SAN DIEGO -- Although the San Diego Chargers lost five of their final seven games to finish the 2015 season, the defense more than held its own during that stretch.
Chargers inside linebacker Manti Te'o believes that his teammates created an expectation of consistent effort on that side of the ball that will carry over to 2016.
"When you establish a culture of what the expectation is and you have people meet the expectation, it doesn't really matter who's in there," Te'o said. "If you look at the last couple games, we had guys scrambling around. We had a different set of 11 almost all of the time.
"But when the culture and expectations are at a certain point, you can stick some people in there and the engine will still go. So I was happy with that."
The Chargers finished the season against the Denver Broncos with just five starters from the start of the regular season healthy enough to play in that game. But the Chargers forced five turnovers, keeping San Diego in a game against a Denver team that's a game away from reaching the Super Bowl.
Although he missed four games due to an ankle injury, Te'o had his best season as a pro. He led the Chargers in tackles with 83 and served as the defensive play-caller in his third season.
Te'o also emerged as one of the leaders on defense, which is important with co-captain Eric Weddle likely moving on in free agency in March.
"I learned that I'm strong," Te'o said about last season. "I'm stronger than I thought I was. And when I say I'm strong, I'm mentally strong. It's a battle with yourself that you have to master every day. After kind of mediocre seasons the first two seasons, I was really hard on myself. And I really wanted to come out and do something.
"I was having some success early on, but I was missing a lot of tackles. And that was bugging me. And for me to just buckle down, focus on the little things and have the mental focus to focus on certain things and have it translate to on the field, for me I was proud of the way I did that."
Te'o was one of a handful of young playmakers who emerged for the Chargers last year. Jason Verrett led the team in interceptions with three, earning a Pro Bowl invitation.
Melvin Ingram finished with 10.5 sacks in 2015 -- the first time a San Diego player totaled double-digit sacks since Antwan Barnes finished with 11 in 2011.
If the Chargers can get cornerback Brandon Flowers and defensive tackle Corey Liuget back healthy and playing to their potential, San Diego could be well on their way to having a strong defense in 2016.
And with the AFC West transforming to a division led by defense, it will be important for San Diego to have a defense that can hold its own with the rest of the division.
The Chargers held teams to an average of 21 points a contest, held opposing offenses to 36.3 percent efficiency on third down and forced 11 turnovers over the last seven games -- all in the top half of the NFL during that stretch.
"We're starting to understand more who we are as people, and it carries over to the field," Te'o said. "When you have that kind of relationship with guys, good things tend to happen."