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Friday, January 9, 2009
Rivera puts charge in San Diego's playoff run


Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Stephen Cooper doesn't want anyone to spend unnecessary time pondering why the San Diego Chargers' defense has had its remarkable revival.

 
  Paul Jasienski/Getty Images
  Ron Rivera has made an impact since taking over as defensive coordinator.

"I think Ron Rivera," said the Chargers' linebacker, who has excelled since Rivera took over for the fired Ted Cottrell after eight games. "He made it real simple for us on defense to go out there and play football."

There is no question that the San Diego defense has been playing winning football since Rivera, who was the Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator during their Super Bowl season in 2006, has taken over. The Chargers are the hottest team in the NFL going into their AFC divisional playoff game at Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Chargers have won five straight games, their last win coming over Indianapolis, which was riding a nine-game win streak.

The San Diego streak and its presence in the divisional playoff round is remarkable because the Chargers were 4-8 after 12 games. They are the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after starting 4-8.

There's a direct correlation between San Diego's turnaround and Rivera's defense. The unit has improved dramatically under his watch.

"He's made all the difference in the world," Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. "It's no coincidence that we've improved since he took over. That's not a knock on coach Cottrell, but coach Rivera has really got the unit believing in each other. We're really clicking under him."

The numbers don't lie. In addition to the Chargers' win-loss record since they made the switch (San Diego was 3-5 when Cottrell was fired), the team's defensive statistics have improved significantly. The Chargers gave up 6.4 fewer points in the final half of the season than they did in the first half. Their turnover ratio was plus-5 in the second half compared with minus-1 in the first half.

During San Diego's four-game win streak to end the regular season, the Chargers gave up an average of 56.8 yards less a game than in the first 12 games. They had eight interceptions in the final four games, compared with seven in the first 12 games.

The Chargers shut down Colts quarterback Peyton Manning when they had to, holding the Colts to 17 points in a 23-17 overtime win.

The key to their success under Rivera?

"It's just an aggressiveness," linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "We just attack. We weren't attacking before he came in. Now, we dictate the action."

Rivera doesn't hide his enjoyment. He loves the events of the past 10 weeks. He doesn't allow himself to get caught up in elevating his impact on the Chargers' turnaround. Others are saying it for him, but it is clear the Chargers, who have dominated opponents on defense during a five-game win streak, are winning because their defense is making plays.

"It's been a lot of fun. I'm really enjoying this," Rivera said. "The best part of it is because I'm a teacher and I see the results that are being made. It is very satisfying to see this thing work."

It is working on all three phases of the defense. The defensive line, the linebacking crew and the secondary have all been noticeably better since Rivera took over. The end result, of course, is much better overall defensive play.

Some of San Diego's defensive players said what makes Rivera -- who was the team's inside linebackers coach before his promotion -- so effective is that he knows the nuances of all three phases of the defense. Cottrell's strong suit was teaching the secondary. But Rivera, a former NFL linebacker, brings knowledge to the entire defense.

"He's very detail-oriented," said Weddle, one of the players whose performance has improved significantly since Rivera took over. "He has us prepared for every possible situation that can come up. It's all details.

"I remember the day he took over; he told us it would be that way. He said he'd break it down and we'd do things his way. If anyone didn't like it, he said they could leave. No one left and we've really gotten better each day since then."

It seemed the first half of the season, in which points and yardage were being tattooed onto San Diego's defense, the unit dwelled on playing without its signature player, Shawne Merriman. The pass-rusher was ruled out for the season after the first week with a knee injury. When Rivera took over at the bye, it seemed as if the defense realized it had to change. It has had a focus and a purpose since.

Rivera has very simple expectations. First, he wants the team to give up no more than 17 points. He figures with the Chargers' offense, 17 points allowed should result in a San Diego win. Rivera's other goals for his unit are to force at least four three-and-out series, create at least two turnovers and score or put the offense in a positive position.

Rivera isn't talking much about his personal goals. Twice an NFL head-coaching candidate while with Chicago, he was pursued by Detroit earlier this week. However, Rivera released a statement through the Chargers saying that all the head-coaching talk must wait until the Chargers' postseason run is complete. He probably will be asked to interview for jobs when that happens.

Rivera admits the Chargers' defensive resurgence hasn't hurt his career, but he is having too much fun working with Chargers coach Norv Turner and his players to focus on the future.

"The best part is the winning," Rivera said. "We have a job to do here and we've had success and that's the most important thing to me. My career aside, we're winning and that's the best part of it."