- Eric D. Williams, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- He's been caught out of position, missed tackles at point-blank range and failed to defeat blocks in order to make plays in the run game.
But in between those mistakes, San Diego Chargers middle linebacker Manti Te'o has gradually played more consistent football in the second half of the year, and his rookie season overall is viewed as a success by the organization.
The Notre Dame product missed most of the preseason and the first three games of the regular season with a sprained right foot. Once cleared by the team's training staff, Te'o was promptly thrown into the starting lineup in his first game back, with his reps increased each week.
Not surprisingly, Te'o played tentatively and was fooled easily due to limited reps during preseason and training camp. But as the linebacker's time on the field increased, his ability to play fast and anticipate, considered strengths in college, have become more evident.
In 11 games played, Te'o is fifth on the team in tackles with 47, including four tackles for loss, four pass breakups and two quarterback hits. He's averaging 38 snaps a contest, and is around the ball more, a sign that his instincts are improving each week.
“I'm getting better,” Te'o said. “I'm more comfortable. I'm working on the little things. Now I'm not working on necessarily where I've got to be. Now I can focus on how I can get from Point A to Point B more efficiently.”
Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano initially had Te'o calling the defense when he first returned to the field while fellow middle linebacker Donald Butler nursed a nagging groin injury. Pagano said that while Te'o struggled some in that role, being responsible for calling the plays helped to speed up the process of learning the entire defense.
Butler, San Diego's defensive co-captain, is now healthy and has taken back his duties of calling the defensive huddle. An added benefit for Te'o has been the return of injured players such as Butler, along with outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram, creating more cohesion and better communication for the entire defense.
The Chargers have allowed an average of 22 points a contest in the past four games, three of which have been wins for San Diego. Butler and Te'o have played just eight games together this season.
“There's something to that when Donald and Manti can line up next to each other and play game after game, play after play,” Pagano said. “It gets comfortable to them, playing off of one another .... When you see teams make those late-season runs, especially teams that have won the Super Bowl, it's when teams get healthy in those areas and the guys can go play.”
Te'o's first season in the NFL has not come without hiccups. He's had to deal with the predictable taunting from opponents stemming from the revelation he had a fake girlfriend during his final year at Notre Dame.
Because of that situation, along with a slow 40-yard time at the NFL combine and lingering questions about his ability to hold up as a run defender, Te'o fell to the second round of this year's draft to the Chargers.
But Te'o believes he's improved in those areas as the season has progressed.
“I've gotten better,” he said. “The majority of the plays I made on Thursday [against Denver] were against the run. And it's going to continue to get better. The more I get comfortable with it, the more plays I'm going to make.”
Now that he's in the NFL, Te'o studies the top linebackers playing in the league.
“You just take stuff from people, and that helps you,” Te'o said. “Obviously you look at Ray Lewis and how he's always moving downhill. You look at NaVorro Bowman and his athleticism. You look at Luke [Kuechly] and his instincts. You just pull different things together that match you, and you build off of that and make it into the best you.”
As for Te'o's future development, San Diego coach Mike McCoy pointed to position versatility.
“To be able to move and do certain things in different situations in games depending on what spot he's playing at a certain time and then just the fundamentals on how to play this game because it's different than college, obviously,” McCoy said. “Everyone's bigger, faster and stronger, with better techniques and everything. So you've got to rely on your techniques.
“It's great to see him play because of the effort he brings every play. But it comes down to a lot of technique things he's got to learn, and just the basic little details. Because if you get lazy on one play, you'll get exposed in this league.”
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