NFL

Chargers defense looks to improve after changes

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SAN DIEGO (AP)

The Chargers defense couldn't get off the field last season.

San Diego was last in the NFL at third down efficiency, a major reason the Chargers sat out the playoffs for the second straight year.

''You can't win football games by being last on third downs,'' cornerback Quentin Jammer said.

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky lost his job after the season. Longtime linebackers coach John Pagano took charge of the defense and the front office drafted defensive players with its first three selections. San Diego also signed two NFL veterans to start on defense.

''I think the pass rush is the key to everything,'' said outside linebacker Shaun Phillips. ''If you can rush the passer, it eliminates a lot of mistakes. Whether there's a breakdown in the secondary or not, if you get a sack, it doesn't really matter. If I was a coordinator, I would build my teams from front to back because I believe if you have a dominant pass rush, you have a chance.''

The Chargers (No. 16 in the AP Pro32) had only 32 sacks last year, placing them 23rd in the NFL for their worst total and ranking since 2004. The feeble pass rush gave Pagano a launching point in his first run as a defensive coordinator.

''With coach Pags, there's more emphasis this year on getting to the quarterback,'' said outside linebacker Antwan Barnes, whose 11 sacks led the team in 2011.

The linebacker position is Pagano's area of football expertise. Two weeks into training camp, it's the team's deepest unit.

Phillips, limited by a foot injury last season, is running well in pass coverage and one-on-one drills. After starting the last 130 games for the Baltimore Ravens, who are known for rugged defense, Jarret Johnson takes over at strong-side linebacker. Another newcomer, rookie Melvin Ingram, was drafted 18th overall for his ability to rush the passer from different spots.

Reflecting the unit's depth, Barnes may play far less despite accounting for 34 percent of the team's sacks last year.

Pagano, whose brother Chuck Pagano was the Ravens' defensive coordinator before becoming coach of the Indianapolis Colts, plans a high-speed chess match that isolates opposing blockers against his best pass rushers.

Chargers defensive backs need to do their part.

Although free safety Eric Weddle had the best year of his career, making seven interceptions and earning his first Pro Bowl selection, the rest of the secondary struggled. The front office allowed strong safety Steve Gregory to sign with the New England Patriots; signed veteran strong safety Atari Bigby; drafted a strong safety, Brandon Taylor; and cut nickel back Dante Hughes.

Jammer, now 33 years old, was in the throes of a divorce last season and said it clouded his performance.

''I didn't have a good year last year, but I will have a good year this year,'' he said. ''I'm better mentally. Last year, I was out of it mentally.''

The defensive line added rookie Kendall Reyes, a 6-foot-4 end out of Connecticut, and backup nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, a 10-year veteran. The club didn't bring back two veterans, Luis Castillo and Tommie Harris.

Chargers coach Norv Turner expects the defense to bounce back after the offseason moves.

''I love what we're doing from the standpoint of our defensive staff, what John's doing, and then obviously our players are really buying in,'' he said. ''We're a very athletic group. We're a fast group - we've got to use that to our advantage,

''I really think with the combination of our personnel and our scheme that we'll be able to put more pressure on the quarterback than we have.''

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Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Tagged: Chargers

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