Two years after his right foot was broken, one year after his left foot was broken, three days after Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant’s right foot was cracked, Te’o moved around Chargers Park on Wednesday with a bounce to his step.
Te’o, trodding on sturdy feet and coming off his most extensive preseason, played in all 47 defensive snaps Sunday in the season-opening victory over the Detroit Lions. The only other time the NFL junior played every defensive snap, against the 49ers in Week 16 last year, starting linebacker Donald Butler was unavailable.
“He’s just a lot more comfortable within the scheme, which is what you expect,” Butler said.
As another sign things are looking up for him, Te’o on Sunday relayed coordinator John Pagano’s signals to teammates between plays. Butler and All-Pro safety Eric Weddle platooned in the role last year. Though Te’o wore the green dot last year at times and said outsiders overstate the role, the assignment reflects a level of trust.
“I can tell just from last year he has a lot more confidence out there in what he’s doing,” Chargers center Chris Watt said.
A fellow Notre Dame graduate, Watt said Te’o’s progress recalls the linebacker’s improvement in college going into his senior year, off three healthy seasons.
“I see him kind of getting more into that — just the way he plays and carries himself on the field,” Watt said.
Teo’s performance in Game 1 included a few missed tackles, but along with Butler he made subtle contributions to a pair of big plays. With Te’o and Butler bluffing blitzes between the guard and center, Chargers edge rushers Kyle Emanuel and Melvin Ingram ran in unblocked, creating a sack and an interception, respectively.
Timing and know-how are key to blitz games, and Te’o looked comfortable faking the blitz and then pivoting into coverage against speedy Lions tight end Eric Ebron as Emanuel bore down on the unsuspecting Stafford.
“The majority of the game is mental,” Te’o said. “So we’re going to do as much as we can to win the game before the ball is snapped. Yeah, I understand why we are doing some things. I think it allows the defense to do more when we all understand why we do certain things.”
Chargers inside linebackers provided almost nothing in the pressure game last year. Butler acknowledged the interactive nature of the defensive front, and that he and Te’o are further along this year due to better health.
“It’s a two-way street,” the fifth-year veteran said. “I think the front seven as a whole, whether it be a D-lineman or a linebacker, we help out each other.”
The last two Septembers, Te’o was playing catch-up. He made it back into the lineup after the foot injuries. But he had lost valuable snaps in practices and games. Thus he wasn’t the every-down linebacker General Manager Tom Telesco anticipated when he invested two draft picks in him. He played in 62.2 percent of the defense’s snaps as a rookie in 15 games. In 10 games last year, his participation rate climbed to 70 percent.
Te’o has described the foot fractures as flukes.
But when told he’s having better health luck now, he disagreed.
“I don’t believe in luck, bro,” he said.
The graduate of Leprechaun U added, “I’m an Irish guy, but I don’t believe in luck.”
He continued. “I think things happen that are meant to happen, and you understand why. So I don’t believe in luck. Everything that is supposed to happen is going to happen. It’s all about how you rebound and bounce back. I don’t believe in no luck.”
This Sunday the Chargers will be in Cincinnati to face the Bengals. They’ll play in Paul Brown Stadium for the first time since winning a Wild Card game there two Januarys ago. They will face a Bengals running game that Teo’o said is “really good” and a quarterback in Andy Dalton who “can zing” the ball.
“We understand what we are getting into,” said Te’o, who played 38 snaps in the Wild Card game. “We’ve just got to go in there and compete.”