LB Steve Foley has been a perfect fit in the Chargers' new 3-4 defensive scheme
The great San Diego Chargers teams of the late '70s and early '80s – the Dan Fouts-Kellen Winslow-Charlie Joiner squads – were clearly driven by offense. The Chargers who excelled in the early '90s were known for their defense, led by Junior Seau, Rodney Harrison and Leslie O'Neal.
So what of the 2004 Chargers, who have risen from the depths of 4-12 and eight straight non-winning seasons to take over first place in the always-competitive AFC West. Are they channeling Fouts or feeling Seau?
Well, both, really.
Certainly, San Diego's offense is drawing the majority of the attention this season, thanks to LaDainian Tomlinson's presence, Drew Brees's resurgence and Antonio Gates's emergence. But the Chargers' offensive and defensive rankings (10th and 11th, respectively) are almost identical, and they're one of only four teams to rank in the top 11 in both.
So while we give San Diego's interesting offense it's due, it would be wise not to forget that charged-up defense.
"They've got a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball," said Jon Gruden, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are headed to San Diego over the weekend. "Their defense hasn't gotten the credit they deserve. They're number two in the league against the run. Everybody inside football knows what [Defensive Coordinator] Wade Phillips does to a defensive team; he's a great coach of the 3-4 scheme. Between Pittsburgh and San Diego, there haven't been a lot of rushing yards, if you know what I mean."
With Seau now in Miami and Harrison in New England, the Chargers don't have the same sort of defensive household names (yet), but they have quite a few excellent players. San Diego has made a very rapid rise from its rankings of 27th overall and 25th against the run last year and it has several young starters at defensive end (Igor Olshansky and Jacques Cesaire) and in the secondary (Quentin Jammer and Terrence Kiel), but its improvement can probably be summed up with three names.
Wade Phillips, Jamal Williams and Steve Foley.
That's all part of the same answer, actually. Phillips joined Marty Schottenheimer's staff and immediately installed his trademark 3-4 scheme, which is used by a fairly small minority of teams in a mostly 4-3 league. Williams, who had been good but not great for six seasons in San Diego, has blossomed as the nose tackle in the 3-4, using his 350-pound bulk to occupy multiple blockers and free up lanes for the linebackers. And Foley, a 2004 transplant from Houston, has surged in the usual 3-4 role of pass-rushing linebacker, leading the team with six sacks.
"Their nose guard, [Jamal] Williams, is playing as good as anyone in football at the 3-4 position," said Gruden. "He's been playing on a four-man line. Zero-shade, two-gap football suits this guy. He's a great player.
"And I think one of the great additions that they have made other than Wade Phillips was Steve Foley, the outside linebacker. He's a powerful rusher. When you think of the 3-4, you think of Lawrence Taylor, you think of Carl Banks. You've got to have people who can not only rush but people who can beat backs, and beat them bad. And when they have to beat a tackle, they have to be able to beat them. Foley's a guy who may not have been a household name coming to San Diego, but he fits this 3-4 scheme."
Foley may not be the absolute best of the Chargers' linebackers – that's a hard title to win on a four-man crew that also includes standouts Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey and Ben Leber – but he's a big part of the very successful solution the team devised for its previous defensive woes.
San Diego has won six in a row to take over the West by two games. Early in that string they beat the Panthers, Raiders and Saints by a combined margin of 65 points. But their last three wins have come by a combined 12 points and the defense has turned in some of the biggest moments.
That hasn't escaped the Bucs' attention.
"Maybe the media, to a degree, has overlooked the defense, but I think the people who have competed with San Diego haven't," said Gruden. "They intercepted [Jake] Plummer four times last week; they're second in the league against the run. That's strong stuff. If you're overlooking that, you're probably missing something that's really a key to their success. Teams that win have great defenses."
The Super Bowl could be returning to Tampa in 2009.
That exciting possibility came a step closer to fruition this week when Tampa was named one of four finalists to host Super Bowl XLIII, the next championship game that has not yet been assigned.
After Super Bowl XXXIX takes place in Jacksonville this February, it will go to Detroit in 2006, Miami in 2007 and Arizona in 2008. In 2009, it will be held in either Tampa, Atlanta, Houston or Miami. One of those cities will be chosen as the host when the league owners meet next May.
"We are thrilled that Tampa is one of the finalists to host Super Bowl XLIII in 2009," said Buccaneers Executive Vice President Joel Glazer. "Having hosted three previous games [in 1984, 1991 and 2001], we are excited not only as an organization, but for the entire community for the possible opportunity to once again help showcase the world's premier sporting event. We will continue to help promote this wonderful community that we live in and do everything we can to help bring the Super Bowl back to the Bay area."
Tampa last played host to the Super Bowl in January of 2001, after the 2000 season. Atlanta last had the game in 2000 and Houston was the site of last year's Super Bowl. By 2009, Miami will have had its ninth Super Bowl, in 2007.
Tackle Derrick Deese (ribs) and safety Dwight Smith (knee) returned to practice on Friday and are expected to start against the Chargers on Sunday. Deese and Smith had been added to the team's injury report on Thursday after missing that afternoon's workout.
Gruden reiterated after Friday's practice that he expects all six of the players listed as probable on the Bucs' injury report to suit up for the Charger game. All six – Deese, Smith, safety Dexter Jackson, tight end Dave Moore, running back Michael Pittman and defensive lineman Dewayne White – were able to practice on Friday.
Starting free safety Jermaine Phillips, who is still recovering from surgery to repair a forearm fracture, has practiced this week but is not likely to return just yet. Otherwise, the rest of the active roster should be cleared to play. That's obviously encouraging, although it discounts the players out for the season on injured reserve.
"Well, we've got a long list of guys who aren't here, but we are getting relatively healthy and that's a good sign," said Gruden.