Rivera bringing fresh approach to San Diego

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The first stage of Ron Rivera's new job was about survival.

The newly promoted defensive coordinator had to figure out a way to get the San Diego Chargers' defense turned around in the second half of the 2008 season. There was no time for research or even teaching. The plan was tighten your chinstrap and make a play.

Rivera made it through the initial breakneck portion of the job. Now he can step back and prepare for the future.

"It's like I'm just starting this job," Rivera said. "All the stuff I had no time to deal with I'm finally getting a chance to do. It finally feels like it's my defense now."

Rivera did just fine when he moved from inside linebackers coach to coordinator midway through last season, replacing Ted Cottrell when San Diego had a 3-5 record and appeared to have little chance of making the playoffs. The Chargers caught fire after Rivera took over and the team's defensive production improved dramatically. San Diego ended up winning its final four games to capture the AFC West division title.

But Rivera is looking at the defense anew in his first full season as coordinator in San Diego.

"We have a long way to go," Rivera said. "We can't look at what we did last year. It's all about getting our program going."

To begin his own program in San Diego, Rivera is looking to the past. He is studying the Chargers' defense from 2006 -- when the unit led the NFL in sacks -- which is helping his transition to a 3-4 scheme. Rivera coached in a 4-3 alignment when he was Chicago's defensive coordinator.

"I'm open to everything," Rivera said. "We're going to do what's best for this defense."

San Diego general manager A.J. Smith feels Rivera is best for the Chargers' defense. Rivera reminds Smith of former coordinator Wade Philips because of the way he teaches the game to players.

"He has that teaching instinct and ability," Smith said of Rivera. "He gives individual attention to players. He really stresses the classroom."

Smith said he believes the improvement of the pass defense is the key to whether San Diego can be a legitimate contender in the AFC this season.

The return of Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman, who missed all but one game last season because of a knee injury, and the addition of top pick Larry English should help. Rivera has spent the past several weeks crafting ideas of how to use Merriman, English and Shaun Phillips in packages. The influx of pass-rushers -- along with a rebound year from cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who was hampered by a hip injury last season -- should help the team in passing situations.

The Chargers were pushed around at times with Merriman on the sideline. The big-play defense San Diego became known for was absent without him.

"We need to be together at all times," Rivera said. "We need to make key stops. That's what this offseason is all about. It's about getting all on the same page. It's about knowing each other better as we start the new season."

During the team's minicamp last month, Rivera worked to implement his philosophies and marry them with what the Chargers are used to.

"We all believe in what Coach Rivera did for us last season," safety Eric Weddle said. "Last year, it was about accountability and we all believe in each other. It's the same this year, but it's also about fundamentals and doing things the way he wants us to do it. He is always teaching. That is going to be the way it is here."

The Chargers got a dose of the way Rivera plans to conduct business on the first day of minicamp: He gave the team a film study of their 35-24 loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC divisional playoffs.

"We're only as good as our last game and we weren't very good in that game," Rivera said. "I showed specific breakdowns. It's the only way we are going to get better around here."