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San Diego's scary no-name defense....
This is interesting. They're on quite a tear. This will be a huge test for us.
Unit ranks No. 1 in the NFL without player who's household name
BY SCOTT BAIR - email@example.com North County Times
Antwan Barnes came flying off the edge and made a beeline for Peyton Manning. Pressure forced the Colts quarterback to step up into a rapidly closing pocket and make a rash decision.
There were no openings on the outside thanks to smothering pass coverage. Manning thought he had a throwing lane across the middle and tried to exploit it, but linebacker Stephen Cooper emerged at the last second and snatched the pass out of the sky.
It was a true team takeaway, one of five turnovers created Sunday against the Colts by a Chargers defense that thrives on cooperation and communication above all else. Not one of the turnovers was forced by a player with a national profile, nor is there one on the NFL's No. 1 defense.
Cornerback Quentin Jammer and outside linebacker Shaun Phillips are the Chargers' best-known commodities, but Jammer is a quiet leader and Phillips has formed an adversarial relationship with the media.
There is no Ray Lewis or Troy Polamalu or Shawne "roidman" Merriman (circa 2006) to give the defense national cachet, but this group of relative unknowns has learned to play strong by playing together.
"We have 11 guys out there all working together, and I don't think we're reliant any more on one guy than another," Cooper said after practice Wednesday. "We have feature players on this defense, but they don't worry about individual accolades or seeing their name in a headline. We're all about team defense, statistics and, most importantly, wins."
The defense played well even in the Chargers' losses, the team hurting itself with special teams gaffes and turnovers that put the unit in poor position. Those problem areas have been shored up, which has truly allowed the defense to shine.
The Chargers are allowing a league-low 273 yards per game. They rank No. 2 against the pass, No. 3 against the run and have been on a shocking tear during their active four-game winning streak. Opponents have converted just 28 percent of their third downs in that span, and only 4-of-24 in the last two games.
They lead the league with 33 sacks and have turned pressure into turnovers, with seven over the last three weeks.
"We're playing with confidence, and our guys have done an excellent job preparing for each game," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "They're creating pressure and creating turnovers by playing smart team defense. We went through a stretch where we weren't forcing turnovers, but we've really picked that up, which is a big step for us."
The turnovers have allowed the low-yardage unit to make a real impact. That, plus a pair of standout games on national television, may have laid a foundation for national recognition yet to come.
"We earn respect through our play," said outside linebacker Antwan Applewhite, one of four undrafted free agents in the starting 11. "The teams we play against see how well we're playing on film, and that's really all we care about. We want to build on success as opposed to revel in it.
"People say that we have a no-name defense, and that's fine. I wouldn't trade anybody on this unit. It's a good group of guys who play well together. That's all you can ask for."
The Chargers have received great returns from unlikely sources.
Nose tackle Antonio Garay, whom the Chargers picked off the scrap heap late in 2009, is on pace to enjoy as good as season statistically as Pro Bowl predecessor Jamal Williams ever did. Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett is having a career year and, thanks to improved health, has emerged as the complete linebacker he always believed he could be. Cornerback Antoine Cason leads the team with four interceptions and has proven to be an excellent cover man in his first season as a starter. Phillips, perhaps the team's best defensive player, has 10 sacks and is on pace for a career high 14 1/2.
While Phillips' ability to line up at any linebacker position has caused matchup problems and headaches for opposing coordinators, the Chargers aren't reliant on him for team success. They largely employ heavy rotations in the front seven to keep players fresh and cater to individual strengths.
The Chargers also have a system in place that works. They put faith in coordinator Ron Rivera and his scheme, which demands accountability and discipline above all else. They raise the bar each week, even after a stellar performance against the Colts. They communicate and cooperate well because egos have been checked at the door.
That's why they don't care whether they're mentioned in the same breath as the Steelers and Ravens and Jets, or featured on national talk shows.
"As long as we're staying on course and trusting in what Ron Rivera preaches, that's all that matters," Cooper said. "We don't care about getting respect on a national level. We'll earn respect from opposing teams with our play on Sundays.
"We're confident in what we do and how we conduct our business, but we're not ****y and we're not complacent. If we're consistently executing at a high level, there's no way we can lose."