Ryan Wilson asked me to help out with AOL Fanhouse's Status Check in preparation for the Patriots-Chargers showdown. He posed five questions to me and five to Chargers blogger Rob Zepeda of Bolt Hype. Here's a little taste:
Ryan Wilson: Hardcore football fans know Marcus McNeill, but casual observers have probably never heard of him. Which little-known Chargers player should people look for Sunday?
Rob Zepeda: Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm are first year starters, but both have been in the league long enough to be considered veterans. They'll bring different things to the table as the team's new inside linebackers. In particular, they'll be a force in the run game and will fly around and hit people. Donnie Edwards always carried the knock against him that he is an ankle tackler who gets his tackles downfield.
Whereas Edwards is a tackler, Cooper is a hitter. In his first start with the team, Stephen Cooper amassed 8 tackles and forced a fumble. He is a thick, compactly built guy who is incredibly strong and aggressive as a tackler. He'll leap over people and deliver a punishing hit. He can rush the passer on blitzes up the middle and has the speed to chase down running backs.
Ryan Wilson: A lot of fans were scratching their heads when San Diego used a first-round pick on LSU wideout Craig Davis, and then traded up in the second round to take safety Eric Weddle. What are your thoughts on the team drafting these guys?
My answers and more from Ryan and Rob below ...
Rob Zepeda: Craig 'Buster' Davis and Eric Weddle have fit in perfectly with the team. Its almost unbelievable how perfectly they upgraded the areas that needed to be upgraded. Davis has magnets for hands and has true deep speed. He also has the added ability to return punts. The Chargers needed help in their punt return production and needed to get a guy who could stretch the field. AJ Smith drafted Craig Davis and killed two birds with one stone.
Eric Weddle has proven to be worth every draft pick Smith traded away to get him. A dynamic player, Weddle can do it all. A classic example of a hybrid player whose brings tremendous value to his team with the variety of roles he can fill. Weddle has had an eye-popping preseason and in his first regular season game, was making plays left and right, including getting to Rex Grossman a couple of times on blitzes.
Ryan Wilson: What do the Chargers have to do win this game?
Rob Zepeda: The Chargers are going to need to successfully run the ball, and that means forcing the Patriots to play honest and respect the pass. Tomlinson has had great success against the Patriots in his career, so if he gets rolling the Chargers will stand a great chance to win the game. Its Tom Brady and his receivers that worry me the most. If the Chargers get ahead early, then Brady will be looking to throw the ball a lot.
That's going to be dangerous for the Chargers because Brady will make big plays downfield. The Chargers have experience covering Randy Moss (he was once a division rival), but that wont stop Brady from throwing deep. It's probably best that the Chargers keep the game close for as long as possible, so as to discourage Tom Brady from airing it out.
Here are all of my responses:
Ryan Wilson: Obviously, the allegations that the Patriots illegally videotaped the Jets coaches has overshadowed the Chargers game. Do you think this will affect New England's performance, or will it be business as usual?
tommasse: I give you the quote of the week by Ellis Hobbs. Asked if spygate or whatever they're calling it would be a distraction, Hobbs quipped, "I just had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some Doritos, so I'm not too distracted right now."
More seriously, Hobbs continued, "When we go out there and practice, we are not thinking about any of those things. Our main focus is to get out there and to prepare in the best way possible for the San Diego Chargers. That's all we are worried about. There aren't any distractions." It's one of the true identifying marks of Bill Belichick teams: preparation, preparation, preparation. I don't remember this team suffering from distractions before, right back to the big "Bledsoe or Brady" controversy. Call it business as usual.
Ryan Wilson: Assuming the Patriots are guilty of breaking the rules, what do you think would be a fair punishment? Are the media making this into a bigger deal than it really is?
tommasse: I've written about this pretty extensively at Pats Pulpit. I said I expected a two- or three-game suspension for Belichick and a loss of a third-rounder in 2008 and a third in 2009, punishments that I said would be more severe than anything Paul Tagliabue ever would have considered. Now that we know Roger Goodell's decision, I consider the punishment reasonable.
As far as the media, I hesitate to lump all outlets together. I wrote extensively that the media took two sides; some reported it straight, some took their shots when they could. It is indeed serious business, but the naivete some outlets and fans demonstrated and the holier-than-thou attitude of others was pretty repulsive. As repulsive breaking the rules in the first place? Probably not. Breaking the rules is breaking the rules. But a lot information supporting New England has been either buried or ignored by those who just want to take their shots.
Ryan Wilson: Hardcore football fans know Vince Wilfork, but casual observers have probably never heard of him. Which little-known Patriots player should people look for Sunday?
tommasse: When you know a team so well, it's hard to remember that some are "little-known." Wilfork? He's a potential Pro Bowl selection. But you're right. Outside New England, the perceptions are vastly different. I have to assume people know linebacker Mike Vrabel and, now, cornerback Ellis Hobbs after his record 108-yard kickoff return for touchdown.
That's why viewers should watch for defensive tackle Richard Seymour's backup, Jarvis Green. Green could probably be a starter on most other teams, and he had a monster game against the Jets last week in Seymour's stead: 5 solo tackles, an assist and 2 sacks. Second to Green, I'll mention safety Eugene Wilson, who is the second starter opposite suspended Rodney Harrison. Wilson led New England against the Jets in tackles (7 solo, 1 assist) and a pass defense.
Ryan Wilson: Putting aside this rivalry for a moment, if you could have one Chargers player on the Patriots, who would it be?
tommasse: I'd have to be crazy to say someone other than LaDainian Tomlinson. Can you imagine a backfield of Tomlinson and Laurence Maroney? You'd be able to pair Maroney as a kick/punt returner with Hobbs while Tomlinson carries the load as primary tailback. And with a running game like that, how much more effective would Tom Brady be with Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker? An offense to rival Indianapolis now and St. Louis of the 1990s. Nice little pipe dream there.
I'll give you a No. 2 selection: Quentin Jammer. New England may need a top-tier corner if Asante Samuel skips town this spring. Jammer might measure up to the hype of his draft entry into the league, but he'd do well in the Patriots defensive backfield. Bonus: As a third choice, I'll take Eric Weddle. I really liked him in the SB Nation mock draft, and he's going to be a real player in a couple years. With Rodney Harrison nearing the end of his career, Weddle would be a valuable future asset.
Ryan Wilson: What do the Patriots have to do win this game?
tommasse: There's a sign in the Patriots locker room that reads, "Do your job." It was Belichick's keystone in his pre-game speech prior to Super Bowl XXXVI, and it's been a Patriots mantra since. It's simple, but if you're well prepared and you have sufficient talent, doing your job will win the game.
These are the two most balanced and overall talented teams in the league, and it should be a hell of a game. The offensive line needs to give Brady time to go through his progressions. Someone will be open, because the Jets showed that even triple coverage isn't always good enough against Randy Moss. Giving Brady time means having an effective running game, but one doesn't necessarily lead to the other; either one will achieve the other.
Defensively, maintain that bend-don't-break mentality. Stopping Tomlinson isn't the goal. Stopping Antonio Gates isn't the goal. The goal of the defense is to keep the opposing offense out of the end zone. Whether accomplished by turnovers, forcing punts or allowing long field-goal attempts is irrelevant. Then it's all the regular stuff: Protect the ball, limit penalties, gain the advantage in field position and time of possession, engage long offensive drives. Pretty simple, isn't it?
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Rob also discussed Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner (Rob supports the change) and says if San Diego could have one Patriots player it would be Randy Moss. He also had a few more words on his answers above that I clipped for brevity. Check out that first link in this post for more from Rob.