Chargers have defensive questions to answer

The Chargers offense, while having holes to fill, isn’t in the need of attention like the ball’s other side.

If the Chargers are to climb from mediocrity and erase a two-year absence from the playoffs, they need to get better on the defensive side.

Sounds easy enough, but will the Chargers be able to pull it off?

What’s killed the Chargers on defense is the lack of production from players being counted on to do just that.

Larry English, an outside linebacker, has been one of the bigger first-round busts in general manager A.J. Smith’s career. A reach at No. 16 overall in 2009 when the pick was made, English has been unable to contribute anything consistently, mostly because of injuries.

Shaun Phillips would like to be an elite pass-rusher, but injuries are also curtailing his totals. He had but 3.5 sacks last year, as the speedy outside linebacker’s game was diminished by foot and leg injuries.

But all that is in the past; that includes defensive coordinator Greg Manusky who was fired this offseason.

The Chargers have two areas needing addressing and is there anything more important in today’s NFL than rushing the passer, and to a lesser degree, stopping the run.

Smith has to work some magic on draft day to get some players to put heat on quarterbacks. Or, and this would be a switch for the stubborn Smith, he needs to jump into the free-agency pool.

While reluctant to do so in the past, Smith has little choice. He has been put on notice – along with coach Norv Turner – that the Chargers need to win next season. And team president Dean Spanos said when retaining the tandem which has produced one playoff win in four seasons that their process might need some tweaking.

So if Smith heads into free agency, there are some players available to foster a pass rush.

The Texans’ Mario Williams is the potential plum of the free-agent defensive linemen/linebackers. He would instantly make the Chargers better, but will the team be open to overpaying him considering all the other positions needing help?

If not Williams, how about the Lions’ Cliff Avril.

If neither, is there an interest – and market – for the Colts’ Robert Mathis?

Two things about Mathis that the Chargers have to weigh: will he be as effective playing the majority of his games on grass instead of the Lucas Oil Stadium turf? And is it that big of deal that he is on the wrong side of 30.

But the 31 year old would look good in the Chargers’ 3-4 alignment and that could be a selling point for San Diego. At 6-2, 245 pounds he doesn’t quite have the girth to play in a 4-3. But the Chargers, despite introducing new defensive coordinator John Pagano, have no plans to ditch their 3-4.

So just maybe, a more affordable Mathis, in a system which suits his body, is the way the Chargers will go.

The run defense also needs some work, and that can’t be overstated when playing in the AFC West, a division which features three teams – the Broncos, Raiders and Chiefs – that love to keep their offenses close to the ground.

The team has to decide whether to bring back serviceable defensive tackle Antonio Garay, a free agent.

They also must determine if veteran Takeo Spikes can make it through his 16th season; he played well last year. The Chargers hope to get a boost with the return of linebacker Jonas Mouton, a third-round pick last year who was hurt the entire season.

Also, there is a glaring hole at strong safety, where the Bob Sanders experiment of the previous season lasted all of two games.

The Redskins’ LaRon Landry would fit the bill as a thumper for a defense crying out for one. But is he just a younger Sanders? Landry has played in but 17 games the past two seasons.

The Raiders’ Tyvon Branch is young and explosive. But some feel he won’t get out of Oakland, especially if there is a good chance he will land with a division rival.

The strong safety issue could take care of itself if backup Darrell Stuckey can prove he is more than a special-teams demon. The Chargers have been touting Stuckey for two years now but he’s had a hard time getting on the field in the base defense. Just maybe, this is his breakthrough season.