When all was said and done and the Chargers were done using their nine lives provided by a weak AFC West, their confounding 2008 season had come full circle.
They missed one player — Shawne Merriman, the three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker that can speed rush one play and bull rush the next — in the Sunday’s AFC playoff at the Pittsburgh Steelers, 35-24.
The Chargers (9-9) had no pass rush, and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was able to sit back in the pocket and complete third-and-long passes to keep drives alive.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers (13-4) consistently applied a speed rush from James Harrison or a bull rush from LaMarr Woodley to harass Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. He didn’t have enough time for his receivers to come open and was forced to throw away too many balls to avoid a sack.
The beginning of the end of the Air Coryell Chargers was when they gave away defensive end Fred Dean in a one-sided trade to the San Francisco 49ers. The late Bill Walsh said back then, the 1981 season, the key to modern-day football is pressure on the quarterback.
Dean provided the 49ers a pass rush and the first of their Super Bowl titles. And Walsh, recognizing Dean’s special talent that then-owner Gene Klein let get away in a huff over money, provided Dean a path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Nothing has really changed since then in the NFL. In fact, it may be truer than ever since the league continued to pass rules that favored the passing game, making it difficult to cover receivers without pressure on the quarterback.
Sure, the Chargers missed injured running back LaDainian Tomlinson in Pittsburgh, but LT’s presence wouldn’t have helped the Bolts’ pass rush.
Without Merriman — who underwent reconstructive knee surgery after the season opener — the Chargers weren’t the same defense. They didn’t force turnovers as they had in 2006 and 2007 and they often times couldn’t get off the field on third downs.
Of all the changes the Chargers must make in 2009, none is more important than finding a pass rush. They need Merriman healthy again. They need to find ways to complement him because the drop off without him to was too dramatic.
The legacy of LT Chargers, to avoid the fate of the Air Coryell Chargers, depends on it.