Despite injuries and off-the-field troubles, the San Diego Chargers defense has become one of the most effective in the NFL.
The Chargers (5-2) look to continue shutting down opponents despite the loss of one of their most important defensive players when they host the struggling Cleveland Browns (2-5) on Sunday.
San Diego will be without outside linebacker Shawne Merriman as he begins a four-game suspension for testing positive for steroids. Merriman, the 2005 NFL defensive rookie of the year who leads the NFL with 8 1/2 sacks this season, decided Tuesday not to appeal the suspension.
“My teammates want me to do what’s best for myself,” Merriman said Sunday. “I want to do what’s best for the team.”
The loss of Merriman, who blamed a tainted supplement for the positive test, is another blow to a defense that is allowing only 15.6 points per game—sixth in the NFL. Starting linebacker Steve Foley was shot by an off-duty police officer Sept. 3, and Shaun Phillips took over for him. Phillips, though, missed Sunday’s 38-24 win over St. Louis with a calf injury and has only a 50 percent chance of playing against the Browns.
“We’re obviously going to support Shawne and we’ll prepare for the alternatives much the way we would if we had a player who wasn’t available for other reasons,” said Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, whose team is 3-0 at home. “We’ll put the pieces together and go back to work.”
Carlos Polk, who missed most of the last two seasons due to injuries, is expected to start in Merriman’s place. Polk has no starts and one sack in six seasons.
San Diego is also likely to be without defensive end Igor Olshansky, who’s expected to be doubtful due to a knee injury.
San Diego ranks sixth in rushing yards allowed (84.7 per game) and passing yards (180.9), and the Chargers hope their depleted defense is still formidable enough to get by the struggling Browns.
San Diego handled the Rams last week thanks in part to the offense stepping up. LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 183 yards and scored three touchdowns, and Philip Rivers connected on 14 of 23 passes for 206 yards to help San Diego win for the third time in four games.
The Chargers’ 30.9-points-per-game average is second in the NFL, and San Diego may need to keep piling up the points over the next few weeks as it waits for its defense to become whole again.
Tomlinson’s performance was particularly timely after the star back had gone five games without reaching the 100-yard rushing mark.
“So many questions start to come when you don’t have 100 yards,” said Tomlinson, who caught three passes for 57 yards and a touchdown and leads the NFL with 11 TDs. “People start to wonder, are you getting old or have you lost a step. For me, it’s all motivation. If I lost a step and had a day like this (Sunday), I’d hate to see if I was a young man what I would have done (Sunday) with the kind of holes I ran through.”
Stopping Tomlinson and the Chargers offense will be a major challenge for the Browns, who rank 28th in the league with 136.1 rushing yards allowed per game.
The beleaguered Browns took advantage of a controversial call last week to avoid a third straight defeat, beating the New York Jets 20-13. Chris Baker’s one-handed grab in the end zone was ruled out of bounds and not reviewable with 59 seconds remaining, giving Cleveland a 20-13 victory.
“We finally got a break,” linebacker Andra Davis said. “This is a blessing.”
The call assured Jeff Davidson would escape with a win in his debut as offensive coordinator after he replaced Maurice Carthon earlier in the week.
“There were a lot of distractions,” said quarterback Charlie Frye, who finished 15 of 22 for 141 yards and threw an interception. “To go out there and get a win means a lot.”
The Browns hope running back Reuben Droughns can build on his season high of 125 rushing yards. Droughns also scored a touchdown, breaking a three-game drought.
San Diego was a 21-0 winner in the teams’ last meeting Dec. 19, 2004, as Tomlinson ran for 111 yards and a pair of 1-yard touchdowns, and tight end Antonio Gates caught a 72-yard scoring pass. Drew Brees attempted only six passes, completing four of them.
The win improved Schottenheimer to 3-0 against the Browns, who he coached from 1984-88. Two of those wins have come since he took over the Chargers in 2002.