The prospect of facing two teams favoring spread passing games out of an assortment of three- and four-receiver sets has placed the onus squarely on the shoulders of the Chargers' pass defense to lead the team to a fourth straight division crown. And Rivera has completely revamped the team's defensive playbook and juggled the Chargers' lineup in anticipation of the matchups with his division foes.
Rivera, who served as the architect of a Chicago Bears defense that ranked second in total defense in 2005 and led the league in takeaways in 2006, is tasked with retooling a unit that finished 31st last season in passing yards allowed and surrendered the third most passing touchdowns (25).
Under Rivera's predecessor, Ted Cottrell, the Chargers used a straight-forward approach that was overly reliant on Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips to overwhelm opponents. They used a steady diet of pressure packages that featured Merriman and Phillips crashing hard off the edges. The simple yet effective approach led to the team recording 42 sacks in 2007 (fifth most in the league), and the persistent pressure led to a league-high 30 interceptions.
Last season, however, the tactic failed miserably as Merriman missed 15 games with a knee injury. With the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker on the shelf, offenses loaded up on Phillips and the Chargers failed to discover an effective counter to the approach despite ramping up the pressure from all angles.
Eventually, the disappointing play from the unit led to Cottrell's dismissal at midseason and granted Rivera another opportunity to build an elite defense. While the unit's final rankings didn't suggest a drastic improvement from Cottrell's defense, a closer examination of its performance to finish 2008 suggests that Rivera has the defense headed in the right direction.
In that contest, the Chargers stymied the Colts' high-powered offense by deftly mixing in a variety of pressure with conventional man and zone coverage. The diverse game plan disrupted Peyton Manning's rhythm and kept the Colts from consistently sustaining drives. Moreover, the defense only allowed 17 points to an offense that averaged nearly 24 points during the regular season.
With that game serving as a foundation, the Chargers headed into the offseason intent on building a defense that taps into a talent-laden lineup and features star players on every level.
In addition, two newcomers could serve as critical factors in the improvement of the team's pass defense. Larry English, a first-round draft pick, gives the team another pass rusher to add to its rotation. The Northern Illinois standout will serve as a hybrid rusher off the edge and provide insurance against Merriman's injury. If Merriman's knee holds up and he returns to his old form, the Chargers have flexibility to attack offenses with a wave of rushers blitzing from multiple angles.
Kevin Burnett, a key free-agent signee from the Cowboys, adds a dynamic playmaker to the Chargers' sub-package. The fifth-year pro will align as the nickel linebacker and take on the challenge of covering the tight end in pass coverage. Burnett gives the team a bigger body to match up in coverage while also adding a potential rusher on inside blitzes.
With the front seven bolstered by those additions, Rivera and his defensive staff have focused on improving the consistency of the secondary. The group, which boasts three first-round picks (Antoine Cason, Jammer and Cromartie) and a high second-round selection (Weddle), was plagued by mental lapses and breakdowns in critical situations last season.
To improve the secondary's overall level of play, Rivera has emphasized accountability and awareness within the group during offseason workouts. Players are expected to know everyone else's role within the scheme and the importance of playing with the proper leverage or technique mandated by the call. By having the defensive coaching staff stress attention to detail, the Chargers hope to eliminate some of the freelancing that compromised the integrity of the scheme and resulted in key first-down conversions in late-game situations.