Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Tag Ribary
The decision by Shawne Merriman to play with two torn ligaments in his left knee will undoubtedly affect the San Diego defense this year.
Since nothing new was found wrong with the knee itself, the team has already had weeks to consider how he will be used should he take the field. The fact that he hasn't practiced or played since the team's first preseason game will most likely mean he is not ready to play full-time. Jyles Tucker has been getting extra work and the team will no doubt carry an extra player (or two) at the position as insurance.
With roster limits already making it tough to carry extra bodies at any position, the individual versatility of a player or the scheme becomes an issue. This is where the Chargers' defensive scheme may work in their favor. A 3-4 OLB has several roles on defense and a combination of players with Merriman may make the most sense for the Chargers to get through the season.
This injury will most likely affect Merriman's rotational type movements, so a pass rushing role makes the most sense where he can just go forward and control how he will find his way to the QB. His overall aggressiveness will be limited, which will probably mean fewer spin moves and hard counters, but the decision of when to cut or how hard to change direction is primarily up to him.
If he were to be used in more of a run playing role, his ability to protect himself is compromised. A 3-4 OLB is often engaged with bigger players where leverage and knee bend are necessary to get off blocks. On top of that, once engaged, it is tough for any player to protect himself from trash around his feet or knees while trying to disengage.
Merriman is known for his pass rushing ability and sack production. But he's responsible for so much more, like dropping into coverage, lateral movement into the flat on screens or toward the middle on draws, getting off blocks, tackling, etc. What sets the great ones apart is their ability to flat out beat an offensive tackle.
With his knee, the question becomes can he still do this? Expect San Diego to line him out a little wider than normal in something of a 9-technique so his angle isn't as severe. It would be more of a straight-line rush rather than him getting engaged off the snap. Or they could bring him late, let someone else engage the tackle, clear a path with Merriman left to beat just a back.
Watch him early. Is he just coming forward? Is he playing a general role or is he in there every down? Merriman is known for his ability to do it all. Drop in coverage, stuff the run, attack the QB. Moves? He's got them all. Spin moves, hard moves, counter moves. But will his knee allow him to use them? If he's just coming straight ahead, that's a sign his knee is limiting what he can do.
It wouldn't be surprising if the first play Carolina runs in the season-opener is right at Merriman. Teams will watch and learn how much juice he has. Teams will attack him early and don't expect to see him double-teamed as often early on. Teams will play him straight-up until he proves himself. If he starts having success, teams will once again give him the respect he's had for much of his career.
Either way, Merriman will most likely wear a restrictive brace to secure the knee and he will have to be smart about protecting his lower body when his hands are free. It is possible the Chargers could help themselves by carving out a role for Merriman while also developing some younger players, like Tucker, along the way. This could ultimately benefit the team late in the year if they are forced to play without Merriman.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.