It seems like déjà vu in San Diego with the Chargers making another late-season surge to climb back into contention.
While most have attributed the team's turnaround to the MVP-caliber performance of Philip Rivers, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera might actually be more responsible for the Chargers' current four-game winning streak.
Rivera, a disciple of Buddy Ryan and the late Jim Johnson, has quietly constructed the league's top-ranked defense using a simple, yet effective approach that blends a mixture of overload blitzes with sound zone concepts. Even though Rivera spent most of his playing days and coaching career working within a 4-3 scheme (he served as the defensive coordinator from 2004-06 in Chicago prior to coming to San Diego), he has taken elements from that system and implemented them into the 3-4 system originally installed by Wade Phillips when he served as Marty Schottenheimer's defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2006.
Rivera, who took over for Ted Cottrell midway through the 2008 season, simplified some of the previous concepts and placed an added emphasis on detail. He also created an environment that was built on the fundamentals of running to the ball, gang tackling and creating turnovers through relentless effort. With eliminating the big play as the prevailing theme, the Chargers have become a better defense by avoiding the self-inflicted wounds that have plagued them in the past.
Of course, a scheme is only as good as the players on the field, and Rivera has done a masterful job of putting his guys in positions to make plays. In looking at the Chargers' defensive success, it has been Rivera's clever deployment of linebacker Shaun Phillips that has been essential. Rivera has moved the seventh-year pro all over the front, and Phillips' ability to rush from multiple spots has disrupted opposing blocking assignments. Whether it's off the edge on conventional rushes or working underneath on stunts, Phillips has been the biggest difference maker on a defense that leads the league in sacks (33) by using a mixture of four- and five-man pressures extensively.
While that kind of performance is expected from Phillips, it's been the unheralded players who have catapulted the unit. Antonio Garay, Kevin Burnett and Antoine Cason have risen from relative obscurity to take on starring roles.
Garay, in particular, is playing at a Pro Bowl level at nose tackle. At six-foot-four, 320 pounds, he is an immovable force at the point of attack, which has helped the Chargers hold opponents to 81.1 rushing yards a game, good for third best in the league. However, Garay is more than an early-down run stopper. He is an emerging interior pass rusher with four sacks and the muscle to overwhelm blockers on the inside. He routinely drives blockers into the quarterback's lap with his brute strength and makes it easy for the Chargers' speedy outside rushers to win one-on-one matchups on the edge. In looking at Phillips' sack of Peyton Manning in the third quarter, it was Garay's overpowering of Jeffrey Linkenbach that resulted in the takedown.
Though the Chargers' front line has been exceptional, Rivera has used Burnett as a wildcard to produce game-changing plays. He is instinctive with tools as an every-down player. Burnett is capable of stacking the run in the hole while acting as a rusher or drop defender on passing downs. Rivera takes advantage of his varied skill set by tweaking his role on a weekly basis.
Against the Colts, he spent most of his time in coverage as a free floater on underneath routes. Though he was assigned to shadow one of the receivers in the backfield, Burnett would act as a robber if his assignment remained in the pocket to block. On his critical interception, Burnett read Manning's eyes to run underneath Reggie Wayne on his short crossing route after Donald Brown was forced to stay in to block. Burnett's instincts led to the pivotal pick six, and that is an example of the kind of plays that he has made all season.
Last year, the secondary repeatedly blew assignments and the mental miscues led to receivers running free down the field. Rivera made it a priority to clean up the Chargers' coverage woes this offseason. The emphasis on eliminating the deep ball has been critical. When speaking to several defenders prior to the season, they talked about the need to be on the same page at all times. While they didn't single out the departed Antonio Cromartie as one of the freelancers, it is not a coincidence that the coverage in the back end has improved with Cason starting.
Although he struggled as the team's nickel corner a year ago, Cason has been a steady presence at right corner. He leads the team with four interceptions and has a pick in each of the team's last two games. While he is not an athlete of Cromartie's ilk, Cason is a sound technician with good instincts and ball skills. With the Chargers able to force errant throws from upfront pressure or disciplined drops underneath, Cason's skills are an ideal fit in San Diego.
With Rivers getting the bulk of the attention as the Chargers make another late-season run, the spotlight should be shared with Rivera's unheralded troops.