NFL's electrifying Chargers try to put defensive house in order

Too often in the past the San Diego Chargers have been a General Motors luxury car on offense and a windup toy on defense. For example, the 1982 Chargers were No. 1 in the National Football League in total offense for the third consecutive year. Defensively they ranked 25th overall.

But if you can believe the propaganda coming out of San Diego's training camp , the Chargers are indeed engaged in making the necessary adjustments that will improve them defensively. During the off-season they both traded and drafted for defensive strength that promises to make them tougher against the run and much stingier against the pass.

Coach Don Coryell has also announced that he is totally committed to a 3-4 defensive alignment up front after experimenting with both 3-4 and 4-3 sets there last year. Switching back and forth in 1982 caused confusion and did not generate the proper enthusiasm among the players, who had to try to make it work. And sometimes harmony and esprit de corps can provide more tackles than two teams of crack middle linebackers.

Coryell has a locker room of defensive players who will be competing against each other for regular positions. One of the prize rookies is 6 ft. 3 in., 230 -lb. Billy Ray Smith Jr., of Arkansas, who is projected as an inside linebacker. Smith was the first defensive star selected in the 1983 draft and the fifth player taken overall.

His father, Billy Ray Sr., played 14 years with the Baltimore Colts and was an all-pro defensive tackle. The son, who started 48 games during his four years at Arkansas, is reputed to be just as tough. He didn't take any easy academic ride, either, graduating with a degree in finance and banking.

Prior to the '83 draft, the Chargers gave up a fourth- and an eighth-round pick to the Chicago Bears for cornerback Reuben Henderson, strengthening another spot that San Diego tried to defend last year with mannequins dressed as football players.

While San Diego probably will still have 50 fewer defenses than Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, many of the concepts will be the same. Basically it all comes down to execution and desire anyway, and this year Chargers' defensive coordinator Tom Bass says he senses a feeling of pride in his unit that wasn't there last season.

Offensively the Chargers invariably have the best aerial show in football. In quarterback Dan Fouts, Coryell has a passer who can throw short or deep, over the middle or to the sidelines, and can also frequently out-think the opposition. In the last 64 games Fouts has started for San Diego, the Chargers have won better than 70 percent of the time.

Of course Dan also has three of the NFL's best pass receivers in Wes Chandler , Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow. Chandler, whose speed makes him a constant long bomb threat, averaged 129 yards per game during the strike-abbreviated 1982 season on 49 catches. Winslow led the American Conference in passes caught for the third straight year with 54. Joiner, the 15-year veteran whose 531 lifetime catches rank him ninth on the NFL's all-time receiving list, grabbed 36 aerials last season.

But the Main Man is still Fouts, who is not known for his speed or ability to scramble, but rather for a combination of intelligence, stamina, and mental toughness to go along with his ability to hit his receivers so consistently.

The fact that San Diego uses the pass the way most teams rely on the running game makes Fouts highly visible. Even though most league scouts consider Dan's throwing arm no more than average, they are quick to rave about his ability to put just the right speed and loft on the football.

The man who took the rough edges off Fouts at the pro level was Bill Walsh, the current head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who became offensive coordinator for the Chargers in 1976. Though Walsh stayed in San Diego only one year before taking the head job at Stanford, he worked to improve Dan's mechanics and also taught him how to read defenses and when to change plays at the line of scrimmage.

Even before they raided the United States Football League to sign running back Gary Anderson of the Tampa Bay Bandits, the Chargers were already a Super Bowl-caliber team offensively. But until this year, they never seemed to have their defensive priorities straight. They still might not, although all their efforts in that direction so far seem to make sense.

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