SAN DIEGO — Al Saunders, in his third week as the Chargers' coach, said Monday that he has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to think creatively about such distractions as the media.
But it was difficult to tell if he had put a lot of time or just a little into an analysis of his team's 24-21 loss to the Dallas Cowboys and its forthcoming game against the Los Angeles Raiders.
Saunders sounded like a cross between Dear Abby and Al Davis as he described the Chargers' new "crunch mentality."
Thinking back to his first week as coach, he said the experience was like a blind date--open the door and form an opinion in a hurry.
That comment dovetailed neatly with his account of a nasty injury suffered by safety Vencie Glenn. Saunders then tied it all together with a perspective on the Raiders. Somehow, the subject of dating provided a common thread.
Glenn was hurt early in the Dallas game Sunday. As he lay on the ground, face down, someone stepped on the back of his helmet, mashing his mouth against his faceguard, according to Saunders.
"He had a fractured jaw, a laceration of the lips and five teeth had to be wired back in place," Saunders said. "He's going to try to play Thursday against the Raiders, but it's going to be tough for him to get a date this weekend.
"I had the same sort of thing happen to me in college. I bit my tongue and had to have eight stitches. It was ugly. There were no dates for a while."
Something clicked as Saunders segued to the Raiders.
"Their mentality is to treat 'em all like Vencie Glenn--push 'em on their face and crunch 'em," he said. "We'd love to reflect that in our approach to the game."
It sounds downright anti-social, and that's the way the Chargers treated Dallas quarterback Steve Pelluer, sacking him a dozen times to tie a National Football League record held by four other teams. Rookie lineman Leslie O'Neal got to Pelluer five times, a club record.
The Chargers may not be confused with the Silver and Black just yet, but they have taken over the league lead with 45 sacks.
Saunders hopes to build upon the aggressiveness of his defensive line in creating a new outlook.
"We are extremely proud of our sacks," Saunders said. "We would have liked a win more than a sack record, but it was a great contribution to the progress we hope to make.
"The emergence of Leslie O'Neal as a dominant player has been a catalyst to our line. He's playing like a veteran, not a rookie, and has helped our line mature. Our defensive scheme is really taking shape. Our young players are meshing well, playing hard and trying to do the right things."
O'Neal, with 11.5 sacks, ranks fourth in the NFL, trailing Lawrence Taylor (16.5), Rulon Jones (13.5) and Dexter Manley (12.5). Teammate Lee Williams is right behind O'Neal with 10.5 sacks.
The Chargers, who have implemented a penetrating, aggressive style of defense, are likely to break the club season record of 60 sacks.
Pressuring the quarterback is not the only element of sound defense, as Saunders pointed out. For years, the Charger secondary has been leaky, but it appeared that a workable combination had been located for last week's game in Denver.
With Glenn at free safety and Gill Byrd at corner, joining strong safety Jeff Dale and cornerback Kenny Taylor, Saunders thought he had a solid group. Glenn's injury disrupted that group, forcing Byrd to move to safety, with Donald Brown playing corner against the Cowboys.
Another aspect of the defense that must be improved is resistance to third-down conversions. Opponents facing third-down situations have made a first down about 45% of the time this year, Saunders said. He would like to cut the rate to 30%.
While he tries to make the defense more aggressive--such as the Raiders--Saunders also wants to make the offense more stable and able to control the ball.
The Chargers, nagged by interceptions early in the season, have reduced their total the last two weeks. Tom Flick, the starter against Denver, threw just one interception. Dan Fouts, back in the lineup against Dallas after recovering from a concussion, did not have an interception.
Even though they didn't give the ball away via interceptions, the Chargers didn't run as well as Saunders would have liked, particularly in the fourth quarter, when they were trying to protect a 21-10 lead.
"It would have been nice to get a few first downs and run some time off the clock," Saunders said.
The Chargers managed only 65 rushing yards for the entire afternoon. Gary Anderson was limited to 7 yards in 10 rushes.
Saunders, who had said during the exhibition season that he expected Anderson to be the most exciting player in the NFL this year, was asked if was disappointed.
"He still has the ability to be that kind of exciting player," Saunders said. "What we've seen is that Gary is not a down-after-down type of back. He can't run 25 or 30 times a game. He's a role player who's best as a kick returner, receiver and open-field runner.