Time for Chargers' young defense to shine

Linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu (97) is part of San Diego's young nucleus on defense. AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi

SAN DIEGO -- Defensive coordinator John Pagano has a six-week evaluation period to see if his young pups on defense can finish strong for the San Diego Chargers after a disappointing 10 weeks of football.

The Chargers are the healthiest they have been on that side of the ball all season, with 10 of the 11 projected starters from the beginning of the regular season expected to play against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

Defensive lineman Corey Liuget did not practice all week, and is questionable with a foot injury.

Still, the Chargers need continued improvement from a talented position group at linebacker that includes rookie Denzel Perryman moving into the starting lineup at inside linebacker next to Manti Te'o, along with outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu.

Those four players are all under 26, and should form the foundation of San Diego’s defense moving forward.

Ingram and Attaohu have combined for 8.5 sacks this season, and each are working toward becoming the first player to reach double-digit sacks for the Chargers since 2011.

"They’re playing good," Pagano said. "I thought Kyle (Emanuel) also really stepped up. And those three are doing good things. We’d still love to have more sacks, more quarterbacks hits. But you see them growing. The more reps they get, the better they’re going to be."

Te’o was playing well before suffering an ankle injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers that forced him to miss four games. And the hard-hitting Perryman replaces Donald Butler in the starting lineup.

"It’s exciting," Pagano said about the potential tandem of Te’o and Perryman. "They’re both good players. One’s got great instincts (Te’o), and the other one is going to knock your head off (Perryman). So it’s a good 1-2 combo having those guys being able to play next to one another."

Second-year pro Jason Verrett gives the Chargers a talented, No. 1 cornerback. And strong safety Jahleel Addae plays fast and physical. The Chargers need both of these young players to show more leadership, particularly because the Chargers likely will have to find a replacement for All-Pro safety Eric Weddle, who almost assuredly will test free agency at the end of the season.

"A lot of guys are not happy with how we’re playing and how the season’s gone," Pagano said. "But he (Verrett) is somebody who’s is building and keeps getting better. I thought he played well last week."

The Chargers also need to add more disruptive players along the defensive line to pair with Liuget. San Diego still allows 4.9 rushing yards a carry, second-worst in the NFL.

San Diego’s young defense has to play well in order to validate that Pagano’s defense is moving in the right direction for next season.

The Chargers are in the bottom third of the NFL in points allowed per game (28.2, 31st), total yards allowed per game (373.4, 24th), sacks (19, T-24th) and takeaways (9, T-29th). Those aren’t the type of numbers championship-caliber defenses put up on a consistent basis.