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SD Chargers in Big Trouble on Defense

T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Picks

Shawne Merriman is an idiot. Last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year tested positive for steroids and has been suspended for four San Diego Chargers games. Predictably, his lawyer claims that the 'roids were in a supplement that Merriman was taking, but that they weren't a listed ingredient and Merriman didn't know he was taking them. That unoriginal claim may or may not be true (I certainly have my suspicions), but either way it creates a serious situation for the Chargers. Merriman will continue to play pending a suspension, but that's just delaying the inevitable. Here's an understatement for you - losing your best defensive player for four games is not a good thing.

The fact that a player of the caliber of Merriman would test positive is almost incomprehensible. Frankly, his apologies and his excuses do nothing for me. The steroids could very well have come from a supplement, but the idea that someone like Merriman would put anything in his body without knowing exactly what it was given the stakes involved is unbelievable to the point of being impossible. Besides, an athlete who is supposed to be in touch with his body might get a little suspicious about what he is taking if it works as well as it would have if it contained steroids.

For the first five games of the season the San Diego defense was a ferocious unit. They had allowed just 11 points per game. They made good quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Steve McNair look pretty average, and bad teams like Oakland and Tennessee look really, really bad. The defense had helped make Philip Rivers' transition to starting quarterback easier, and had led them to a 4-1 record both straight up and against the spread.

Cracks in the defense started to appear in the Kansas City game. Larry Johnson ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns, and Damon Huard was given the time to make the plays he needed to make. The problems were at their most obvious when the Chiefs received a punt with on their own 18-yard line with 33 seconds left in a tied game and the Chargers were unable to stop them. The Chiefs gained 52 yards on three consecutive completed passes and then kicked the winning field goal. The Chargers defense we saw early in the season never would have let that happen.

The injury fairy has not been kind to the Chargers defense. The first hit the unit took was defensive end Igor Olshansky, who missed the Chiefs' games with a knee injury. Though Olshansky is a solid player, his absence certainly doesn't explain the difference between the Chargers of old and these new look Chargers. He is expected to be out of action until week 12 or so.

The bigger problems come at outside linebacker. That position, which is so crucial in San Diego's 3-4 scheme, had a rough start to the season when starter Steve Foley was shot by an off-duty cop a week before the first game. Shaun Phillips was called on to replace him, and he has done a remarkable job, leading the team with six sacks. Unfortunately, Phillips' calf isn't made of steel. He suffered an injury in the Kansas City game and is out for four games or more.

The loss of Phillips would be bad enough, but his loss on top of Merriman's suspension could be disastrous. The appeal of the suspension could take as little as a week, or it could stretch out over several months. Assuming he misses time, and there is no reason to think that he eventually won't, the Chargers would be without the two players who account for half of their sacks and 20 percent of the team's tackles. Have you heard of Carlos Polk and Marques Harris? Neither have most people who aren't related to them, but those are the two players who have to fill the big shoes vacated temporarily by Merriman and Phillips. Needless to say, the Chargers will be in for a pretty serious drop off.

It's not as simple as picking up a player or two to fill the outside spots, either. There are players out there to be had, but none that are a good answer, and it is doubtful that anyone could step right into the complicated 3-4 scheme and contribute immediately. Polk and Harris aren't much, but they are probably the best options. That means that a defense that posed all sorts of match-up problems for opposing offenses suddenly becomes much less intimidating. They will likely struggle to stop the run, and they won't be able to pressure the quarterback as much, which will give the passing game more time to develop and put more pressure on the cornerbacks, the one position that is already vulnerable on the Chargers' D.

There is never a good time for something like this string of injuries and suspension to hit a team, but the next four games have some spots that could be a real challenge. They host the Rams and travel to Cincinnati - two teams that have the combination of excellent running and dangerous passing that could take advantage of San Diego's woes. The also play a Broncos team that can run, and which only needs to score a few points before letting their defense take care of the rest. The fourth team on the schedule is Cleveland, which would struggle against my high school's team right now, so at least San Diego has one soft spot.

What does this all mean for betting on the Chargers? For five weeks they were a very solid bet. They were 4-1 ATS and they looked like they would continue to be a sound bet. Now they suddenly have so many defensive questions, with the potential for real disaster, that there are very few situations where playing them would make a lot of sense for the next month or so.

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