The Chargers probably never will be confused with the Denver Broncos for their ball-hawking prowess, but they are beginning to develop a reputation.
Two defensive fumble recoveries in two consecutive weeks have led to two consecutive victories.
Are the sudden rash of fumbles by the Chargers’ opponents coincidence?
“The last two weeks we’ve really stressed turnovers and we’ve been getting them,” safety Martin Bayless said. "(Defensive coordinator) Ron Lynn has made a conscious effort to tell everybody, every day, to concentrate on creating turnovers.
“What got us here is turnovers. We can’t forget what got us here.”
When the Chargers were ranked fifth in total defense last year, they had nine fumble recoveries. With their three Sunday--Steve Hendrickson recovered a fumble on the final play--the Chargers already have eight.
Said safety Stanley Richard: “Our goal every week is four turnovers. We’re not only hitting, we’re stripping the ball. We’re just not going to let someone catch the football in the secondary and go to the ground. We’re going to try and knock the ball loose with our helmets or we’re going to strip it out.”
It’s also no coincidence that the ball is popping out more since linebacker Billy Ray Smith has returned.
Smith, who played most of the game after Henry Rolling left with an ankle injury in the first quarter, forced his second fumble in two weeks by stripping New Orleans receiver Eric Martin at the Saints’ 45 in the fourth quarter. He completed the play by recovering the fumble himself.
“Old vets are the guys that do that,” Smith said. "(New Orleans) throws a lot of things over the middle. When the opportunity presents itself, you get your hand around it to try to knock it out. That’s what we’re taught to do. Coach Lynn stressed that from the first day of training camp.”
Smith also intercepted his second pass in three games--a ball that was tipped to him by Bayless.
In the past three games, Smith has intercepted two passes, caused two fumbles and recovered a fumble. Is this the same guy that was supposed to be over-the-hill at 31?
“I may be old, but I’m not over-the- hill,” said Smith.
Smith’s big plays are not going unnoticed by his younger teammates.
“A stud like B.R. comes up with those big old plays,” linebacker Junior Seau said.
Bayless, another veteran who was supposed to be on his last legs, came up with the Chargers’ other big fumble recovery. Cornerback Sam Seale separated the ball from Saints’ running back Ken McAfee with 6:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. Bayless snatched it up and pitched it to Gill Byrd just before falling down. Byrd ran it back 12 yards.
The defense’s big plays offset a ball-control offense by the Saints that held the ball for 34 minutes and 19 seconds--the most any opponent has had the ball all season against the Chargers.
“They controlled the game for the most part,” Bayless said. “And it looked as if they were going to pretty much do what they wanted to. But we stepped up and made some plays and put them in some situations maybe they didn’t want to be in. We had some breakdowns, but we didn’t crack.
“We played well today. We made some big plays. You have to give us some credit sometimes. We get paid too.”