The San Diego Chargers have had their share of distractions this season, and this week they ended up with another one.
The Chargers look to shake off a tough loss—and accusations of steroid use against one of their star defensive players—when they host the surprising St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
Linebacker Shawne Merriman, last season’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, was suspended four games Monday for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Merriman, who led the team with 10 sacks in 2005 and started in the Pro Bowl, will play this week as he appeals the penalty.
Merriman’s attorney, David Cornwell, said that his client failed a drug test because of a tainted supplement. The 22-year-old Merriman, who has 5 1/2 sacks this season, said he apologized to the organization “for this being a distraction, especially the critical time we’re going through as a team” after practicing with the Chargers Monday.
“Hopefully, nobody makes any kind of judgment or anything that basically makes me guilty for anything, because nothing has been done wrong on my part,” he said.
A potential suspension would be a tough blow for San Diego (4-2), which lost linebacker Shaun Phillips for four to six weeks after he injured his right calf in last weekend’s 30-27 loss to Kansas City. Phillips leads the team with six sacks this season.
It would also mean more controversy for the Chargers, who are a game behind first-place Denver in the AFC West.
Outside linebacker Steve Foley is out for the season after being shot three times outside his home on Sept. 3 by an off-duty police officer who suspected him of drunk driving. Foley and Phillips were each arrested for scuffling with San Diego police officers a week apart in April, though neither was charged.
Safety Terrence Kiel was arrested on five felony drug counts in September and has pleaded not guilty, and cornerback Markus Curry was released on Oct. 9, just hours after he was arrested on suspicion of committing domestic violence.
Merriman had seven tackles in last Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs. The Chargers trailed by 17 points in the second quarter, but came back to tie the game before Kansas City kicked a 53-yard field goal with 6 seconds remaining.
“We had too many errors,” coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “Too many errors on defense. Too many errors on offense. We didn’t get the job done in any phase, and that includes coaching.”
San Diego ranks second in the AFC with 82.0 rushing yards allowed per game, but Kansas City’s Larry Johnson turned in only the fourth 100-yard performance against the Chargers since 2004.
The Chargers, who rely mostly on the running game, lead the AFC with 148.0 rushing yards per game, but managed just 97 against the Chiefs.
Star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, whose only 100-yard game this season came in San Diego’s season-opener at Oakland, finished with 66 yards rushing last week. He ranks just 14th in the NFL with 473 rushing yards after finishing sixth with 1,462 last season.
Tomlinson and the running game have a good chance to bounce back this weekend against the Rams, who rank ahead of only Tampa Bay in the NFC with 121.3 rushing yards allowed per game. St. Louis is sixth in the NFC with 345.2 yards of total offense a contest, but will have to contend with a San Diego defense that is giving up an NFL-low 241.2 yards per game.
The Rams (4-2) are coming off a bye last weekend, giving them an extra week to mull over a disappointing 30-28 defeat to Seattle on Oct. 15. St. Louis lost on a 54-yard field goal in the final seconds after the Seahawks were charged with an illegal formation penalty that the Rams erroneously believed carried with it a 10-second—and game-ending—runoff.
“Losing before the bye, I think it gave us extra motivation to really work hard, and to really sit back and think about things, and come back next week and just get ready to play,” rookie cornerback Tye Hill said.
All six of St. Louis’ games have been decided by eight points or less, and four have come down to the final seconds.
“We’ve been in that position each week,” first-year coach Scott Linehan said. “I think it’s pretty common that the last possession’s going to make or break games in the NFL. It just so happens it’s been really the last play with us.”
Receiver Torry Holt, who had a career-best three touchdown catches against Seattle, ranks first in the NFL with seven TD receptions and sixth with 526 receiving yards. He became the fastest player in league history to reach 10,000 yards when he caught eight passes for 154 yards against the Seahawks.
St. Louis is opening a tough four-game stretch that also includes a home game against Kansas City and contests at Seattle and Carolina.
“We have the ability now to evaluate what we’re doing in all three phases and get a little bit healthier,” Linehan said of the bye week.
St. Louis has won three of the last four meetings between these teams, including a 28-24 victory at home on Nov. 10, 2002, in the last matchup. The Rams haven’t played in San Diego since a 31-17 loss on Nov. 17, 1994.