With all the (justified, very important) talk about the stadium in this space over the past few days, it's easy to forget that the beginning of the Vikings' 2011 season is only four short days away. Minnesota's Week 1 opponent isn't exactly a familiar foe: the last time the Vikings and Chargers squared off was November of 2007. (You might remember that game--Adrian Peterson ran for an NFL record 296 yards and Antonio Cromartie had the longest touchdown in the history of the league.)
In order to help you get more familiar with Sunday's opponent, we're resuming our "Five Good Questions" segment with our SB Nation neighbors Bolts From The Blue. John Gennaro was kind enough to answer my questions about the Chargers and how he thinks Sunday's game will play out. Here's what we had to say:
Daily Norseman: Much has been made about San Diego finishing first in both total offense and total defense last season, yet they failed to make the playoffs. We all know about the nightmare that the Chargers had with special teams, but what else contributed to their disappointing season? How are the Chargers planning to change in 2011 to remedy those problems?
Bolts From The Blue: It really was a perfect storm of mistakes last season. The offense played well, except for all of the fumbles by the running backs. The defense played well, except they never seemed to get turnovers. Much of the offensive and defensive numbers came in the few games when the Chargers played to their potential and destroyed the Cardinals, Jaguars and Broncos. The special teams were atrocious.
The offense should be better because Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews, who were both essentially rookies last season, are another year older and more experienced. Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson will be here from Day 1, and that will stabilize a lot of things that were shaky last year. The defense is hoping that bringing in Greg Manusky to replace Ron Rivera, and signing Takeo Spikes and Bob Sanders, will help increase the amount of turnovers and big plays from the defense. Special Teams was a heavy focus in the Chargers' 2011 draft, as well as in determining who made the 53-man roster at the end of camp. The biggest change, however, came with the firing of Steve Crosby as Special Teams Coach and the hiring of Rich Bisaccia (largely regarded as one of the best ST coaches) away from Tampa Bay. There's plenty of confidence that he'll get that group up to speed quickly.
DN: Philip Rivers seems to put up huge numbers no matter who he's throwing to. He has Vincent Jackson back for an entire season this year, and all-world tight end Antonio Gates is always a threat when he's healthy. First of all, how is Gates' health these days? And after Gates and Jackson, who else do you see emerging as a go-to target for Rivers?
BFTB: I can't imagine Gates getting any healthier than 80% this season. He seems about as unhealthy as he was in 2009, which means a step slower and a tad softer than he was when he was on pace to break records in 2010. He'll still be the same TE that every fears, but he won't be the monster he was last year.
After Gates and Jackson, the go-to targets are Malcom Floyd (who has always been a favorite target for Rivers) and Patrick Crayton (who developed a great rapport with Philip before getting injured last year).
DN: Here's one for our readers that play fantasy football: what's the latest on the Ryan Mathews/Mike Tolbert situation at running back? It sounds like Mathews will get the start, but how do you see the carries being split? Will Tolbert get most of the carries near the goal line?
BFTB: In an ideal world, Mathews gets about 60% of the carries with Tolbert taking 35%. Jacob Hester is a great short-yardage back, but when it comes to carries near the goal line nobody has been more consistent or reliable than Tolbert. He'll most likely finish with less yards and less big plays than Mathews, but more TDs. Hester will get a few, and Mathews will too. Norv Turner, being an offensive guy, loves to occasionally help guys like Mathews pad their TD stats as long as they're doing well with the other responsibilities he's given them.
DN: The Chargers are a talented team with most of their key players returning from last year. They don't appear to have a lot of glaring holes. In fact, San Diego is one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for a lot of experts. But if you had to choose one area of concern after watching this team throughout this preseason, what would it be?
BFTB: The Linebackers on this team are a concern. Outside of Shaun Phillips, every other OLB is flawed in one way or another. Travis LaBoy and Antwan Barnes can't defend the run, Larry English can't stay healthy and Darryl Gamble is an undrafted free agent project that probably won't see the field. ILB isn't much better, with 34-year old Takeo Spikes and a whole bunch of question marks. Na'il Diggs was signed over the weekend as depth, despite never playing in a 3-4 before. Stephen Cooper is playing with a torn bicep and it shows. Donald Butler, who is pretty much a rookie after missing his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, is the starter and has issues with coverage. Jonas Mouton, the 2nd round pick this season, is a project and probably won't see much outside of goal line situations.
DN: Give us one player from the Chargers that doesn't get talked about much but will make a big impact on Sunday's game. And finally, give us your prediction for the season opener.
BFTB: Antonio Garay, if he starts, is the key to this game. He's missed the last few weeks of the preseason, but there's some debate as to if he was really injured or if the Chargers were just being extra careful with a guy who has a shaky injury history. Garay is the Chargers' nose tackle, and when he's on he can push an offensive line around with the best of them (proof here). Having him in there, and healthy, is the difference between Adrian Peterson having a mediocre day and Adrian Peterson finding out just how poor the Bolts' LBs and DBs are at tackling on his way to another historic day.
Seeing as how everyone is 0-0, I'm going to be optimistic. Las Vegas has the Chargers winning big, and I'll go along with that. I think McNabb turns the ball over at least once, Ryan Mathews has a big day on the ground and the Chargers look like a well-oiled machine for at least one week.
Thanks a ton to John for taking the time to answer our Chargers questions. My Q&A with Bolts From The Blue is available here.