When the Bolts selected Manti Te’o with the 36th overall pick in the second round of last year’s draft, the Notre Dame linebacker came into the league with a dark cloud hovering above his head. Widely considered a top-5 draft prospect heading into his last season with the Irish, strange off-the-field happenings took place during that season that undermined his draft stock. Te’o turned out to be a victim of a relatively new social media scam called “catfishing”. This occurs when a scammer assumes a persona, creates an entire false identity and then uses it to swindle unsuspecting victims. Manti believed he had met a special young lady online in 2009 and, in turn, fostered a relationship with her though internet posts, texting and phone conversations. In September 2012, Te’o was informed that this “girlfriend” had passed away suddenly. He then used this “tragedy” as fuel during his final collegiate campaign. When the truth of the scam became public, many began to question whether Te’o was in on the scam all along. Some thought he had used the fake death as a way of garnering nationwide sympathy and support in his push for Heisman Trophy votes. (For a detailed timeline of all of these events, follow this link: http://abcnews.go.com/US/timeline-manti-teo-girlfriend-hoax-story/story?id=18268647) Te’o has continually denied any involvement in the bizarre tale, but there are plenty of people out there who still hold the whole debacle against him. Te’o says that he uses that distrust as motivation to excel in the NFL. As far as I’m concerned, I feel bad for the guy and want to see him succeed on the field…period! He’s a San Diego Charger now and that means he’s one of us.
When asked about his impressions of Manti after drafting him, Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco replied, “We did a lot of work on Te’o and I’ve seen him for a number of years. He loves football. He’s passionate about it. He loves to practice. He loves to play.” It was clear that the organization was excited to be adding Te’o to the mix. The preseason, unfortunately, was unkind to Te’o. He suffered a foot injury just a few plays into the first game, sidelining him for the rest of preseason. No games and, more importantly, no practices. There is a lot to learn as a rookie linebacker and Manti did his homework mentally, but nothing prepares a player better than being out on the practice field going through the motions- physically- with his teammates. This would set his development back significantly. Once the foot healed and Te’o was cleared to play, expectations were sky-high in San Diego. Fans expected to see him jump in and make an immediate impact. That didn’t happen. Te’o was routinely out of position, unable to disengage from blockers and looked lost in pass coverage. The lack of preseason work had taken its toll. Four or five weeks into the regular season, it was commonplace to read tweets from disgruntled fans proclaiming Te’o a “bust” and a wasted draft pick. As a coach myself, I know how important training camp is in any sport- but especially football. I held out hope that Te’o could, and would, pull it together. Secretly, however, I began to wonder if the adversity he was facing was simply going to be too much for him to overcome. Time would tell.
During the final four weeks of the regular season, throughout the Bolts’ improbable playoff push, I began to notice Manti disengaging from blockers much better. In some cases, he would put a little side-step on the incoming blocker allowing himself the ability to slide right past the block entirely. He was attacking more now and seemed in better position more of the time. Sure, there are still plays when it is obvious that he’s still a rookie out there getting his feet under him. In Sunday’s playoff win against the Bengals, however, I saw Te’o taking on 322 pound lead blocker Domata Peko with no fear! I witnessed him take the big hit from Peko, slide underneath and grab the ankle of BenJarvis Green-Ellis. Add a tackle-assist to his game log. More importantly, add a ton of respect from an excited Chargers fan base…
The future is never certain and things can change in a heartbeat, but right now- I am very excited to watch Manti Te’o continue to grow and mature into the All-Pro linebacker that Tom Telesco envisioned him to be last April!
As the Chargers prepare for a chilly playoff matchup with the Bengals this Sunday, it behooves us all to take a gander back at what transpired between these teams a month ago in San Diego. Though the weather will be immensely different than the first meeting, the players and coaches remain the same. To what extent the offensive game plans for each team change due to the sloppy weather forecast remains to be seen, but these are the PLAYOFFS…both teams will look to their “money” players regardless.
The biggest stat that jumps out at me from the first meeting is the way each team achieved their first downs. The Bolts made a total of 19 first downs: 13 through the air, 5 on the ground and 1 due to a penalty. Conversely, the Bengals achieved their 19 first downs primarily on the ground. Cincinnati racked up 13 first downs by rushing the ball while attaining 6 by way of the pass. The Chargers cannot allow the Bengals to dictate tempo by allowing BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard to consistently move the chains this Sunday. To win defensively, we must stuff the run and put Andy Dalton into known passing situations. By doing so, the Bolts can send additional pass rushers. Our cornerbacks will have a tough time keeping up with Bengal wideouts A.J. Green and Andrew Hawkins, so not allowing Dalton time to sit comfortably in the pocket is paramount to achieving more 3-and-outs.
Nearly all of the other pertinent stats from the first meeting were identical. If our offense can maintain balance, keep feeding Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead the ball and control the clock with quick high-percentage passes, the Chargers have an excellent chance of moving on to the next round of the playoffs. These two teams match up very evenly and should provide for a very exciting, down to the wire finish. What a way to start off 2014!
In the words of Philip Rivers himself…”Keep believing!”