With its ranks thinned by an arrest and then an unexpected surgery, the San Diego Chargers' defense, statistically ranked first in the league overall and first versus the pass, will be forced to shuffle its secondary for Sunday's game against the undefeated Baltimore Ravens.
The Chargers lost starting strong safety Terrence Kiel on Tuesday when the four-year veteran was arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration officials for allegedly shipping codeine-based cough syrup to Texas, his state of residence. Kiel, who faces five felony counts, will miss at least Sunday's game, but will be paid by the team.
Club officials hope that Kiel, who has started 48 games in his career, will return to practice next week.
Compounding the situation is the news that Bhawoh Jue, the Chargers' top backup safety and a player who started 14 games at free safety in 2005, underwent Tuesday arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. It is the second surgery on the knee since the end of last season and, while it is likely Jue will miss only a couple weeks, there is no set timetable for his return.
That means fourth-year veteran Clinton Hart, whose resume includes 14 starts, will move into the lineup. Hart will play strong safety and Marlon McCree, arguably San Diego's highest profile veteran acquisition in the offseason, will stay at free safety. Had Jue been healthy, he probably would have played free safety, with McCree moving to strong safety, where he lined up for the Carolina Panthers in 2005.
Hart, 29, is coming off a solid preseason, one in which he challenged for a starting job.
"I've got something to prove, that's the way I look at it," said Hart, a physical hitter who started three games at free safety and two games at strong safety last season. "This is my opportunity. I'm going to play with a little chip on my shoulder and try to prove I belong."
In 48 appearances, including 14 starts, Hart has 98 tackles, one sack, two interceptions and two passes defensed. He began his career with the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Chargers claimed him on waivers in 2004, and he has been a solid contributor in nickel and dime packages and on special teams.
The San Diego secondary held a unit meeting on Wednesday in which players stressed the importance of overcoming the losses of Kiel and Jue, and of not allowing their absences to create a distraction.
"We have to make that fist a little tighter," Hart said. "Kiel is still our [guy] and we are supporting him 100 percent. We've got a big game this week, and that is our focus. We are going to let everything else just take care of itself."