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Xs AND O's

Williams, not Merriman, charges up their defense

January 12, 2007|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

Shawne Merriman, San Diego's All-Pro outside linebacker, is a hard-charging force who will be looking to create havoc for the New England Patriots' offense when they face the Chargers on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.

Despite sitting out four games because of a league suspension for testing positive for the steroid nandrolone, Merriman led the NFL in sacks with 17 this season and was among the league leaders in forcing fumbles.

Merriman's explosive style and powerful tackling make him one of the league's top players, but he's not the whole story behind the Chargers' success on defense.

While Merriman was suspended, special teams standouts Carlos Polk and Stephen Cooper took his place and San Diego's defense didn't drop off. The Chargers went 4-0 without Merriman because of the strength of their defensive line.

Everything starts with Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams, the key piece in San Diego's 3-4 alignment. Williams, a 6-foot-3, 348-pound wrecking ball, dominates the line of scrimmage and frees up his teammates to make plays. Offensive lines often are forced to use two blockers on Williams because of his knack of clogging up the middle while still making tackles in the backfield.

Flanking Williams, San Diego has solid ends in Luis Castillo, who will be in the lineup after being slowed because of an ankle injury this season, and Igor Olshansky, who never takes a play off.

The Chargers' down linemen do a great job keeping blockers off Merriman and fellow linebackers Donnie Edwards, Shaun Phillips and Randall Godfrey, so they can use their quickness to make plays from sideline to sideline.

That's going to be important against New England quarterback Tom Brady, who will try to force San Diego to defend the entire field.

But against the Chargers, Brady may have to operate without tight ends Ben Watson and Daniel Graham in the passing lanes because they will be needed to stay in and fortify pass blocking for Brady against San Diego's band of blitzing linebackers.

Brady faces New England's own version of a 3-4 defense in practice every day and he knows how an effective rush can disrupt a passing game. So don't expect him to take many chances with New England's protection schemes.

The Chargers not only led the NFL with 48 sacks, including 11.5 from Phillips, they forced nine fumbles while bringing down opposing quarterbacks. Phillips alone knocked the ball out on four of his sacks.

Brady's ability to avoid turnovers has been the key behind the Patriots' playoff runs.

Since his rookie season in 2001, Brady has completed 61.5% of his passes in the playoffs for 2,493 yards and 15 touchdowns with only five interceptions.

During the regular season, Brady completes 61.9% of his passes, but his touchdown-to-interception ratio is not nearly as good. He has thrown 147 touchdowns with 78 interceptions.

Brady throws for two touchdown passes for every interception during the regular season but improves to a three-to-one ratio in the playoffs. He also fumbles less. Brady has lost the ball 25 times in 239 carries during the regular season, compared to only once in 30 in the postseason.

Summary: Ball security will be crucial for the Patriots against the Chargers, whose secondary looks to create turnovers. Cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence may sometime give up long completions, but they don't play soft. They work well with safeties Marlon McCree, Terrence Kiel and Clinton Hart, who also can make game-changing plays against the run and pass.

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

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Based on each NFL team's starters in Week 17, San Diego's front seven is one of the heaviest in the league. Heaviest average starting defensive front sevens and where each ranked against the opponents' running game.

*--* TEAM AVG. WEIGHT RK Browns 280.7 29th Ravens 279.4 2nd Chargers 278.3 7th Vikings 277.4 1st Bengals 277.4 15th

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Source: STATS LLC

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