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New-look Raiders host Chargers

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POSTED September 7, 2012 9:25 p.m.

 

 

 

OAKLAND  (AP) — From the Bay Area to down near the Mexican border, change has been the approach for two of California's NFL teams.

This season starts the way last season ended for the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders. When the teams take the field Monday night, plenty will have changed since the Chargers spoiled the Raiders' playoff chances with a 38-26 victory that cost Oakland the AFC West title.

That set in motion a series of alterations.

The Raiders hired general manager Reggie McKenzie, who promptly fired coach Hue Jackson, hired Dennis Allen as the replacement and began an on- and off-field upheaval of an organization sadly in need of it after being run one way for a half-century under Al Davis.

The roster was overhauled, the defensive system completely changed, and the front office was revamped in a busy offseason for the Raiders.

"It's definitely different. I think we're headed in a different but positive direction," said punter Shane Lechler, entering his 13th season with the team. "There's been a lot of change, the most I've ever been around, every part of the building. It's just one of those things, I guess, an organization goes through when you go through what we went through, with losing Al and doing that stuff. I think we're taking the proper steps and heading in the right direction."

The changes in San Diego have been more subtle, but still necessary, after two straight disappointing seasons without a playoff berth.

Greg Manusky was fired as defensive coordinator and replaced by John Pagano, big-play receiver Vincent Jackson left as a free agent, and general manager A.J. Smith was uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency.

The Chargers signed Robert Meacham, Eddie Royal, Jarret Johnson, Ronnie Brown, Le'Ron McClain, Aubrayo Franklin and Atari Bigby, and focused heavily on defense in the draft after two straight 8-8 seasons.

"We've lost some pretty good football players," said coach Norv Turner, who was brought back for a sixth season. "It was time for us to go out and aggressively replace some of those guys."

That's what the Raiders did as well, especially defensively. The team has a whole new set of cornerbacks, led by starters Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, two new starters at linebacker in rookie Miles Burris and Philip Wheeler, and, most importantly, a brand new system after years of playing one way.

Davis' teams usually played bump-and-run coverage on the outside, with a four-man line to pressure the quarterback and one safety deep in the secondary. Now Allen and coordinator Jason Tarver are mixing different fronts, different coverages and all sorts of blitzes that the Raiders hope will confuse teams that used to know exactly what to prepare for against Oakland.

"This is probably the most excited I've been since my rookie year to go into an opener to see the full defense and see what we can be," safety Michael Huff said. "We get to see it every day in practice. We get to finally unleash it in a game."

The new scheme will be a challenge for the Chargers, who had had to rely on film from preseason and Allen's defense last year when he was coordinator in Denver for clues to what they might see Monday night.

But the Chargers are more concerned with dealing with Oakland's versatile safeties Huff and Tyvon Branch and fearsome front four against an offensive line featuring undrafted rookie Mike Harris at left tackle.

"Obviously every team has their scheme, but there are only so many coverages and so many fronts you can play, so I do think it's still the players," Rivers said. "Obviously the scheme has a big to-do with how you attack them, but it's still personnel driven."

The Raiders' defense might have been its worst when the stakes were the highest in that loss to the Chargers that cost them the division title. Rivers threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns without being sacked, San Diego ran for 153 yards on 31 carries, and the game was sealed on a four-play, 99-yard drive in the fourth quarter after Oakland cut the deficit to five points.

"It still stings, to be honest," safety Mike Mitchell said. "Especially when it's your last loss of the season. It's the only thing you can think about until you play your next real game. ... That's been burning in my mind the last eight months."

San Diego's defense wasn't much better, ranking last in the NFL in third-down efficiency and making just 32 sacks, the team's lowest total since 2004.

The Chargers changed coordinators, used their first three draft picks on outside linebacker Melvin Ingram of South Carolina, end Kendall Reyes of Connecticut and LSU strong safety Brandon Taylor, and made other key additions on defense to fix the problems.

"This can be a strong, fierce defense this year," safety Eric Weddle said. "We just feel as a defense that we want to be great and we want to win games. It's a team game but if our offense (struggles) we've got to be there to pick them up, and vice versa. We want to be the best in every category."

 

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