|PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Lights on again for sackmaster 'Lights Out' Merriman|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 06 December 2007 14:00|
When the San Diego Chargers' maniacal All-Pro outside linebacker said during training camp he was going to back off his ``Lights Out'' persona for a while, he was the only one who truly thought he could pull it off.
Seriously, though, who would have believed the guy who led the NFL with 17 sacks last year, while playing in only 12 games, was suddenly going to shut down the adrenaline rush, sack his spasmodic dance and act normal?
``Honestly, I must have fooled myself,'' Merriman said. ``My teammates came to me and said, 'That's not you.' My family, my grandmother, when she heard about it, she was (mad). Oh man, my grandmother was furious because she said, 'That's not you.'
``I've never been like that, so why start now?'' Merriman added. ``If some people don't like it, they're going to have to deal with it.''
Sure enough, the sack dance was back by the fourth game, when Merriman got his third sack.
But the sacks weren't coming at the same clip as last year. That, of course, raised some eyebrows because Merriman served a four-game suspension in 2006 after testing positive for steroids.
The lights appear to be back on again for ``Lights Out,'' who got his nickname for his punishing hits. After going four games without dropping a quarterback, he's had four sacks in two games, including three in last Sunday's win at Kansas City to push his total to 9 1/2. He can become the sixth player in NFL history to get 10 or more sacks in his first three seasons; his career total is 36 1/2.
``He's had some big, big-time hits,'' coach Norv Turner said. ``He's going to continue to have them because when he brings it, it's full force.''
Inconsistent in Turner's first season, the Chargers needed Merriman's persona back.
``We feed off that,'' said fellow outside linebacker Shaun Philips. ``We need that adrenaline and emotion on our team to give us that spark we need.''
Merriman, whose sack celebration includes pretending to flick a switch tattooed on his forearm, has been asked plenty about his numbers being down. He almost takes it as a compliment.
``Damn, I didn't know 9 1/2 sacks is a horrible year,'' he said with a laugh.
He's had his share of frustrations.
``You can ask some of the best defensive players in the league. It's tough to come out and have 17 sack-seasons every year,'' he said. ``If someone consistently had 17 sacks a year, offensive coordinators would get fired. 'What in the world do we do with this guy? Why can't we block him?' That's impossible to happen.''
Three weeks ago, Merriman suffered the ultimate indignity when he was blocked on his rear end by Jacksonville's 5-foot-7 Maurice Jones-Drew. Merriman had just one tackle in the loss, then questioned some of his teammates' commitment. He backed off the next day after watching the game film.
Quarterback Philip Rivers knows what Merriman's up against. Rivers compared the linebacker's season to that of All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who in consecutive games went from having two touchdowns among his six catches to having just a single catch, for a 1-yard loss.
Rivers' point is that even if Gates isn't having the ball thrown his way, he's at least occupying a defender - or, most likely, two - and allowing others to step up. It's the same with Merriman.
``No question, he's having a huge year,'' Rivers said. ``That means those guys are worrying about him, because if you have him singled up, he's usually going to win. So obviously that means doubling him or running away from him. It's something they're doing. It's not that he's a descending player, that's for sure.''
Rivers has known about Merriman's intensity since he was at North Carolina State and the linebacker was at Maryland. Rivers has a newspaper photograph taped to his locker, showing him on his backside while Merriman celebrates. Another photo, which has made the rounds on the Internet, shows the two jawing facemask-to-facemask just a moment later.
``I do know that we're both very similar. It's just our fierce competitiveness,'' Rivers said. ``He hates to lose more than anything and loves to play the game.''
Merriman doesn't spend a lot of time overanalyzing everything.
``Sometimes we'll be talking about the game, 'Hey, we're going to try to do this, y'all be ready,' and he just says, 'I don't care, just let me play. Hurry up and score,' `` Rivers said. ``Obviously he wants us to do well, but he just loves to play.''
The Chargers can clinch the AFC West title on Sunday if they win at Tennessee and the Denver Broncos lose at home to Kansas City.
Titans quarterback Vince Young got a little taste of Merriman last year when he mopped up in a 40-7 loss at San Diego.
``The guys and him roughed me up a little bit,'' Young said. ``He's all over the place. You have to keep your eye on him and make sure our protection schemes and things like that can hold him up and got the right man and right matchup on him blocking him up.''
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
``He's really good,'' said Titans defensive tackle Randy Starks, a teammate of Merriman's at Maryland. ``He's too big just to block with a running back, but he's too quick to stick an offensive lineman on him, so that creates a lot of problems for the offense.''
Turner knows it's been harder for Merriman this season, ``but the great guys have had to go through that. To still have the production he's having, that's what's impressive.
``I think he's relentless,'' Turner added. ``He just keeps going. He works hard. He's like the great players - he wants to be the force. He wants to change a game.''
Merriman is just as relentless raising money for his favorite charities through his Lights On Foundation. On Monday night he hosted a bowling party, his second major fundraiser this year. Proceeds will go to groups that work with the homeless and to victims of October's wildfires.
Merriman, who like several other Chargers had to evacuate their homes during the fires, would like to buy a pickup truck for a volunteer fire department he became acquainted with.
Having been in and out of homeless shelters as a child, including twice due to fires, Merriman knows where help is needed.
``It kind of like builds a foundation for you that you've been there, you've seen it, you kind of know what people need,'' he said. ``It was an easy transition to go and help somebody else, even have a conversation with them about it and still be able to relate to them.''
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville contributed to this story.