San Diego Chargers: Derek Cox

ESPN Vikings beat reporter Ben Goessling reports that after a disappointing season in San Diego, which led to his release, cornerback Derek Cox will get a new start in Minnesota, signing a one-year deal with the team.

Cox will have to compete for a job, as Minnesota has eight cornerbacks on the roster, including the signing of Carolina Panthers free agent Captain Munnerlyn on Thursday. But perhaps new surroundings will help revive Cox's career.

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Chargers free agent defensive tackle Cam Thomas will visit the Steelers on Friday.

I talked with Coach John Kentera and Billy Ray Smith of the Mighty 1090 about how the Chargers handled the first week of free agency in this audio link.

Ricky Henne of Chargers.com writes that San Diego is eager to form a three-headed monster at the running back position with the addition of Donald Brown.

Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego writes that Cincinnati Bengals free agent cornerback Brandon Ghee hopes to revive his career with the Chargers.

NFL draft researcher Tony Villiotti writing for the National Football Post ranks the Chargers as the most efficient team in the league in drafting players over the last decade.
Like most other NFL organizations, the San Diego Chargers are a team that builds and maintains its roster through the draft. General manager Tom Telesco doesn’t necessarily put any more value on securing impact players through the draft, versus trade or free agency.

But annually selecting rookies that can make an impact on a team’s roster is important, particularly when you consider the player will be under the team’s control for at least four years, likely at an inexpensive salary.

So getting detailed medical evaluations and vetting players through the intense interviewing process are the most important things for teams this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Of the 53 players that finished the season on San Diego’s roster, 23 were secured through the draft, compared to 27 free agents, two through trades, and one claimed off waivers.

The Chargers have seven original picks in this year’s draft, one in each round beginning with the No. 25 overall pick. So they will be paying close attention to the more than 330 players invited to this year’s combine.

Along with evaluating draft prospects, Telesco will have an opportunity to meet with middle linebacker Donald Butler's representation as the Chargers try to get him signed to a multi-year deal before he hits free agency next month.

Here are five things to keep an eye on regarding the Chargers.

1. Physical cornerbacks who can turn and run: A major area of need for San Diego is improving the overall talent and depth at cornerback. Last year’s top free agent signee Derek Cox likely will not be back after being supplanted in the starting lineup by Richard Marshall. San Diego’s 2013 fifth-round selection Steve Williams could work into the conversation at corner in 2014. The Cal product sat out his rookie year after suffering a torn pectoral muscle during preseason play. But the Chargers need to add a couple physical corners who can cover -- through the draft, free agency or trade. Some names to keep an eye on include Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy. Those players stand out to me because of their length, athleticism and playmaking ability.

2. Edge rushers needed: The Chargers have several veterans at this position, but you can never have enough athletes who can rush the passer. And San Diego struggled at creating consistent pressure, particularly on third down. Three guys potentially available on Day 1 of the draft who could make an impact include Missouri’s Kony Ealy, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, and Auburn’s Dee Ford.

3. A run-stuffing defensive tackle: San Diego gave up an average of 4.59 yards per carry on defense in 2013, No. 29 in the NFL. Cam Thomas started the most games at defensive tackle, but will be a free agent in March. Sean Lissemore finished as the team’s starter at the end of the season, but needs to add some bulk to effectively fill this position. San Diego could certainly use a two-gap defensive tackle to control the middle of the defense, similar to Dontari Poe in Kansas City. Potential candidates in the draft include Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III, Minnesota’s Ra'Shede Hageman, and Penn State’s Daquan Jones.

4. Improved interior offensive line depth: With center Nick Hardwick contemplating retirement and veteran guard Jeromey Clary a potential salary-cap causality, the Chargers need to add some depth to the interior of the offensive line. Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson and Stanford’s David Yankey are the top rated guards in this year’s draft. And USC’s Marcus Martin could be the long-term answer for a team at center.

5. Add a couple explosive playmakers: San Diego could use some help in the return game. Keenan Allen should not be the team’s main punt returner. He’s too valuable on offense. And the Chargers could use someone with some juice in the kick return game. Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, and Oregon’s De'Anthony Thomas makes some sense because of their ability to create explosive plays on offense and in the return game. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers needs a few more weapons on offense to make his job easier, and all three of these players would fit the bill.
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 12
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: The production from rookie receiver Keenan Allen is the headline here, with the turnaround of quarterback Philip Rivers a close second. The rookie season of Allen, picked in the third round of 2013 draft, was supposed to be a redshirt year. But season-ending injuries to Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander forced the Cal product to play sooner rather than later. After a sluggish start, Allen responded. He finished the regular season with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards, and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with eight. Allen finished with eight catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason, emerging as an offensive rookie of the year candidate and San Diego's No. 1 receiver.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Derek Cox signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Chargers in free agency as the team's top cornerback but failed to live up to that expectation. Cox gave up several big plays and was one of the reasons San Diego's secondary struggled during the first half of the season. Cox ultimately was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran Richard Marshall in Week 13.

Biggest need: More talent in the secondary, with a pass rush help and beefing up the interior of the offensive line a close second. The Chargers gave up 23 passing touchdowns this season, No. 12 in the NFL, but 18 of those came in the first 11 games of the season. And San Diego also finished with just 11 interceptions on the season, No. 26 in the league. Veteran safety Eric Weddle played solid, mistake-free football for the most part in earning his second Pro Bowl berth, but he needs help. Shareece Wright gradually played better in his first season as a starter, but overall San Diego needs to add more young talent in the secondary.

Team MVP: Rivers elevated the play of the entire offense and deserves to be part of the conversation of league MVP. In his 10th season, Rivers benefited from former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's conversion of San Diego's offense to a short passing game. Rivers finished in the top five in completion percentage (69.5 percent), yards per pass (8.23), passing yards (4,478), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5). At 32 years old, Rivers looks like he still has the ability to play a few more years at an elite level. The Chargers need to add a couple of more pieces on offense to make his job easier.

 
SAN DIEGO -- In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, Mike Sando takes a look at the top 25 free agents set to hit the market in 2014.

While that list does not include a player from San Diego's current roster, I thought we'd take this opportunity to look at the Chargers salary cap situation heading into Year 2 of the general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy regime.

Telesco is scheduled to talk with reporters at the team's facility on Wednesday.

McCoy offered few details during his end-of-the-season interview session when asked what his team's approach will be in free agency, including the team's top unrestricted free agent, middle linebacker Donald Butler.

The Chargers have 12 players set to become unrestricted free agents once the free agency period begins in March.

“We'll address all those things down the road,” McCoy said. “We're going to sit down, like I talked about, as an organization and as a staff, Tom (Telesco) and the personnel department, we'll evaluate our football team and we'll have tough decisions like we do every offseason like all 32 teams.

“There's a lot of things that come into the equation and we'll do what we think is best for the football team moving forward.”

San Diego finished at about $120 million in salary cap space in 2013, allowing the team to carry over about $2.3 million into the 2014 season. With a projected league-wide salary cap of $126.3 million, San Diego's adjusted salary cap for 2014 if the team carries over cap dollars will be between $128-$129 million, giving them little space to sign its own free agents, let alone free agents from other teams.

However, the Chargers could save cap space with a couple different moves. The second year of cornerback Derek Cox's four-year, $20 million salary is guaranteed for injury only, according to salary cap specialist Brian McIntyre. If Cox is on San Diego's roster on the third day of the new league year once it begins in March, his $4.25 million salary is guaranteed.

But releasing Cox in February after the Super Bowl, the proration of Cox's $3.9 million signing bonus would accelerate into the 2014 salary cap for the Chargers. So San Diego would save $1.65 million in cap space and $4.25 million in cash by releasing Cox.

The Chargers could save another $11.55 million in salary-cap space and cash by releasing players getting long in the tooth like guard Jeromey Clary ($4.55 in non-guaranteed base salary), receiver Eddie Royal ($4.5 million) and fullback Le'Ron McClain ($2.5 million).

Also, according to McIntyre, edge rusher Dwight Freeney is due a $500,000 roster bonus on March 15. Freeney is set to make $3.5 million in non-guaranteed salary in 2014. Freeney says he plan on returning from a torn quad that ended his 2013 season, and will play next year.

Chargers 2013 salary cap: $120 million
Chargers projected 2014 salary cap: $128-$129 million
Unrestricted free agents: WR Seyi Ajirotutu , WR Danario Alexander, RB Ronnie Brown, LB Donald Butler, LB Larry English, WR Lavelle Hawkins, CB Richard Marshall, OL Rich Ohrnberger, OL Chad Rinehart, SS Darrell Stuckey, DL Cam Thomas, LB Reggie Walker.
Phillip Rivers, Peyton ManningGetty ImagesExpect a high-scoring AFC West fight when Philip Rivers' Chargers take on Peyton Manning's Broncos.
For the second time in six weeks, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos will square off, with each team working through its postseason checklist.

The Broncos (11-2) want the division title and the AFC's top seed. Due to a loss to New England last month, they will likely have to win out to get both, unless the Patriots stumble down the stretch. The Chargers (6-7) know the time is now if they are going to snag an AFC wild-card spot, so much so that Jarret Johnson called Thursday night's game "a playoff scenario for us."

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Thursday night's game.

Legwold: Eric, former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels once called the Chargers the "measuring stick" of the division, but the Broncos are 4-1 against San Diego since John Fox replaced McDaniels and 3-0 since Peyton Manning became Denver's quarterback. How is former Broncos coach Mike McCoy framing this one, especially with the Chargers clinging to at least some postseason hopes?

Williams: McCoy has done a good job of making sure his players are staying in the now and not looking too far ahead. But with their postseason aspirations on life support, San Diego players view the trip to Denver as a playoff game. Defensively, the Chargers are frustrated with how sloppily they played against Manning in Week 10, giving up several big plays in the passing game. San Diego's secondary has played much better in the past two games, allowing just two touchdown passes. So the Chargers are looking to redeem themselves on Thursday.

Wes Welker will miss Thursday's contest due to lingering concussion symptoms. How will Denver replace his production?

Legwold: Even in the Broncos' ultrabalanced attack in the passing game, Welker will certainly be missed given he's second on the team in targets (111), receptions (73) and touchdown catches (10). But how the Broncos deal with that should look familiar to McCoy because the Broncos figure to field a lineup similar to the one McCoy called plays for here last season. The Broncos will move to a two-tight end look with Jacob Tamme working out of the slot. Tamme caught 52 passes last season, with the majority of those receptions coming when he was lined up as a slot receiver. It was a job he did well enough that Manning called him one of the most important players in the offense last season. Manning has confidence in Tamme -- they played together in Indianapolis -- and Manning threw to Tamme this past weekend in many of the situations where Manning usually throws to Welker.

The Chargers' secondary had a quality day against the Giants this past Sunday. How do you think they'll line up against the Broncos?

Williams: Cornerback Derek Cox was replaced by eight-year veteran Richard Marshall in the starting lineup two weeks ago, bringing stability to the back end defensively. San Diego has given up 20 passing touchdowns this season, but just two touchdown passes in the past two games. The Chargers had just four interceptions through the first nine games, but have hauled in five picks in the past four. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said his defensive teammates just made too many silly mistakes against the Broncos earlier this season, and that they need to make Manning work for Denver's touchdowns by playing sound fundamental defense with multiple looks up front.

How has Broncos coach John Fox made the transition back to the sideline after heart surgery?

Legwold: Fox had surgery to repair a condition that was diagnosed during his time with the New York Giants in the late '90s, so he knew the surgery was coming at some point. He has also lived with the difficulties a faulty aortic valve brought on. He says he now feels better than he has in 20 years. Doctors cleared him to return to work the Monday before the Titans game and he worked through the week without any difficulties. He coached from the sideline during the game this past Sunday and was on the field last week even though the team practiced outside in below-zero temperatures for three days.

Manning is five touchdowns away from tying the NFL single-season record, but Philip Rivers has two three-touchdown days over the past three games. Do the Chargers feel like they left some points on the field the last time these two teams met?

Williams: Yes, that's certainly the case. Rivers mentioned this week during his conversation with reporters here in San Diego that even though the Chargers had the ball for more than 38 minutes the last time these two teams played, the Chargers scored only 20 points. Rivers understands that can't happen again on the road at Denver. The Chargers seem to have a better plan for how they will attack teams when they get into the red zone. Running back Ryan Mathews has emerged as more of a focal point of the offense when they get near the end zone. Mathews has scored four touchdowns in San Diego's past seven games.

While Denver's offense purrs, the defense continues to sputter. What has Fox done to change his fortunes on that side of the ball?

Legwold: The Broncos have surrendered at least 17 points in every game this season and four times they have trailed by at least 11 points in games they eventually went on to win. They have certainly missed cornerback Champ Bailey, who has played in just three games this season, and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, one of their best run defenders up front who is now on injured reserve. Fox juggled things some this past weekend when he essentially benched linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a team captain, in the base 4-3 look, playing veteran Paris Lenon there instead. Fox also switched out Duke Ihenacho at safety, putting in Omar Bolden instead. Woodyard will still play the specialty packages, but the Broncos have juggled things in the base. Von Miller has had a dominant half against the Patriots and a dominant half against the Titans, but the Broncos are still waiting to see the impact player he can be for an entire game. The last time they played the Chargers, they were in the nickel most of time -- 42 snaps in all to go with 11 in the dime. They are far more consistent in those looks and have struggled more against teams that make them play out of their base defense.

Playing-time breakdown: Chargers

December, 3, 2013
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SAN DIEGO -- An examination of the snap counts from Sunday's 17-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals:

OFFENSE (Based on 65 snaps)

Quarterback -- Philip Rivers 65.

Running back -- Ryan Mathews 36, Danny Woodhead 27, Le'Ron McClain 4 Ronnie Brown 1.

Wide receiver -- Keenan Allen 65, Vincent Brown 63, Seyi Ajirotutu 5.

Tight end -- Antonio Gates 60, Ladarius Green 60, John Phillips 4.

Offensive line -- D.J. Fluker 65, Jeromey Clary 65, Johnnie Troutman 65, Chad Rinehart 65, Nick Hardwick 65.

Offensive analysis -- With slot receiver Eddie Royal unavailable due to injury, the Chargers predominantly played two-tight end sets against the Bengals. Ladarius Green played a season-high 60 snaps. ... All five offensive line starters made it through the game without an injury taking them off the field for a second straight week. ... Philip Rivers finished 5 of 10 for 73 yards, no touchdowns and an interception on third down. ... Rivers 80.0 passer rating was his lowest this season.

DEFENSE (Based on 62 snaps)

Line -- Corey Liuget 43, Kendall Reyes 43, Cam Thomas 39, Sean Lissemore 25, Lawrence Guy 20.

Linebacker --– Donald Butler 61, Reggie Walker 59, Manti Te'o 56, Tourek Williams 45, Thomas Keiser 19, Bront Bird 2.

Secondary -- Eric Weddle 62, Marcus Gilchrist 62, Shareece Wright 61, Richard Marshall 61, Johnny Patrick 17, Jahleel Addae 6, Darrell Stuckey 1.

Defensive analysis: After being replaced in the starting lineup, cornerback Derek Cox did not play a single snap on defense for the first time this season. But Cox played seven snaps on special teams. ... Sean Lissemore played a season-high 26 snaps, totaling four tackles. ... After struggling to start the game, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton finished 8 of 13 for 149 yards and a touchdown in the second half. ... San Diego's defense has forced four turnovers the past two games. The Chargers' offense has scored just 10 points off of those turnovers.

Mike McCoy mum on DB competition

November, 29, 2013
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SAN DIEGO -- Derek Cox was the last player on the field at Friday’s practice for the San Diego Chargers, working on back pedaling and speed work.

About 30 yards away, San Diego coach Mike McCoy talked with general manager Tom Telesco and team president Dean Spanos. That conversation likely included a decision on if Cox would make his 12th straight start of the season on Sunday against Cincinnati.

However, for now McCoy will not make that decision public.

Cox
“We have a very good idea of what we’re doing,” said McCoy, when asked if he had made a decision on who the starting cornerbacks will be after holding an open competition in the secondary this week.

Cox followed suit in the locker room, telling reporters that he did not know what decision had been made.

“I’m not sure, you’ll have to ask Coach [McCoy],” Cox said.

Signed to a four-year, $20 million deal in the offseason, Cox has been benched in three of the past four games. Cox said he’s not letting the uncertainty of his starting job affect his preparation.

“You have to continue to believe in what you’re doing,” Cox said. “Because I’m working hard, and the main thing is to just go out and keep competing, stay positive about what you’re doing and believe in the process. And things will work out your way.”

McCoy did say that whoever starts on Sunday will be the best player to help the Chargers defeat the Bengals.

“It’s like everything else in this business, you can’t worry about the past,” McCoy said. “You’ve got to worry about the future. The future is now, and we’ve got to worry about Sunday. So we’re doing what we think is best moving forward.”

After missing the first two days of practice this week, tight end Antonio Gates (hamstring), center Nick Hardwick (neck) and safety Darrell Stuckey (concussion) returned to practice on Friday.

Gates and Hardwick are probable, and Stuckey is questionable.

Johnson
Along with Stuckey, Jarret Johnson (hand) and Eddie Royal (chest/toe) are questionable. Royal hasn’t practiced since injuring his toe against Indianapolis on Oct. 14, but has played in every game since.

Johnson missed last week’s game at Kansas City with the hand injury, but is hopeful to play on Sunday. Johnson, who has a soft cast on his left hand, said he played six games with a similar injury while with the Ravens.

“It sucks,” Johnson said. “You’re limited to what you can do. But you always want to play.”

Left tackle King Dunlap was a limited participant in practice for a second straight day, but is listed as doubtful, which means D.J. Fluker likely will get his third start at left tackle.

Fluker (knee), receiver Seyi Ajirotutu (hamstring), defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe), defensive end Corey Liuget, running back Ryan Mathews (hamstring), and long snapper Mike Windt (ankle) all practiced and are probable for Sunday’s game.

McCoy would not say if outside linebacker Melvin Ingram will be activated for Sunday’s game. Ingram practiced for a second straight week, but remains on the physically unable to perform [PUP] list. The chargers have until Dec. 10 to place Ingram on the active roster or keep him on the reserve PUP list.

“We know what we’re doing,” McCoy said about Ingram. “And we’ll let everybody know. And he’s taking it one day at a time.”

Also, Philip Rivers was named the FedEx Air Player of the Week and receiver Keenan Allen won Pepsi Rookie of the Week honors for their performance against Kansas City last week.

“Philip had another outstanding game, and Keenan’s been getting better every week, so they both deserve it,” McCoy said.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- An examination of four hot issues from the San Diego Chargers41-38 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelKeenan Allen caught nine passes for 124 yards, and he drew double coverage that opened things up for teammates.
Allen is a No. 1 receiver: Yes, the Chiefs showed the ultimate respect for Chargers rookie receiver Keenan Allen. After he blistered the Chiefs for eight catches and 104 yards in the first half, Kansas City double-covered him, putting a safety over the top of the cornerback on his side. Allen finished with nine catches for 124 yards, but the double coverage opened up opportunities for teammates such as tight end Ladarius Green and slot receiver Eddie Royal. And it shows that Allen is emerging as a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Allen said he looked forward to playing against the Chiefs because the corners play so much press man coverage. “That’s when I’m at my best,” Allen said. “I can work a release off the line of scrimmage and make a guy miss.”

Woodhead the utility man: Running back Danny Woodhead did a little bit of everything for San Diego. He finished with an 11-yard touchdown reception and a 3-yard touchdown run. He made a block that allowed Royal to pick up an important first down on a scoring drive. And he finished with 137 kick-return yards, helping to give San Diego good field position. Woodhead has a career-high five receiving touchdowns this season, and he leads all running backs in receptions with 59 for 469 yards.

Time for Cox to take a seat: Cornerback Derek Cox was benched for a third time in four games after giving up a touchdown to Donnie Avery. Cox was replaced in the lineup by Richard Marshall, and did not return. Cox obviously feels pressure to perform because of the four-year, $20 million deal he signed in the offseason. But Cox doesn’t seem right physically; he doesn’t appear to have the ability to hit another gear and run with faster receivers. Maybe it is time for him to be placed on injured reserve, or at least benched for an extended period of time until he gets his confidence back. Both Cox and coach Mike McCoy maintain the cornerback is healthy.

Home cooking: Along with Philip Rivers leading the offense, one of the main reasons NFL observers are giving San Diego a shot to make the playoffs is because of the team’s schedule down the stretch. The Chargers finish with four of their last five games at home, and still have three games against AFC West foes. The favorable schedule gives San Diego plenty of opportunity to make the postseason for the first time since 2009.
SAN DIEGO -- Inconsistent play has defined the first season the San Diego Chargers' starting four members of the defensive backfield have played together.

Wright
Gilchrist
Add to that the fact that two of the players are first-time starters in cornerback Shareece Wright and safety Marcus Gilchrist, and that leads to some undesirable numbers for San Diego's defense.

The Chargers are giving up an average of 276 passing yards a contest and have allowed 39 passing plays of 20 or more yards, both 27th in the league. San Diego has just five interceptions, and opposing quarterbacks have posted a healthy 102.3 passer rating against the Chargers.

Beyond those troubling statistics, San Diego's defense does not pass the eye test. The defense fails to regularly rally to the ball, and left by themselves defenders struggle to make tackles in the open field.

Gilchrist and Wright have heard the criticism and are focused on putting a better product on the field, beginning Sunday at Kansas City.

"I just feel like collectively we have to have that game where we all play our best game,” Wright said. "There's been games where I've done better than others, and then other games where [cornerback] Derek Cox does well. But I just feel like we've got to come out and collectively play our best games every week. And I feel like we're a good DB group when we can do that. We just have to be more consistent and as a group make more plays.”

Added Gilchrist: "One of the things I've learned being in the NFL is how to manage the highs and lows. We've had highs and lows as a secondary. It's our first year together. And I think we're getting to a point where we're kind of learning each other, and understanding how to communicate with each other. There's always going to be room for improvement, no matter how good or bad people may say you're playing.”

When questioned about the struggles of his secondary, San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano is quick to point out his entire unit has to play better. Pagano is right. Defensively, the Chargers have not created a consistent pass rush and have only 26 sacks, No. 17 in the NFL.

And San Diego's linebackers have just as many missed tackles and assignments as the rest of the defensive unit.

"We've got to play more consistent," Pagano said. "And it's about technique, fundamentals and having that effort back there, and playing with the eye discipline and technique that we need to do.

"And you see them on plays growing together. But it's about all 11 [players]. Great pass coverage has always had great rush. And a great rush always has great pass coverage behind it. So those are the things that we're focusing on."

Wright agreed.

"It falls on the secondary because we're in the back end," Wright said. "So if somebody in front of us didn't do something right, it looks bad. If I'm in Cover 2, or if I'm in Cover 2-man and playing underneath, and the receiver catches a fade ball on me and no one knows the safety is supposed to be over the top, then I look bad. So it's just one of those things where we have to play together and have each other's back no matter what.”

San Diego's secondary will get a chance at redemption down the stretch of the season, playing against playoff-caliber teams such as the Chiefs, Denver and Cincinnati.

"Confidence is everything," Wright said. "If we can make one big play followed by another big play, and just being confident in ourselves -- we'll know that we are a good core and we can make plays."

"It's a perfect opportunity to really prove ourselves and show who we are, and that we can be a good group."

Rapid Reaction: San Diego Chargers

November, 10, 2013
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SAN DIEGO -- A few thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 28-20 loss to the Denver Broncos.

What it means: The Chargers (4-5) fall under the .500 mark for the first time since a Week 5 loss at Oakland. San Diego is 0-2 against the AFC West this season.

Comeback falls short: Down 28-6 in the second half, the Chargers could have easily packed it in and mentally started getting ready for next week. They didn't. San Diego scratched its way back to 28-20 with just over 10 minutes left, but failed to get past midfield on the potential game-tying drive.

Demaryius Thomas thrives: San Diego's smallish corners had trouble dealing with Denver's big-bodied receiver Demaryius Thomas, who finished with seven receptions for 108 yards, including three touchdowns. The Chargers' secondary has struggled with big receivers all year. Denver tight end Julius Thomas -- another big, fast player -- finished with three receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown.

Redemption for Mathews: After gaining just 34 yards on seven carries last week, Ryan Mathews rebounded with a solid performance, finishing with 59 yards on 14 carries, including a 35-yard run. Mathews also had a 1-yard touchdown run on a goal-line play that San Diego would have been wise to use last week, when the Chargers failed to get the winning score from a yard out against Washington. The Chargers rushed for 131 yards as a team, but 113 of those yards came in the first half.

Cox benched again: For a second straight game, San Diego’s top free-agent addition, cornerback Derek Cox, was benched for poor play. Cox failed to get Denver tight end Julius Thomas out of bounds on his 74-yard reception for a score in the opening quarter, and received an earful from defensive coordinator John Pagano on the sideline after the play. Cox later returned to the game after fellow cornerback Shareece Wright suffered an apparent leg injury. Cox was benched in the second half of San Diego’s overtime loss to Washington last week.

What’s next: The Chargers hit the road and travel to Miami for an afternoon game next Sunday.
SAN DIEGO -- Defensive coordinator John Pagano said inconsistent play and failing to make impact plays were two reasons he decided to bench cornerback Derek Cox during the San Diego Chargers’ overtime loss to Washington last week.

Cox
“He’s had opportunities,” Pagano said. “We’ve got to go make plays. And he’s got to learn to finish some of those plays. And has he made plays? Yes he has. There’s been many times that you see it. Now, in the back end, those are the plays where you get exposed the most, because it’s usually a long pass play or something where you end up giving up a touchdown where you’re the last line of the defense.

“But overall, I’d probably been a little more disappointed with the consistency from the back end, and not being able to put together complete games.”

Pagano said Cox returned to his customary position as the team’s starting cornerback for Wednesday’s practice.

“It’s about competing,” Pagano said. “It’s about going out there and being competitive, and doing the things you have to do week in and week out. That’s what this business is all about. It’s one of those situations where he handled it well, and we moved on from it.”

Cox said he took the benching in stride, and is focused on improving each week.

“Consistency is the key,” Cox said. “You look at great players and that’s what it boils down to -- they’re consistency week in and week out. And making your plays when the opportunity is there, so I’m right in tune with that mentally, and what I demand of myself.”

Whisenhunt discusses goal-line play calling: Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt talked to reporters on Thursday, and as you can imagine, most of the questions asked were about his curious play-calling at the end of regulation in San Diego’s loss to Washington, when the Chargers failed to score on three straight plays from a yard out.

“When they don't work you are going to be second-guessed on them,” Whisenhunt said. “That is part of this business. If you could tell me I could have back every play that didn't work and I could run it again, sure I would like to do that. Are you kidding me?

“But you can’t do that. You have a plan, you stick to the plan and more times than not for us this year, fortunately, it has worked.”

Whisenhunt said that Ryan Mathews not receiving a carry on any of the three plays at that goal line is not an indication of how he or the rest of the coaching staff feels about the team’s leading rusher.

“I feel great about Ryan,” he said. “There has never been any indication that we haven't felt great about Ryan. Last time I checked he’s the only back in the league this year to have two consecutive 100-yard games. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t feel good about him.

“We have complete confidence in him and in my mind. He is a good football player.”

Whisenhunt said he expected the ball to be spotted closer to the goal line after Danny Woodhead's touchdown was reversed. And had he known the ball would be spotted a half-yard further away, he might have made a different call than what ended up being a first-down run to Woodhead that Philip Rivers audibled to out of a spread formation.

Whisenhunt also said the decision not to go for it on fourth down was Mike McCoy’s call, but he had a play ready if McCoy had changed his mind.

Injury update: Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson was back on the injury report on Thursday. Johnson was a limited participant with a hamstring injury, the same issue that forced him to miss to miss two games earlier this season.

“Something kind of flared up, but we’ll give you an update tomorrow,” McCoy said about Johnson.

Offensive lineman Chad Rinehart (toe) was a limited participant for a second straight day.

Defensive end Lawrence Guy (toe) offensive lineman Mike Remmers (ankle) and receiver Eddie Royal (toe) did not practice.

Linebacker Donald Butler (groin) and punter Mike Scifres (knee) were full participants.
 
SAN DIEGO -- At 4-4 overall at the midpoint, the San Diego Chargers are about where they should be heading into the season's backstretch.

Quarterback Philip Rivers' bounce-back season has been one of the main storylines for this team, along with the return of a competitive spirit established by first-year head coach Mike McCoy.

Still, the Chargers face a daunting schedule if they want to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. San Diego still has five AFC West division contests left -- two each against division leaders Kansas City and Denver.

 
SAN DIEGO -- Cornerback Derek Cox's time on the sideline as a reserve could be a short stint.

Cox
After being benched in the second half of San Diego's 30-24 overtime loss at Washington, San Diego coach Mike McCoy said Cox had a conversation with defensive coordinator John Pagano on the plane ride home about why he was taken out of the game.

“Yeah, I talked to him on the plane,” Cox said. “He just told me that it was his decision, and something that he pretty much just did in the heat of the battle. And he told me not to worry about it at all.”

So will Cox be returning to the starting lineup this week?

“It's probably best to ask him [Pagano] and see what he says,” Cox said.

Cox, who signed a four-year, $20 million deal in free agency with the Chargers after playing his first four seasons in Jacksonville, struggled at times covering receivers deep during the first half of the season.

In the Washington game, Cox was replaced by Johnny Patrick in the third quarter after giving up a 38-yard reception to Washington receiver Pierre Garcon.

“If there is something we are going to change from week-to-week because we think it's the best opportunity or because something happens in a certain game, we're going to make changes,” McCoy said. “Players are not always going to agree with what you do and how you do things, but that's our job as coaches -- do what we think is best for the team."
LANDOVER, Md. -- Derek Cox did not make any excuses.

“I go in when they tell me to come in, and I got out when they tell me to come out,” Cox said. “That’s all I can really say.”

Benched in the third quarter in favor of reserve Johnny Patrick, Cox said he wasn’t taken out because of injury, a comment echoed by San Diego coach Mike McCoy, who confirmed that Cox is healthy.

[+] EnlargeSan Diego's Derek Cox
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesPierre Garcon beats Derek Cox for one of his seven catches against the Chargers.
“We made a decision to put someone else in,” McCoy said. “We are going to do what we think is best to win every game, and we’ll make a change and rotate personnel -- put certain guys in. We’ll do whatever we think is the best to make the team win.”

To his credit, Cox didn’t pout. He stood near the defensive coaches on the sideline ready to go back in if his name was called.

“I just took the coaching,” Cox said, when asked what his reaction was to being benched. “If that’s what they want to do, as a player and a teammate, I just listen to what the coaches tell me to do.”

Cox was billed as San Diego Charger’s headline signing in free agency, inking a four-year, $20 million deal this offseason. He battled through a nagging knee injury early this season, and hasn’t missed a game.

In eight games played, Cox has 34 tackles and an interception. However, Cox has struggled to keep up with the NFL’s best receivers as San Diego’s top cornerback.

The latest big play he gave up came in the third quarter against Washington, when Pierre Garcon got behind him and made a one-handed catch for a 38-yard reception.
Making matters worse, Cox was called for pass interference on the play.

“Do I want to make more plays? Of course,” Cox said. “But by no means do I look at it and say -- I don’t know. I just have to understand the expectation level that they have, and meet that. That’s just my job to do.”

Garcon finished with seven catches for 172 yards, making plays against San Diego’s other cornerbacks during Washington's 30-24 overtime victory. The task will not get any easier for San Diego’s secondary next week, when the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning come to town.

Asked if Cox will return to the starting lineup next week, McCoy was diplomatic.

“We’ll talk about it as the week goes on,” McCoy said. “We’re doing whatever we can to win every week. We’ll make those decisions as we go, but we’re trying to win a football game week-in and week-out.”
Good morning. ESPN’s Dan Graziano has moved San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers up a notch to No. 4 in his weekly MVP watch.

Here’s what Graziano has to say about Rivers’ performance so far this season.
“Rivers' numbers just don't make any sense. Isn't Norv Turner supposed to be an offensive genius? Isn't "coach offense," like, the one thing you're sure Turner can do? Yet Rivers declined every year while Turner was there and under Mike McCoy he's completing 73.9 percent of his passes. He has thrown fewer incompletions in the past two games than Eli Manning threw Monday night in a win, and you know he's looking at the league passing leaderboard every week and thinking, "That's right! Who's the big winner from the 2004 draft now?" And even though it's obviously still Manning and the Giants, point is Rivers is having a really good year.”

" In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus ranks San Diego’s signing of cornerback Derek Cox as one of the worst free-agent signings of 2013. The Chargers signed Cox to a four-year, $20 million deal this offseason, including $10.25 million in guaranteed money. Also included in his worst signings of 2013 were two other similarly paid cornerbacks in Detroit’s Chris Houston and Philadelphia’s Cary Williams.

Palazzolo:
“Rounding out the trio of similarly paid cornerbacks, Cox ranks 68th among cornerbacks with a grade of minus-5.3, and his 1.62 yards/cover snap ranks 64th at the position. He's been a part of a disappointing Chargers pass defense, although an inadequate pass rush certainly hasn't helped, particularly after Dwight Freeney was lost for the season. Unlike the other cornerbacks on this list, Cox hasn't had any disastrous outings, but he has graded negatively in all but one of his seven games.”

" San Diego coach Mike McCoy was mic’d up for the Jacksonville game. Check out the video link. It’s worth a look this morning.

" Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego hands out mostly good grades in his evaluation of the Chargers through seven games.

" Will Brinson of CBS Sports places San Diego running back Ryan Mathews on his list of ascending players in the NFL in his weekly stock watch.

" Ricky Henne of Chargers.com writes that Rivers and longtime San Diego center Nick Hardwick share a bond. The two Chargers entered the league together as part of the 2004 draft class.

" Writing for Sports Illustrated, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman offers an interesting perspective on a hot button issue in the NFL right now -- concussions. Sherman says the players understand the dangers involved with playing football at the highest level, and the league should stop trying to regulate big hits out of the game.

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