Chargers count on improved defense in bid to finally reach Super Bowl

Offensively, the 1982 edition of the San Diego Chargers is already halfway to the Super Bowl. The other four teams in San Diego's AFC West Division (Kansas City, Denver, Oakland, and Seattle) will probably have to be content with shooting for a wild card berth in the National Football League playoffs.

If all the above statements sound just a little too positive for this time of year, they probably are. There are still some major defensive question marks on the Chargers, a team that set an NFL record last year for most passing yardage allowed in a single season.

Still, anytime you have a quarterback like Dan Fouts (32 touchdown passes in '81) throwing to receivers the class of Wes Chandler, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, there is a tendency to overlook everything else.

While Wilson, the team's tight end, has never been the blocker his size and strength suggests, few are more willing to take the hit in heavy traffic to make a catch.

When Kellen, who is 6 ft. 5 in. and 252 pounds, makes his cut back toward the line of scrimmage in short yardage situations, about all the defensive back can hope is that he drops the ball. Last year he caught the ball 85 times for 1,027 yards and 10 TDs.

You also need a strong ground game to keep the defense honest - and San Diego has that too. Chuck Muncie, who ran for 19 touchdowns last season, will probably do the bulk of the ball carrying again, with help from Ricky Bell, obtained during the off-season from Tampa Bay.

To get back to San Diego's leaky secondary, none of its cornerbacks had the speed or the know-how in 1981 to cover opposing receivers. So until the Chargers show they have solved this problem on the field, and not just on paper, their projected improvement in such a vital area is hard to rate.

Actually, Head Coach Don Coryell is up to his old quotes when it comes to defensive play, special teams, and not letting the opposing team get good field position.

''While we are spending extra time with our defensive units in training camp, once the season starts no one area will be emphasized more than any other area, '' Coryell explained. ''When it comes to winning, we don't want to limit ourselves to just one or two ways of getting the job done.''

Nevertheless Don felt it necessary to get himself a new defensive coordinator (the highly regarded Tom Bass from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), the club's third such change in as many years. The fact that Bass was the first assistant coach Paul Brown hired when he was putting the 1968 expansion Cincinnati Bengals together should tell you something.

Tom is a well-read man who was raised on military bases in cities across the country and the Pacific. He has a great sense of organization; graduated from San Jose State with honors in biological science; was once a member of the Board of Directors of the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony; and is the author of two books of poetry.

With Bass taking over, San Diego's traditional 4-3 defense up front is apt to quickly evolve into a 3-4 alignment that will make it tougher for opponents to throw against the Chargers. The idea in pro football is to put pressure on the opposing quarterback on every play while not giving away ahead of time the exact point of attack.

During the off-season, San Diego made eight trades that added defensive experience, including linebackers Dave Lewis, Dewey Selmon, and Jeff Siemon, plus free safety Tim Fox and strong safety Bruce Laird. Although the Chargers aren't prepared to say so yet, all except Siemon are expected to start.

San Diego had a light college draft this year, the result of lost picks that had previously been either owed or traded to other teams. It wasn't until the seventh round of the draft that the Chargers selected Hollis Hall, a defensive back from Clemson, who is expected to get little on-the-job training.

If Coryell and Bass can make the new parts they've collected fit together, then San Diego's Super Bowl bubble probably won't burst in a -59 degree wind-chill factor playoff game, the way it did last January in Cincinnati.

The fun part of the Chargers, of course, is whenever Fouts drops back into the pocket and finds a receiver downfield. Dan threw an incredible 582 times last year for 4,580 yards and a 59.5 completion average.

If Rodgers and Hammerstein were to write a musical about professional football, Fouts would have to be their leading character for the way he can make a pigskin sing, his receivers dance, and the other club's defense rumble like it was so many kettle drums!

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