Pat Kirwan recently visited Chargers camp in San Diego. Here's what he saw.
1. The Chargers will rebound from their first non-playoff season in five years. After spending Monday at the facility watching tape, talking with coaches, players and GM A.J. Smith, I have a strong opinion they are very much driven to rebound. The Chargers' theme for this season is "one day at a time." No more worrying about things that are weeks and months away; now it's all about the next play, the next practice, the next game. It sounds good, but what tangible things can they point to as signs of the new attitude? Takeo Spikes and hopefully a healthy Bob Sanders bring an attitude to the defense. Philip Rivers has a content Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd back in camp. What I liked the most was the number of people in the organization who no longer buy the "We're the most talented team in the league" description and realize they have to do it on the field.
2. The special teams is a work in progress. Poor special teams play was a big -- if not the main -- reason why the Chargers did not make the playoffs last year. The coverage units were a disaster and contributed to too many losses. Enter Rich Bisaccia, the team's new special teams coach. Bisaccia comes from Tampa Bay, where the Bucs ranked near the top of several special-team categories in 2010. So far, it's clear Bisaccia is bringing a no-nonsense attitude to the practice field. It will be interesting to watch how the punt- and kick-coverage units do during the preseason games.
3. There's a big hole in third-down packages. Darren Sproles is gone to New Orleans and when I look at how well he blocked a blitzer or released as a receiver on third down, I think this is the biggest challenge the Chargers offense faces this summer. Right now, Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert have the opportunity to win the job, but I wouldn't be surprised if A.J. Smith looked around for options.
4. Film study told me... that Norv Turner does a brilliant job of mixing and matching personnel groups and creating big-play opportunities for Rivers. Their use of compressed formations with wide receivers tightly aligned and three tight ends on the field distort the pass drops for the back seven on defense. The offensive line may not be a group of all-pros but they play well together. (The starting five are entering their fifth year together.) As for the defense, they still need to find another outside linebacker to rush the passer. Whether it's a finally healthy Larry English, Antwan Barnes or the rookie Jonas Mouton, someone has to come through opposite Shaun Phillips.
New guy watch
» Takeo Spikes. The veteran linebacker is the consummate pro and whether it is his presence against the run or getting youngsters like Mouton to study film, he will help new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, whom he followed from San Francisco.
» Bob Sanders. As always, the ex-Colts safety looks in tremendous shape and ready to go. He can be his own worst enemy on the injury front, with the violent way he throws his body around. Hopefully Sanders plays smart and lasts all 16 games.
» Jonas Mouton. The second-round pick from Michigan was a surprise pick to some and he surely has a long way to go. But as Turner pointed out to me, "When he hits, he explodes into ball carriers." Look for Mouton to make a first impression on special teams and come on strong at linebacker in the second half of the season.
» Corey Liuget. Turner, on the rookie first-round pick: "He was on the field two days and I knew he belonged on the field. He carries himself like a first-round pick." After watching him move around, it looks like the Chargers are getting a DE who can penetrate and rush the passer.
"They have different eyes."
--Running back Mike Tolbert, when describing what the Chargers defense looked like during their intrasquad scrimmage over the weekend. Tolbert felt they were a much more focused group and showed as much by attacking the Chargers run game.
The Chargers lost five games by a touchdown or less last year, but make no excuses. They have the talent to rebound. I see the Chargers battling the Chiefs for the division title especially if a healthy Mathews builds on his rookie season. Look for the Chargers to win double-digit games after a fast start.