defensive Player of the Year: Denver linebacker Von Miller was outstanding in his second NFL season. He had a team record 18.5 sacks after getting 11.5 sacks in 2011, when he was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Most importantly, Miller made strides in his overall game in 2012. He got much better in coverage and against the run.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsVon Miller had 18.5 sacks in just his second season in the NFL.
Coach of the Year: Denver coach John Fox. Fox has been outstanding in his two seasons in Denver. He is a flexible coach who excels at both working with what he has and allowing his assistants to coach. He is an upper-level head coach.

Comeback Player of the Year: Charles. Manning was the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. But I’m giving Charles the nod here because he was he missed nearly all of the 2011 season as a member of this division. Manning was in the AFC South with Indianapolis when he missed all of 2011 with a neck injury that required four surgeries.

Most Improved Player of the Year: San Diego linebacker Corey Liuget. San Diego should be thrilled about Liuget. The No. 18 overall pick in 2011 was outstanding in his second season. He was put in the best position to succeed by new defensive coordinator John Pagano and responded well. He is a quick, athletic impact player and a big reason why the franchise is excited about the direction of this defense.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Oakland receiver Rod Streater. Streater was extremely productive considering he was an undrafted free agent. The Temple product had 39 catches in 2012. He is a very smooth, polished player who seems to get how to play in the NFL. I won’t be surprised if he becomes a reliable starter in 2013.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Denver defensive end Derek Wolfe. The second-round pick became an instant starter and quickly became a big part of a much-improved defense that finished second in the NFL. Wolfe fits with Denver’s athletic approach and he plays with a lot of confidence. He is solid in all phases and looks like he has a bright future.

Executive of the Year: Denver vice president John Elway. Elway has been in Denver as the leader of the football operations for two years. He has won two division titles. The question has been answered -- Elway is much more than a legendary former quarterback. He knows this business. Every Denver person mentioned in this piece has been acquired on Elway’s watch.

Specialist of the Year: Denver return man Trindon Holliday. He was acquired off waivers in Week 6. All the tiny returner did was return two punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. He had a punt and a kickoff return for a score in Denver’s wild playoff loss to Baltimore. Holliday is a risk-taker and he doesn’t always hold onto the ball, but the reward rate is tremendous with this speedster.
Mike McCoy continues to make impressive moves with his first NFL coaching staff.

The San Diego Chargers have announced defensive coordinator John Pagano will stay with the team. Joe Barry (linebackers), Greg Williams (assistant linebackers) and Don Johnson (defensive line) will be retained as well. They are not expected to bring back defensive backs coach Ron Meeks and secondary assistant Cris Dishman. Keeping Pagano was an expected, but critical, move. He did a fine job in his first season on the job in 2012 and deserves to be back. San Diego has good, young talent on defense and they responded well to Pagano. Having continuity and the same scheme on that side of the ball is vital.

He has also made impressive hires by getting offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterback coach Frank Reich.

Meanwhile, potential offensive coordinators for the Oakland Raiders are coming off the market . Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is the new coordinator with the Colts. Among the candidates that have been connected to Oakland are Mike Martz, Greg Olsen and Oakland assistant Al Saunders. There is a belief Saunders could emerge as the leading candidate.

Oakland’s offensive coordinator spot is the lone remaining high-profile job in the division. Greg Knapp was fired Dec. 31 and every other team in the division has hired at least one coordinator. I’d be surprised if the Raiders don't make a hire before Monday.
A special teams coaching candidate could be Bobby April. He has been a special teams coach in six NFL cities. He was with new Kansas City coach Andy Reid with the Eagles the past three years.

The Chiefs signed defensive lineman Daniel Muir. He spent some time with the Jets last season with new Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. He was originally signed by the Packers in 2007 where new Kansas City general manager John Dorsey worked.
If Mike McCoy’s first decision as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers is an indication of things to come, the team will be in great shape.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported McCoy -- the former Denver offensive coordinator who was hired as the Chargers’ head coach Tuesday -- has hired former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator.

What a great hire.

Whisenhunt is a premier offensive coach, as is McCoy. The Chargers need to get quarterback Philip Rivers back on track after two seasons in which he had major turnover issues. The Chargers clearly realize that Rivers is a major key to the team's success and they are doing everything possible to address it.

I credit both McCoy and Whisenhunt for making this pairing possible. Whisenhunt was a top head coaching candidate in San Diego. If the Broncos hadn’t lost to Baltimore last week, Whisenhunt could easily have been named the head coach in San Diego. Thus, this is a huge win-win for the Chargers.

Credit Whisenhunt (who will call the offensive plays) for keeping his ego in check and going to San Diego after being bypassed for the top job. He was clearly interested in working with Rivers. Also, credit McCoy for being confident enough to hire a competitor for the job. This doesn’t always happen in the NFL.

In Whisenhunt, McCoy doesn’t have to worry about the offense, and he can concentrate on being a CEO, which is important for a young head coach. Prior to being a head coach in Arizona, Whisenhunt was a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.

The Chargers need to add talent on offense, but they are in good shape with the coaching staff.

The Chargers are expected to keep defensive coordinator John Pagano and others on the defensive staff while adding to the offensive staff and on special teams. Having Whisenhunt and Pagano on staff is a great way for McCoy to start his San Diego tenure.