- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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The two men the San Diego Chargers chose to anchor their defense in 2011 spent their post-lockout time essentially living together.
Eric Weddle, fresh from signing a $40 million dollar contract that kept him in San Diego, was in charge of getting former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders up to speed in the Chargers’ scheme.
“From the moment the lockout ended, we were studying and talking,” Weddle said. “It just wasn’t on the field. It was at breakfast, lunch, dinner. We’d study in the cold tub. We’d stay here to 1 in the morning, talking and getting comfortable with each other. We know how important it is.”
And the extra time spent together has paid off.
“It feels like we’ve been playing together for three or four years,” Weddle said.
The Chargers think their safeties can be among the best in the NFL and can lead them on a deep run in the playoffs. So far, so good. Weddle and Sanders looked to be on the same page as the defense took over in the second half of Week 1, when the Chargers outscored the Minnesota Vikings 17-0 on their way to a 24-17 win.
The two safeties will be paramount for San Diego in a critical AFC matchup at New England on Sunday. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is coming off a 517-yard passing performance at Miami in which his tight ends terrorized the Dolphins' safeties. Weddle and Sanders will be in charge of slowing down that attack this week.
Weddle, 26, and Sanders, 30, are an interesting combination. Both are undersized, intelligent leaders. The players are at completely different phases of their careers, yet both men are in prove-it mode in 2011.
Weddle, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound fifth-year pro, is out to prove that he was worth the monster deal that San Diego re-signed him to early in free agency. Sanders, a 5-8, 206-pound ball of dynamite, signed a short-term deal with the Chargers, wanting to prove he can still play in the league. Sanders, who earned the NFL’s top defensive honor in the 2007 season with Indianapolis, played a total of nine games in the past three seasons with the Colts, who finally gave up on him last winter.
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, a longtime fan of the relentless Sanders, agreed to terms with Sanders on the eve of the lockout. The deal was finalized right after the lockout ended. Smith envisioned a Weddle-Sanders safety tandem for some time. Some in league circles thought the addition of Sanders meant the Chargers were prepared to move on without Weddle. But this was a package deal.
It’s earning rave reviews.
“Sanders and Weddle is a perfect safety combination,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “They’re really going to make a difference for the Chargers.”
Safety play is predicated on emotion and desire. The Chargers are benefiting from the fire that burns in each player.
Sanders is bent on proving he is not a fragile former good player.
“I hope my run of bad luck is done,” Sanders said.
Indeed, Sanders is due for some good fortune. In 2008, Sanders was hampered by ankle and knee issues. In 2009, he suffered an arm injury that scuttled his season after the second game. Last year, Sanders suffered a biceps injury in the first game and was out for the season. Sanders believes it’s important to note that he has been the victim of a string of fluky injuries and there are no real structural problems.
His teammates have raved that Sanders looks like he's in his Colts’ heyday. Chargers coach Norv Turner said Sanders flies around the practice field like a “bullet.”
The Chargers know they have a special player in their midst.
“When you played Indianapolis, you always had go find No. 21 and go block him,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. “It’s good to have him on our side.”
Smith said he has no doubt Sanders will revert to his pre-injury days if he stays on the field.
“All I wish for Bob Sanders is health,” Smith said. “Best of health, Bob. That’s all he needs.”
While Sanders’ season is centered on staying out of the trainer’s room, Weddle’s is about his living up to his beefed-up bank account.
“I know a lot will be expected from me because of this deal,” said Weddle, who is known for his ability to stop the run and making timely interceptions. “That’s fine. That’s part of it.”
In the end, Sanders and Weddle are in it together as they begin their partnership.
“I want Bob to be great and he wants me to be great,” Weddle said. “Because if we are both great, it will only benefit this team.”