- Eric D. Williams, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- Everything at Chargers Park is a little more efficient in the second season of coach Mike McCoy’s tenure with the San Diego Chargers.
Players have a better understanding of expectations, from the daily practice schedule to the type of precision and high-intensity effort expected in drill work from the demanding McCoy.
Players also know something else: The style and culture he created works. Last season, McCoy told veteran players that if they bought into his philosophy they could be consistent winners in Year 1 of his program. McCoy led the Chargers to a surprising playoff run.
With a couple of newcomers on both sides of the ball added to an already talented roster -- led by one of the best quarterbacks in football in Philip Rivers -- the Chargers believe they can compete with the Denver Broncos for an AFC West crown.
Of course, San Diego has to get through a month of preseason work with its core players healthy while building on the continuity and chemistry established during the backstretch of last season, when the Chargers won four straight to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“We’ve just got to keep moving and keep grinding,” safety Eric Weddle said. “We’re striving to be great.”
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. For the most part, the Chargers have not suffered any significant injuries through the first two weeks of camp. The team’s projected starting right guard, Jeromey Clary, is on the active physically unable to perform list recovering from offseason shoulder and hip surgeries. Clary hopes to return for the team’s regular-season opener at Arizona, but he could begin the season on the reserve PUP list and miss the first six weeks. On the flip side, edge rusher Dwight Freeney has looked explosive and healthy returning from a torn quad that cut short his 2013 season, and he should provide a boost to a team that struggled getting after the quarterback last season.
2. Defensively, the Chargers appear much faster than last season, particularly in the secondary. The return of a healthy Manti Te'o (foot) and Melvin Ingram (knee) helped improve the overall speed and athleticism at the second level of the defense, along with the addition of outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, a second-round pick. In the secondary, the Chargers are more athletic with the addition of first-round selection Jason Verrett, the signing of veteran cornerback Brandon Flowers and the return of last year’s fifth-round pick Steve Williams, who missed all of his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle.
3. Rivers has more playmakers at his disposal, making San Diego’s offense even more potent in 2014. The unexpected return of Malcom Floyd from a serious neck injury gives the Chargers a receiver who can stretch the field vertically opposite Keenan Allen. Floyd has flashed sure hands and playmaking ability in training camp. The addition of Donald Brown should provide a boost to the run game, easing the workload of Ryan Mathews. Also, tight end Ladarius Green appears to have taken another step in his development after showing the ability to create big plays last season.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. While San Diego has not suffered any significant injuries, two of the team’s top three corners (Verrett and Flowers) are not expected to play Thursday against Dallas. Verrett has been wearing a red jersey in practice, a sign that he is not fully recovered from March surgery to repair a torn labrum. And Flowers is resting an undisclosed injury, although he played last season for Kansas City with a balky knee most of the year. If those injuries continue to linger, it will affect what the Chargers can do defensively during the regular season.
2. Along with defensive back, the Chargers also have some concerns with depth and experience along the offensive line. Rookie Chris Watt is the projected starting right guard with Clary out. Although the third-round selection out of Notre Dame has looked solid in training camp, Watt still has not played a meaningful snap in a regular-season game. The Chargers also have question marks behind left tackle King Dunlap and right tackle D.J. Fluker. Mike Harris was solid when called upon last season, starting in two games at left tackle. However, he finished the 2013 season on injured reserve with an ankle injury and has yet to test the issue in a game.
3. The Chargers' projected starter at nose tackle is Sean Lissemore, a versatile performer who played 208 snaps last season. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 303 pounds, Lissemore is not a typical run-stuffing nose tackle in a 3-4 defensive front. Lissemore’s backup is Kwame Geathers, who played all of 27 snaps as a rookie last season. Both are expected to anchor a San Diego defense that gave up an average of 4.6 rushing yards per attempt last season, 27th in the NFL. Run-first teams Seattle and Buffalo are among the Chargers' September opponents, so the middle of the defense will be tested early.
A point of emphasis for the Chargers during training camp has been creating more turnovers. San Diego finished with just 17 turnovers in 2013, third worst in the NFL. However, the Chargers forced six turnovers during the postseason, second only to the Seattle Seahawks. Weddle has two interceptions for touchdowns during training camp, and middle linebacker Donald Butler returned an interception for a score during a controlled scrimmage at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers are focused not only on creating more turnovers but also taking them back for touchdowns.
At an average of 6-6 and 322 pounds, San Diego has one of the beefiest offensive lines in the NFL. So it’s no wonder the Chargers were so effective clearing rushing lanes for Mathews last season. Mathews finished with a career-high 1,255 rushing yards last season. The goal for the offensive line is to create a similar mindset so the team can run against anyone in 2014. “Last year we started off coming out every day and being consistent and working together,” guard Chad Rinehart said. “We need to get back to that point. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like we’re there right now. But each day we’ve shown a little bit of improvement going into the season.”
Don’t expect much change from a scheme standpoint in San Diego’s offense with Frank Reich taking over as offensive coordinator. Reich worked as the team’s quarterbacks coach under Ken Whisenhunt, who left to become the head coach of the Tennessee Titans. Reich and Rivers have a good relationship. Reich will lean on the veteran quarterback even more to run the no-huddle offense and call plays at the line of scrimmage. But the team’s core philosophy of running the ball and leaning on the short passing game remains the same.
While Green will be featured more in the offense, veteran Antonio Gates will remain the most targeted tight end on San Diego’s roster. Gates has been the most targeted receiver for the Chargers two of the last three seasons. While NFL observers believe he has lost a step, the 34-year-old Gates can still beat one-on-one coverage in the middle of the field, particularly in the red zone.
One player to watch for during preseason play is undrafted rookie free-agent cornerback Chris Davis. The star of the Iron Bowl for Auburn last season with his return of a missed field goal for the winning score against Alabama, Davis has made handful of interceptions and pass breakups during camp. At 5-10 and 201 pounds, Davis is built more like a running back, but he has shown an ability to play physically and keep up with speedy receivers on vertical routes.