Charger plan built at corners

Compiled from Times wires
Published January 20, 2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - San Diego's offensive stars LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers might not be at full strength for today's AFC Championship Game.

But the Chargers who need to be healthy against New England's perfect Patriots will be cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer.

If San Diego is to extend its season one more game, the upset must be manufactured on the defensive side of the ball.

New England steamrolled all comers in 2007 with the most explosive offense the league has seen. MVP Tom Brady passed for 50 touchdowns, and the Patriots scored 589 points en route to a 16-0 regular season, all league records.

The two teams that posed the greatest defensive problems for the Brady Bunch were the Ravens and Eagles, whom the Patriots played on consecutive weekends late in the season.

New England rallied with late touchdowns to avert upsets in both, toppling Philadelphia 31-28 and Baltimore 27-24.

To hang with the Patriots, a team needs two corners who can hold up in man coverage against Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth. Not every down - you need to mix some in zones - but on the occasions when the corners wind up alone with Moss and Stallworth, they must be competitive.

Philadelphia and Baltimore have elite cover corners: Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard of the Eagles and Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle of the Ravens. All but Brown have been to the Pro Bowl, and those cornerbacks were competitive against the Patriots.

Moss caught five passes for 43 yards against the Eagles and four for 34 against the Ravens. Stallworth caught four for 54 against the Eagles and three for 68 against the Ravens.

The Chargers have a top-shelf coverage tandem in former first-round draft picks Cromartie, a former Florida State star, and Jammer. San Diego led the league with 30 interceptions, including a league-high 10 by the Pro Bowl-bound Cromartie.

Jacksonville dropped eight defenders in coverage for much of its AFC division round game last week against New England, choosing to try clogging the passing lanes. But with no pass rush, Brady shredded that approach, completing a playoff-record record 26 of 28 passes.

That's where linebacker Shawne Merriman and the San Diego pass rush must come into play. The Eagles and Ravens blitzed Brady, sending more pass rushers than there were blockers, which forced him to rush some throws. Both teams sacked Brady a season-high three times.

Baltimore intercepted him once, and Philadelphia didn't intercept him at all. But facing pressure, Brady wound up throwing a season-high 20 incompletions in each game. Every incomplete pass is a victory for the defense.

The Chargers led the league with 61 sacks in the 3-4 defensive scheme of Wade Phillips in 2006. With the same cast of pass rushers, the count dipped to 42 in the Ted Cottrell scheme in 2007, still good enough for fifth in the league.

INJURY BUG: Rivers (sprained right knee) is questionable heading into today's game after practicing only once last week.

Star running back Tomlinson said he thought his hyperextended left knee would be okay, but tight end Gates (fractured toe) was listed as doubtful.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said San Diego's injury problems were of little concern to him.

"We get ready for all 53 players every week," he said. "We don't have any control over that."

WEATHER: The forecast for today's game called for a temperature of 24 degrees, a wind chill of 13 and a slight chance of flurries - downright balmy compared to the NFC tilt in Green Bay. Kickoff is at 3 p.m.

"I'm from Florida. I can handle the weather. They'll handle the weather," Patriots fullback Heath Evans, a West Palm Beach native, said last week. "I've said it before, sometimes we wish we could play the weather because that's pretty easy to beat - you can get warm."