Merriman starting to find his sack groove

Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson

SAN DIEGO -- Shawne Merriman admits it. He loves sacks as much as the next guy.

But he has tried not to get consumed by the almighty quarterback takedown, especially this year, when the goal is about becoming a forceful star linebacker again.

Still, Merriman expressed relief that he is now among those NFL players who have registered a sack in 2009. Merriman got on the board with two sacks Sunday in San Diego’s not-as-close-as-the-score-indicates 24-16 victory over Oakland.

Merriman didn’t have a sack in San Diego’s first six games as he continued his recovery from major knee surgery last September that sidelined him for all but one game last season. Merriman's sack-less start was startling because in his first three NFL seasons he was the premier sack artist in the league. He had 40.5 sacks in his first 39 games.

“I love sacks, but they come in bunches and you can’t worry about that. Bruce Smith told me that a long time ago," Merriman said of the all-time sack leader. “But it’s nice to get the sacks out of the way.”

But Merriman made it clear that just because he had two sacks doesn’t signify he’s back to form. He thinks he already was there. For the past two weeks, San Diego coaches were quietly saying that Merriman was getting close to full strength.

“I’m there [at full strength],” Merriman said. “The sacks don’t prove it. My play the past couple of weeks proves it. I’ve been hitting the quarterback and moving around and making a lot of plays …. I play my damn heart out every play. I’m giving it everything I have and I feel like I’m showing the results.”

Merriman is proud that he has played very well against the run as he has fought to regain his form. Merriman was very active Sunday and had seven tackles. But of course the highlights were the two sacks.

“Everyone questions his knee and his ability,” San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer said of Merriman. “It just shows that he is out there playing tenacious defense like he always does, getting after he quarterback and making plays. That’s what [No.] 56 does.”

Merriman’s emergence in the pass rush has coincided with the improvement of the entire San Diego pass rush. The Chargers had five sacks Sunday and now have 10 in the past two games. Linebacker Shaun Phillips has four sacks in the past two games.

San Diego harassed Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell all game and produced a huge rush against Russell as the Raiders scrambled to try to tie the score in the final two minutes of the game. Oakland’s last-ditch attempt died on its 46-yard line with exactly a minute to go.

“We’re really coming together,” Phillips said. “We’re creating pressure and that results in sacks and that’s a great thing for the team.”

And it’s a great thing for the Chargers to see Merriman providing the fireworks, even though he’s trying to downplay it.

Here are some other key aspects of the game:

Russell makes it through the game: At least Russell didn’t get benched this week. The No.1 overall pick of the 2007 draft was benched last week against the Jets after he committed three turnovers in a little more than a quarter.

Russell played the entire game Sunday, but it would be a stretch to say he made strides. Russell didn’t start throwing until he had to late in the game. The Raiders had a tight leash on him for much of the game.

He struggled terribly on the Raiders’ final drive. Russell ended up completing 14 of 22 passes for 109 yards. He was intercepted on a bad overthrow on his second pass. His longest completion was for 15 yards.

Still, Russell appeared satisfied with his performance. He caused waves after last week’s game when he refused to take responsibility for his poor play. Last Thursday, he finally admitted he made mistakes. At first blush, Russell felt good again Sunday.

“I did a pretty good job when it boiled down to it,” Russell said.

The Wild Frog is born: The Chargers have practiced the Wildcat formation occasionally this year. But until Sunday, it was dormant in the Chargers’ playbook.

Don’t be surprised if we see it again. The Chargers used the Wildcat once Sunday and scored a touchdown. For the record, the Chargers call it the Wild Frog, a nod to LaDainian Tomlinson’s alma mater, the TCU Horned Frogs.

On the Chargers’ second offensive play, Tomlinson took the direct snap from center and ran six yards for the score.

“I knew when I looked at their formation and the defense they were in, they were kind of confused and it kind of helped in the blocking scheme,” Tomlinson said of the play.

Tomlinson also added a score on a 10-yard run. According to ESPN’s Stats and Information, Tomlinson has 64 touchdowns since the 2006 season, which leads the NFL by 14 scores.

Chargers gain ground, but are cautious: The Chargers responded to a two-game losing streak to Pittsburgh and Denver by beating division foes Kansas City and Oakland. San Diego is now 4-3. It trails Denver by two games after the Broncos suffered their first loss of the season at Baltimore on Sunday.

The Chargers travel to play the struggling Giants next as quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Eli Manning will square off for the second time in their careers. The two were subjects of a 2004 draft-day trade.

Merriman said the Chargers are not going to get ahead of themselves and start getting excited about gained ground in the AFC West.

“We can’t do that,” Merriman said. “We just have to worry about ourselves.”