SAN DIEGO – Eric Weddle, veteran defensive captain for the San Diego Chargers, said it best when asked about the impact of losing pass-rusher Dwight Freeney for the rest of the season with a quadriceps tear will have on the rest of the defense.
“You don’t replace a guy like that,” Weddle said. “Teams have to account for him. He was very rarely getting single-man blocks by one guy. And when he was, he was getting pressure on the quarterback every time.”
Freeney has amassed 108 sacks in 12 seasons, which puts him at fifth among active players in the NFL. Freeney’s replacement, Larry English, has 9.5 sacks in five seasons.
San Diego coach Mike McCoy isn’t expecting a Freeney-like performance from English. However, just as reserves at offensive line, receiver and cornerback have capably stepped in to fill to voids for injured starters, McCoy believes English can offer the same type of effort at outside linebacker.
“It’s the next man up,” McCoy said. “Larry did a nice job when Dwight went down. Larry has played all year long. The whole entire defense, the guys who have rotated in there, Tourek [Williams] and everybody in the game did a nice job when Dwight went down.”
Selected No. 16 overall by San Diego in the 2009 draft, English has yet to fulfill lofty expectations. He finished with 31.5 sacks at Northern Illinois as a defensive end in a 4-3 defensive scheme.
English, 27, is in the final year of a rookie contract that pays him a base salary of $1.275 million this season. And he’s part of a 2009 first-round draft class that has underwhelmed in terms of performance so far in the NFL.
Of the 32 players selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, eight are no longer with the team that drafted them, and four (Jason Smith, Aaron Curry, Aaron Maybin and Chris “Beanie” Wells) are out of the league.
For the 6-foot-2, 255-pound English, making the transition to a rush outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment proved tougher than expected.
“I’ve definitely turned into a different player,” English said. “Obviously, coming in from a defensive end position in a 4-3 scheme, it was a position change. So your whole mentality’s got to change because you’re asked to do a lot more, from dropping back into coverage, and being able to get after the passer and stop the run. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, I’ve just added a lot of knowledge to my game.”
English also said he’s learned from playing with a talented pass-rusher like Freeney the importance of preparation and focusing on the details of his position.
“One of the things with Dwight was how much he paid attention to, and how knowledgeable he was of offensive line blocking schemes,” English said. “He really comes up with a game plan for all four of us to be able to win as a defensive front. He was really good at studying and really diagnosing what an offensive line was going to come with each week.”
Chargers defensive lineman Corey Liuget agreed.
“He was just teaching us how to get to the quarterback, more than anything – the pursuit to be great in our craft,” Liuget said. “It was crazy to see him go down, a guy that’s been helping me since the day he got here. He’s been helping to keep me grounded, on and off the field. So to lose him is big, for the team, and me as an individual because I was learning so much from him.”
Now, English and Liuget will see if they can transfer the knowledge Freeney provided during practice weeks into impactful performances on game days.