SAN DIEGO — You can blame Todd Blackledge, but the Chargers have the National Football League's No. 1-ranked pass defense.
With Neil Lomax, Roy Green and the St. Louis Cardinals in town for today's game, they probably won't be No. 1 next week . . . if there is a next week.
Unless there's a mad rush to the bargaining table, this might be the last Charger game for a while. A player strike Tuesday appears a probability .
Coach Al Saunders just finished a busy week, not only preparing his troops for the Cardinals, but also fending off the distraction of two drug-related arrests. Cornerback Danny Walters, who will start today, was arrested Monday for allegedly driving under the influence and for possession of cocaine. Former defensive end Earl Wilson was arrested Tuesday for allegedly furnishing cocaine to an undercover police officer.
Next week could be just as hectic for Saunders, because the league's owners seem intent on fielding non-union football teams. Saunders concedes that life will go on for him next week, strike or no strike.
In the meantime, there's today. If there ever can be such a thing as a must game in Week 2, this is one. After they finished last in the AFC West last year, the Chargers were the recipients of one of the league's weaker schedules. Instead of playing NFC teams such as the Rams and the 49ers--as the rest of the AFC West will--the Chargers get to play Indianapolis twice, Tampa Bay and the Cardinals. So, if the season is shortened by a strike, the Chargers need to win the winnable games, like this one.
Certainly, the hard part will come when the Cardinals have the ball. Lomax, the St. Louis quarterback, led his team to three touchdowns in the final 1 minute 58 seconds against the Cowboys last week. Two of those scores went to speedy wide receiver Green as the Cardinals won, 24-13. It was the first time since 1984 that Lomax and Green had hooked up for two touchdowns in one game.
"Roy's not completely healthy yet," said Gene Stallings, Cardinal coach. "He'll tell you he is, but he missed quite a bit of training camp (with a bad leg). He's still a little gimpy. If he were 100%, well, I think it would be the same Roy Green."
However, members of the Charger secondary say he's the same Roy Green.
"You can't underestimate him at all," said Walters. "I think they will try to test us deep. I faced Green my rookie year and I saw him a whole lot that day . . . usually from behind."
Free safety Vencie Glenn said, "He'll run by you like you haven't seen nothing. He's still got those jets. I saw him run by Everson Walls last week."
It may be a mirage, but on paper, the Chargers could match up well against St. Louis. In San Diego's loss to the Chiefs and Blackledge last week, Walters didn't allow a completion . Blackledge completed 6 of 15 passes for 79 yards.
Of course, that might also be a reflection on the aggressive Charger pass rush, led by left defensive end Lee Williams and the blitzing of outside linebackers Chip Banks and Billy Ray Smith.
Williams could have a big day today because the regular Cardinal right tackle, Tootie Robbins (concussion), is questionable and might be replaced by second-year tackle Gene Chilton.
Getting a few big hands in Lomax's face might just be the key to the game.
The way wide receiver Wes Chandler puts it, the Chargers have "something great going here," so that's why he called a team meeting after Friday's practice. Tuesday might bring a strike, but Chandler and the Chargers would rather picket with a 1-1 record than an 0-2 record.
"We had opportunities to win last week (against Kansas City) and we didn't," Chandler said. "When you don't win a game you could have won, you've got to check yourself. That's why we had this meeting."
Nonetheless, the possible strike is on the players' minds. And here are a few pieces of their minds:
Guard Dennis McKnight: "I think our younger guys have to realize this strike is no joking matter. It's no vacation. You can't go to the Bahamas or be out partying. It might be settled in two days or two weeks."
Wide receiver Lionel James: "I don't think any player would want to strike, but it's all about doing what's right for our future. It's the principle of the thing. . . . Of course, it would give me a chance to relax awhile. I won't have to worry about catching a punt or getting my teeth knocked out."
Finally, quarterback Dan Fouts, who isn't sure if he'll walk out with the rest of the players, said: "I was around for the 1974 and 1982 strikes, so this will be my third one. And, let me tell you, we, as players, haven't exactly won any of them."
The Chargers activated inside linebacker Thomas Benson Saturday and removed Dwight Wheeler, a recently signed tackle, from their roster.
On Friday, Saunders had said Wheeler would replace Dennis McKnight as the snapper on field goals and punts. Saunders changed his mind Saturday, fearing that kicker Vince Abbott would have a difficult time adjusting to a new snapper. So McKnight will do the snapping, even though he has sore hands.