SAN DIEGO -- The defensive backfield of the San Diego Chargers rightfully received criticism for its uneven play last season.
But the defense’s inability to create consistent pressure on the quarterback also deserved scrutiny.
Edge rusher Dwight Freeney's focus is on changing that outcome in the upcoming season.
The former Indianapolis Colt and seven-time Pro Bowler says he is healthy heading into the beginning of San Diego's offseason workout regimen, which begins Tuesday.
Freeney, 34, believes this is the most important offseason of his 13-year professional career. And while he plans on taking a methodical approach to getting back on the field, Freeney said he'll be ready for San Diego’s season opener.
"It's the most important offseason because it's the next offseason," Freeney said. "Obviously, I want to keep improving. It's going to be a gradual thing. The main thing is to be ready for the first game of the year.
"There's no reason to rush. You have to give your body rest and work yourself into game shape. The doctors have said that I've healed completely. So now it's all about getting my strength back."
Even though he's a bit long in the tooth, the Chargers believe that Freeney still has some gas left in the tank. Freeney said he took notice this offseason when three of the top six active leaders in sacks switched teams -- with DeMarcus Ware moving to Denver, Jared Allen signing with Chicago and Julius Peppers with Green Bay.
The 30-something pass-rushers did not sign the type of high-dollar contracts they once commanded in their primes. However, each player joined a team that believes it can win now.
Freeney is in a similar situation as that trio. No. 6 on the active list in sacks with 108, Freeney agreed to a contract restructure that will pay him less money to stay with the Chargers, making a total of $2.5 million in total compensation in the final year of a two-year deal.
"It's really interesting seeing some of the elite older guys moving around," Freeney said. "It just tells us that it's a young man's game. We all understand it. We all get it. We might not like it, but that's what it is.
"We're still performing. We're still playing well. But teams don’t want to pay that type of money for the age. But we still have value. For teams that want to win now, that's what's happening."
The Chargers, who finished eight quarters away from a Super Bowl last season, believe they are one of those teams.
In 2013, Freeney finished with just two tackles and half a sack before suffering a torn quad that required surgery in a Week 4 contest against Dallas, effectively ending his first season in a Chargers uniform.
The Chargers and Freeney are in a bit of a drought when it comes to sacks. Freeney hasn’t finished with double-digit sacks since totaling 10 in 2010.
San Diego has not had a player finish with double-digit sacks since Antwan Barnes totaled 11 in 2011. The Chargers have been in the bottom third of the league in sacks for two of the past three seasons, including tied for 23rd last year with 35.
Freeney doesn’t put much stock in sack totals.
"I've always said in my career that numbers are just a product of whatever is happening at the time," Freeney said. "You can make a lot of plays in one year from a statistical standpoint, and it could have nothing to do with how good you played.
"It can depend on the coverage, or if the quarterback is holding onto the ball too long. There’s always different things that are happening where statistics don't tell you the entire story. So double-digit sacks are always a good thing to have, but ultimately I want to contribute to the team winning."
The oldest player in his position group, part of Freeney's role will be to serve as mentor for up-and-coming pass-rushers such as Melvin Ingram. Freeney was signed in May of last year to help replace Ingram after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during offseason training.
Ingram returned sooner than expected at the end of the 2013 season. Freeney said he's looking forward to playing with Ingram.
"It's going to be fun," Freeney said. "He has a lot of energy and plays with the right attitude. I've been in the league a while and have learned some things and tricks, and I think I can help him out. And I'm more than willing to share."
Freeney can look to someone such as John Abraham for inspiration. Released by the Atlanta Falcons last year, the active leader in sacks signed a two-year, $4.6 million deal with Arizona. The 35-year-old Abraham showed his worth, finishing with 11.5 sacks in 2013 and helping to anchor an Arizona defense that led the Cardinals to a surprising 10-6 campaign.
In terms of team success, the Chargers can look to how effectively the Seattle Seahawks generated pressure against Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl for a blueprint on how to create more pass rush in the upcoming season.
The Seahawks played pass-rushers in waves. Seattle's top edge rushers, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, played an average of 55 percent of the team's snaps during the 2013 regular season. In his first three games for San Diego before suffering a quad injury, Freeney played 74 percent of the defensive snaps.
So the Chargers could benefit from limiting Freeney's snaps to make him more productive.
"The more depth you have, the better pass rush you can create as a team," Freeney said. "The more people that you have that can do what you can do, that keeps you from being out there so that you're not wearing yourself out. I think that's the big thing. From a hockey perspective, you keeping changing those lines and keeping rotating guys to keep those lines fresh."