The San Diego Chargers' resurgent running game is off to a rocky start.
The stellar Ryan Mathews has now gone six straight seasons, dating back to college, with at least one game missed because of injuries. Yes, he claims he'll be back by the start of the year, but that remains to be seen.
In his absence, Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle (when he got a carry) appeared to wearing the same lead cleats as Mike Tolbert wore last season. Curtis Brinkley was serviceable, but he'll never get a fair shake from coach Norv Turner.
The rushing attack is not back in San Diego, and neither is Vincent Jackson.
This means two things. The red-zone offense is going to be a problem, and getting into 3rd-and-short situations is going to be a problem.
The Red-Zone Problem
Antonio Gates is poised to make a return to greatness. He's expressed competitiveness at the idea that other guys like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are now being considered the elite tight ends in the league.
Gates dropped five pounds and is feeling as healthy and as light on his feet as ever. At age 32, he's moving like a young man. I've always wanted to see older players lose weight and increase their speed, but it seems to be a rarity. Kudos to Gates for making it happen.
The lighter feet will make it easier for Gates to get free of defenders faster. It's not like he's ever been out-leaped for a football, but he should have a little more spring in those ankles and toes to get up over defensive backs at an even higher rate.
Those are critical skills in the red zone. I would actually like to see Gates playing at 240 to 245 pounds, but his run blocking may suffer at that point.
The 3rd-and-Short Issue
Having an explosive running back that is going to average five yards per carry like Mathews is huge for an offense. It forces the opposing defense to look out for the run and the pass, thus limiting their ability to cheat and artificially inflate their effectiveness in one area.
It also nearly guarantees that the offense's third-down conversion rate is going to be great, because if the running back is running for solid yards on first and/or second down, there will be a 3rd-and-short situation coming up. Even teams with bad quarterbacks (Kansas City Chiefs, I'm looking at you) can work with that.
San Diego has been outstanding in this area, converting 49 percent of their third-down attempts after leading the league with 45 percent the year before. However, the New Orleans Saints were better at 57 percent!
The Short-Yardage Situation
Malcom Floyd is not a nifty wide receiver, so don't look for any screens or reverses out of him. However, he has a long stride and keeps defenders backpedaling.
When he's on fire, defenses have no choice but to double-team him. Getting that extra man out of the box is crucial, because the Chargers' pedestrian running game needs all the help it can get until Mathews makes his return.
The Chargers may struggle in short-yardage situations without Mathews, but Floyd's big plays can help them get over the hump until Mathews brings his explosive legs back into the fold.
The Injury Bug
If you take Mathews, Gates, and Floyd and bet your life that all of the Chargers' best skill players would make it through the season, you'd already be dead. None of these guys can be expected to stay healthy, but I have a feeling that they'll remain fairly healthy this season.
Gates can always be counted on to play through injury and remain effective.
Mathews will be back early in the season. He says he's a fast healer and frankly, when he's missed time due to injury he always comes back ahead of schedule.
In fact, wasn't Mathews supposed to miss the Green Bay Packers game due to injury? Maybe he should sit out the entire preseason like LaDainian Tomlinson every year.