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Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the San Diego Chargers, who finished first in the AFC West (13-3).
The 2009 Problem: A pass defense with little depth
Chargers No. 1 draft pick, Ryan Mathews, hauls in a pass during football mini-camp.
(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
The San Diego Chargers are up against a surprising number of problems for a team that's gone 32-16 over the last three years. They were the worst rushing team in the NFL in 2009, though the selection of Ryan Mathews in the first round should solve that problem. But the way they got Mathews – with general manager A.J. Smith trading up to get Mathews and giving up other picks in the process – has led to a lack of depth at just about every position. Many of the team's best players are either at odds with Smith over their contracts (Vincent Jackson; Marcus McNeill) or have fallen off precipitously in production and on-field effect (Shawne Merriman, Kris Dielman). Pass coverage was a problem for the team in 2009 for the second straight season -- the Chargers ranked 19th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics against the pass in both 2008 and 2009. Now that cornerback Antonio Cromartie is playing for the Jets, the Chargers have to replace their top cornerback with those depth issues in place. But San Diego's problems against the pass started early last year – in the fourth quarter of the season opener against the Raiders, Cromartie and safety Clinton Hart got burned by rookie receiver Louis Murphy on a 57-yard touchdown … on fourth-and-14.
"We had gone through that play over and over in practice," Murphy told me in recent interview. My coach (receivers coach Sanjay Lal) told me that this was going to be a play that was really going to work against the Chargers because of the coverage they play. But I didn't think it was going to work like that (laughs). When I came to the line, Cromartie (31) was standing in front of me, and I saw him backing up. He was at about 12 to 13 yards, and my first break was at 14 yards. So when I took the break, I figured he'd keep covering me. It was quarters coverage, and I saw the safety (Hart, 42) cheating down. Cromartie jumped the out route, because we had been running out routes at about 14 yards, So, when I broke, I thought that there was no way the safety could come up and then drop all the way back. So, when I saw that out of quarters coverage, I knew that it was going to be a touchdown."
On the play, you can see Murphy (18) sell the out route for a second before heading back in. Hart is frozen in his spot, obviously thinking that Cromartie had Murphy downfield, and that he was perhaps supposed to stay in and deal with any short stuff. As they're chasing Murphy downfield in vain, you can see Cromartie and Hart arguing about who had the deep coverage responsibility.
The 2010 Solution: Different defenders in the right spaces
More and more in the NFL, you'll hear coaches talking about the need to counter "spacing offenses" (those offenses with specific player placements designed to take advantage of personnel liabilities) with more specific zone and seam responsibilities. This is especially important as the passing game in the NFL becomes more varied and complex. Hybrid linebackers who are able to cover like big safeties are key cogs in many defenses, and Washington linebacker Donald Butler, San Diego's third-round pick, may be a necessary step in that direction. Butler played inside linebacker in a 4-3 for the Huskies in 2009, but he'll help fill an inside role in a 3-4 front in San Diego. At his Pro Day in March, Butler showed exceptional speed in his pass drops and good agility when moving in space – characteristics he also showed on the field during games.
"The fact that I can drop back, and I can understand passing concepts, and make a break on the ball, just helps my stock even more," said Butler after his drills. Butler isn't the only one in the Chargers' defense who can drop and cover with aplomb – Kevin Burnett has been strong against the pass when healthy. Since there are no elite pass defenders in the San Diego secondary – Antoine Cason, who is expected to replace Cromartie, was actually demoted from the nickel spot last year and replaced by Steve Gregory – the defensive spacing concept espoused by Smith is the smartest way for the Chargers to go. They may lose some edge against the run, but with an offense designed to make other teams play catch-up, a defense that can't consistently defend the pass is a serious liability.