It was understood throughout the Chargers franchise: To end a disheartening two-year playoff drought and to keep the Norv Turner program afloat in San Diego, the defensive performance had to improve in 2012.
“We all knew it,” standout Chargers safety Eric Weddle said. “It was no secret.”
The focus on defensive improvement began when the Chargers fired defensive coordinator Greg Manusky shortly after the 2011 season -- Manusky's only one in that role -- and promptly replaced him with linebackers coach John Pagano. Then the Chargers spent a great number of their free-agency dollars on the defensive side of the ball and concentrated on defense in the April draft, too.
“Then, it was up to us,” Weddle said. “We knew the focus and we knew the commitment. Now, it’s our turn to go make it work on the field.”
Thus far, the Chargers’ defense has been much improved. Most important, it has developed an identity -- physical and opportunistic. It is a big reason why the Chargers are 3-2 and leading the AFC West going into a pivotal “Monday Night Football” game against second-place Denver (2-3) on ESPN.
San Diego’s defense wilted late against New Orleans and Drew Brees in Week 5, and it must find a way to neutralize a red-hot Peyton Manning. San Diego goes into the game confident its defense can contain Manning, who has thrown six touchdown passes in his past two games and hasn’t thrown an interception in the last 15 quarters.
In the past couple of years, the Chargers might not have been as confident facing such a hot quarterback. But because of the focus on bringing in steady, capable and accountable players, along with the strict and aggressive Pagano running the show, the Chargers now welcome such a challenge.
“We’re improving and we still have a long way to go,” Pagano said recently. “We’re creating an identity right now and we’re still building that identity as a defense. And when you play certain games, there are going to be good times and bad times. The biggest key for us is playing with effort and the turnovers that we created, those were guys stripping the ball, putting their helmet on the football and going and getting the ball when it’s in the air. That shows the progress of what we’re trying to build here. The way our guys attack the football is something to be proud of.”
The high point for the Chargers’ defensive thus far this season came in a 37-20 Week 4 victory at Kansas City. The Chargers forced six turnovers, including three in the first quarter. Although the Chargers haven’t been quite that spectacular defensively all season, their statistics show a steady improvement.
In 2011, the Chargers were dead last in the NFL in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 49.2 percent of the time -- the worst percentage in the NFL since 1995. This year, San Diego is allowing a 42.9 percent conversion rate, which is 23rd in the NFL.
The improvement is gaudier in other areas. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers are allowing just 3.74 yards per rush, 10th in the NFL. The Chargers are allowing 5.35 yards per play, 15th in the league and 10 spots better than last season's defense. The Chargers are allowing 74.0 yards on the ground this season, fifth in the NFL and up from 20th last season. They are 11th in the NFL in points allowed (20.4); last season, they were 22nd.
Weddle, who is having an outstanding season and is developing into one of the best safeties in the NFL, credits attention to detail for the defense's overall improvement.
“We spend a lot of preparation time,” Weddle said. “Guys want to prove it. Guys get to work early and stay late. Guys study how offenses attack situations. Sure, plays will break down here and there, but you will never question the effort and preparation of guys on this defense.”
This group has a chance to be very good for a very long time. The Chargers have struck gold with the No. 18 overall pick in the past two drafts. Defensive end Corey Liuget, a first-round pick in 2011, has been a monster in recent games. He is extremely active and physical. Pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, this year’s first Chargers pick, looks like one of the league’s top young pass-rushers. Inside linebacker Donald Butler has been tremendous as well.
“I really like this defense,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “I really like the youth and the overall depth in the front seven. They can just keep rotating guys in throughout their defensive line with different skill sets ... makes it tough to play against.”
That was the whole idea of the defensive emphasis of 2012.
“We have to do what it takes to get to the playoffs,” Weddle said. “That’s what this is all about.”
They can take a major step toward the playoffs with a strong defensive effort against Manning.