Sometime during the week leading up to a Saints game, we usually have a Q&A post with the writer in charge of the SB Nation blog representing the Saints current opponent. Those of you paying very close attention might have noticed that we skipped it these first two weeks of pre-season. But we're back on track this week and will hopefully keep the tradition alive throughout the entire season. Today I present you five questions and answers with Chargers blogger John Gennaro of Bolts from the Blue. John gave us some awesomely detailed answers to my questions so expect to learn a lot. Much thanks to him for his time and knowledge.
Canal Street Chronicles: Every season the media pundits pick the Chargers to win it all or get pretty darn close yet they haven't been able to seal the deal. Why is this season going to be different?
Bolts from the Blue: If I had to boil it down to one thing, I'd say it's the team being handed over to Philip Rivers 100%. Last year that was a bit of an issue because Rivers didn't want to step over LaDainian Tomlinson (or even Jamal Williams), who had been with the team forever and was the face of the franchise. Now that Philip has become the one and only voice and face of the team, he's taken more control of all parts of the team and is really showing what a spectacular leader he is. In years past you could see the guys wanted him to take control of the team, and now that he has everyone is more excited to play for him.CSC: Give us a run-down of Ryan Mathews and the Chargers running game.
BFTB: At this point, he should just change his name to "Future Pro Bowler Ryan Mathews." The kid is everything we could've hoped for and a lot more. In one of his first preseason carries, he made this play. The Chargers haven't had a RB able to make that play in three to four years. The best way to sum up the difference between Mathews and LT is this: a run up the gut with LT would get you anywhere from -2 to 4 yards guaranteed; a run up the gut with Mathews will get you somewhere between 0-8 or more if he breaks it big. The running game looks consistent, explosive and the offense is re-tooling itself to be more run-oriented this year because of it.
Expect to see a lot more game with Philip Rivers throwing 20 passes or less this season, which was pretty much how the offense ran when LT won his MVP award. This is going to be a team that thinks run first and pass second, and a lot of that is because Ryan Mathews is looking like he's a future star in this league.
CSC: Who should Saints fans be watching when the starters are playing? What about when the backups check in?
BFTB: Obviously, from my answer above, keep your eye on Ryan Mathews. Our starting WRs (Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee) are still relatively unknown, so watch them to get an idea of how good they are. If Shawne Merriman plays (doubtful), keep an eye on how he looks as well. Almost two full years removed from his knee surgery, and after slimming down in the off-season to get more speed and flexibility, he could either be an incredible force at OLB or the same average player he was last season. Since he's only practiced a couple of times and hasn't been in either of the pre-season games yet, Chargers fans are still a little clueless.
Seyi Ajirotutu. That's a name you'll probably learn how to pronounce by the end of the game. He's a promising young WR in the mold of Vincent Jackson (tall, strong, fast) that was picked up partly because he was Ryan Mathews' best friend and roommate at Fresno State. He started camp flashing talent but looking very raw, at least a year away. As some of the other WRs on the team regressed through camp (Jeremy Williams, Josh Reed), Ajirotutu is making leaps and bounds each week and seemed almost like a polished NFL receiver against the Cowboys last week. Definitely somebody to keep an eye on.
Brandon Lang is the other guy to look for in the 3rd and 4th quarters. He's another UDFA rookie that the Bolts picked up, a kid from Troy that had a lot of potential in college but never lived up to it. Perhaps it was the coaching, because he's looked like a stud OLB in the first two preseason games and is looking to push a veteran (Jyles Tucker?) off the roster and out of the backup OLB spot.
CSC: Who has been the biggest surprise of Chargers training camp? The biggest disappointment?
BFTB: Very fortunately, the biggest surprise at Chargers Park this season has been Brandyn Dombrowski. A short history lesson: Dombrowski was signed as an UDFA rookie in 2009 by the Chargers, mostly because he had played Guard at nearby SDSU. He was seen as a "camp body." When Kynan Forney and Louis Vasquez both got injured in camp, Dombrowski got some time at right guard and looked okay doing it. I believe he started the season on the practice squad, but after week one injuries to C Nick Hardwick and RG Louis Vasquez (who were both backed up by the same man, Scott Mruczkowski) he was signed to the team and put in as the starter at right guard.
Although he played well at right guard, filling in for Vasquez (who might be a future Pro Bowler, by the way), Norv Turner continually commented that Dombro's best position might be left tackle. This was somewhat odd, because he hadn't played any Left Tackle in college or even in practice. A few weeks after Vasquez returned, Jeromey Clary went down for the remainder of the season and Dombrowski was thrown into the fire as the starting right tackle (again....this was an UDFA rookie guard) and there was almost no drop-off in production from that spot.
This season, with Marcus McNeill holding out for probably the entire season, the Chargers made the LT spot a competition between Dombrowski and former Pro Bowler Tra Thomas. Dombrowski played so well, as did Tyronne Green (another rookie guard from 2009 that's somehow better at Tackle), that Thomas gave up and retired last week. With the McNeill situation looming large over the team, nobody has had a bigger spotlight on them in practice and games than Dombrowski and arguably nobody has played better. He's proven himself to be a more-than-capable pass blocker (handling Julius Peppers and DeMarcus Ware without any help) and he's actually a better run-blocker than Marcus McNeill has been for about three years.
The biggest disappointment, without a doubt, has been Shawne Merriman. He "held out," but not for more money. He held out because he wanted assurance from the team that they wouldn't trade him. The team laughed at that, he pouted, and then he eventually came in anyways after gaining nothing. After his first day of practice he injured his achilles (this is an ongoing problem with him, since he was born with one achilles tendon larger than the other), and he hasn't seen much of the field since. This is definitely the most critical season in his career (last year of his contract, looking for big money, trying to prove that it was more than just the supplements), and he needs to get on the field and start performing. The less he does on the field, the more tired fans get of his off-the-field star personality.
CSC: What do the Chargers need to do to beat the Saints in this game?
BFTB: They need to play their game and not worry about the Saints. If the offense can be as good as it's been against the Bears and Cowboys, and they can avoid turnovers (an issue last week), they're going to score a lot of points and keep Drew Brees & Co. off the field. The secondary needs to avoid giving up a big play (their specialty last season, as I think they gave up the least 20+ yard catches of any team), and the front seven needs to show that they're as good as they've look so far in the preseason against the run. A pass-rush from the OLBs would be helpful, but isn't really necessary because Ron Rivera is going to come up with some crazy blitzes to cause pressure and try and confuse Brees anyways.
So, in a nutshell: stop the run, don't give up the big pass play, don't turn the ball over. Those are the keys to a Chargers victory on Friday.