By Scott Bair
SAN DIEGO — The Chargers recently shut out the Kansas City Chiefs in a must-win affair at Qualcomm Stadium, but OLB Shaun Phillips refused to pat himself on the back.
The 31-0 trashing on Dec. 12 kept the surging Chargers in the playoff hunt. They left the AFC West-leading Chiefs battered and beaten, but the result only served to salt wounds from an embarrassing loss to Oakland the week prior.
Sure, the Chargers gave up just 67 total yards to the Chiefs, but the same personnel group was gashed for 251 rushing yards against the Raiders.
The former is expected. The latter has become unacceptable.
"Games like we had against Kansas City are a source of frustration more than anything else," Phillips said, "because we feel like we should be playing like that every week."
Standards, it seems, have been raised.
The NFL's No. 1 defense has expertly walked the fine line between supreme confidence and complacency this season, and the Dec. 5 debacle against Oakland that delivered a body blow to the Chargers' division standing has become a reminder that even singular slip-ups are unacceptable.
"It helped getting our butts kicked," FS Eric Weddle said. "Hopefully (the Raiders loss) turns out to be a blessing in disguise and that we can carry on with the knowledge of how we overcame it and how to play well on a consistent basis."
The Chargers aren't just playing consistently well heading into the regular season's final fortnight. They're playing their best football of the season.
The Chargers followed the Dec. 12 shutout with a 34-7 thrashing of San Francisco. Combined, the two games included 120 minutes, nine seconds of shutout football. That's more than eight quarters, and only a fourth-quarter touchdown by the 49ers' Brian Westbook prevented back-to-back shutouts.
Those are feats typically associated with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and others with national cachet. It seems strange coming from the Chargers, a franchise long associated with high-octane offense and little else.
Even now QB Philip Rivers gets credit nationally for a late-season push that has the Chargers a game behind Kansas City in the AFC West despite a dismal 2-5 start, but defense has been this team's true constant.
While the offense has struggled with turnovers, and the special-teams play was disastrous early on in coverage and punt protection, the defense rarely has had a bad day at the office.
The Chargers have ranked first in total yardage allowed most of the season and currently rank No. 1 in pass defense and No. 3 against the run without a Pro Bowler in the starting lineup.
The ones they had, most notably OLB Shawne Merriman and CB Antonio Cromartie, are gone. What's left is a collection of relative unknowns who thrive by playing together.
"People say that we have a no-name defense, and that's fine," said OLB Antwan Applewhite, one of four undrafted free agents in the starting 11. "I wouldn't trade anybody on this unit. It's a good group of guys who play well together. That's all you can ask for."
This group may not have household names, but there's plenty of talent to go around.
NT Antonio Garay, whom the Chargers picked off the scrap heap late in 2009, is on pace to have as good an all-around statistical year as Jamal Williams ever had at the position.
ILB Kevin Burnett is having a career year and, through improved health, has proven to be the complete linebacker he always believed he could be.
CB Antoine Cason leads the team with four interceptions and has proven an excellent cover corner in his first season as a starter. He may actually be the Chargers' strongest first-round pick in the last five years at this rate, earning praise for his Cromartie-like ability to force turnovers and steal interceptions. He seemed to be demoted from the nickel-back position last season in favor of Steve Gregory — now the starting strong safety — but Cason became a stronger person for it.
"I'm not sure you can play a position better than Antoine has over the past few weeks," Chargers head coach Norv Turner said. "He's been excellent this season while playing a premium position."
Weddle is having a career year by all accounts and is as valuable a tackler as anyone on the team. He and Cooper are the defensive brain trust and have become extensions of coordinator Ron Rivera's tackle-first, think-later philosophy.
The linchpin, however, is Phillips. He's the one player who doesn't fit a role and might be a superstar if not for his surly disposition with the media. He can play every linebacker position in the Chargers' 3-4 scheme and is the one player who doesn't fit a specific role.
He has 11 sacks this season, has played the run as well as the pass and might finally be stepping out of Merriman's shadow. He was long termed "the other Shaun" in San Diego despite the unique spelling, but now he has a name of his own in this defense.
Still, Phillips refuses to take his share of credit.
"I just do my job," Phillips said. "Ron (Rivera) gives me different assignments each week, and I try to fulfill my responsibilities in the best way possible. The only place I care about getting credit is in this locker room. If my teammates appreciate what I do, that's enough for me."
Phillips has become a poster child for the Chargers' team-first defensive philosophy, which has spread like wildfire throughout the depth chart.
Team defense can be a tough sell in an NFL culture infused with bravado and showmanship, but the Chargers have bought in. They believe in the teachings of Rivera, who has become a source of inspiration for this unit using the mantra of 11 guys making one play, and the belief that the unit can be better than the sum of its parts.
"There's a level of accountability and a lot of discipline required to play team defense, which to me means a unit can play better than its individual abilities," DE Luis Castillo said. "Great defenses do one thing very well. Each player understands his role within the scheme exceptionally well.
"Ron talks about 11 guys making one play. What does that really mean? In our opinion it's each guy understanding how they fit into a given play and then letting physical ability take over after that."
That's why frustration comes on any play — or in any game — where the Chargers don't execute as a unit. That's why, despite such stellar statistics, the Chargers still aren't satisfied with their performance.
"Guys have (focused) all year on being not good but great," Garay said. "We've had some setbacks and things haven't always gone the way we'd hoped and, even though we're playing well, we're still trying to find our way out of the woods. We apparently needed a wake-up call and we got it (in a home loss to Oakland). Now we're ready to play some football. Nothing is easy and nothing is given in this league, but we have a lot of life yet and we're going to fight until the very end."
Scott Bair covers the Chargers for the North County Times.