The league's most talked about second-round pick is about to make his debut for the San Diego Chargers. According to Kevin Acee of UT San Diego, inside linebacker Manti Te'o is on track to play Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
Te'o has been nursing a foot injury since the preseason, and his return couldn't come at a better time for the Chargers. San Diego's defense has been gouged for a league-worst 7.0 yards per play this season and has forced only one turnover.
Quarterback Philip Rivers is off to a great start, but it's not translating to wins because of the defense.
In theory, getting a projected defensive starter back from injury will help, but Te'o is also a rookie, so expecting a great performance on the stat sheet is probably too much to ask.
While it may not reflect on Te'o's stat line, his presence should help his teammates—especially fellow inside linebacker Donald Butler. It's important to remember that Te'o will likely be the linebacker who comes off the field in nickel situations, so his impact may be somewhat limited.
“That’s definitely what a defense wants to do is keep the points down and get the ball back,” said Te’o (via the Associated Press). “But I can’t promise you anything other than trying to help the team win.”
Te'o will also have to be significantly better than his primary replacements, who haven't been bad through the first three weeks. Bront Bird and Andrew Gachkar have filled in nicely for Te'o, especially in run support. If Te'o's replacements were a disaster, his return might have a more profound impact on the defense.
Although Bird and Gachkar haven't been bad, there is something to be said for a player who makes those around them better. Te'o's replacements may be doing fine, but the pressure has shifted to some of the other players on defense.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Eric Weddle has missed a team-high eight tackles this season, and only Corey Liuget has a worse run defense grade on the team. Weddle missed just nine tackles all of last year. He needs only five more to tie his career high.
Butler has been exposed in the passing game, which could be because he's more concerned with the running game without Te'o next to him. Pro Football Focus has given him a minus-2.1 grade for his work without Te'o in Weeks 1 and 2. (He missed Week 3 with an injury.)
There's a saying some coaches have that they only want players to do their job, not try to do someone else's job or make up for the another player's deficiencies. This saying exists because players—even very good ones—try to do too much, and that hinders their performance.
If you are trying to do someone else's job, you probably aren't doing yours well.
It's surprising to see Weddle and Butler struggling, and the only explanation is that they are trying to make up for the weaknesses of others.
In Weddle's case, he's a free safety who has been heavily involved in run support. He has always been heavily involved in run support, but if his teammates aren't doing their jobs, that makes his job harder. Instead of being the second guy in to finish the play, he has been the first or maybe only guy there.
Te'o might not make a ton of impact plays himself, but he should free up his teammates to make more plays. If he plays well, it can impact Butler, Weddle and even Dwight Freeney.
In most cases, the Chargers want Freeney rushing the quarterback and not worried about the run. If they can trust Te'o to set the edge in the run game on that side, Freeney can sell out to get to the quarterback.
Football is a team sport, so adding one piece of the puzzle can make a big difference.
On any given play, Te'o could be asked to cover the flat, the hook or the middle of the field in zone coverage or fill a number of gaps along the defensive front in run support. If he is good in run support, he'll get a few tackles, but he'll also make things a lot easier for Butler and the safeties who are filling the run behind him.
If Te'o is good in pass coverage, there will probably be an extra man who can blitz Tony Romo or who can provide help over the top in coverage. Te'o seems to have a good feel for zone coverage, but this is probably the greatest concern for the Chargers against the Cowboys.
Jason Witten is one of the best tight ends in the league. Te'o could struggle if the Cowboys target him. Don't be surprised if the Cowboys attack him in coverage by having Witten run option routes in the center of the field. The safeties may be preoccupied giving over-the-top help on Dez Bryant, which could leave Te'o vulnerable.
Overall, Te'o's return should help the entire defense, and it should be apparent against the Cowboys.
Te'o is an intelligent football player, which should ease his transition. However, Te'o's isn't going to change the fact that the defensive line isn't playing well and that the secondary is struggling to cover just about everyone.
Given that the Cowboys might be the best offense the Chargers have faced so far this season, Te'o's impact may not even be noticeable. The Chargers didn't draft him to not help their defense, but—even if the stats aren't next to his name or the defense continues to struggle as a whole—he will.