Ryan Mathews: Chargers' RB Key to Offense Upon Return from Injury

Ethan GrantAnalyst ISeptember 14, 2012

SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 27:  Runningback Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers runs against the Denver Broncos during their NFL Game on November 27, 2011 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The San Diego Chargers got their first victory of the 2012 season with defense and special teams blunders by the Oakland Raiders. The 22-14 victory was not indicative of how the offense played, though, and Ryan Mathews' absence played a big part.

Wide receiver Eddie Royal is currently leading the team in rushing. Curtis Brinkley and Ronnie Brown managed all of 17 yards on 15 carries against the Raiders' defense.

Oakland has experienced a resurgence on defense, no doubt, but San Diego is hurting without Mathews. Without the turnover-free game from Philip Rivers and Oakland's backup long snapper hitting infield grounders to his punter, this could have been a very different ballgame.

San Diego got the ball in position to score on almost all of their second-half drives. Their 22 points didn't come on big plays or the offense effectively moving the ball, but off Rivers and Antonio Gates just missing each other and having to settle for five Nate Kaeding field goals.

Mathews is the key to this offense's returning to form.

He opens up the gaps downfield for Rivers, one of the NFL's true gunslingers, to operate. Sure, the timing was off with his receivers. But give Rivers time to mesh with new lead dog Malcolm Floyd and complementary receivers Royal and Robert Meachem, and this could once again be considered an elite offense.

Right now, it doesn't seem like Mathews can stay on the field long enough to make an impact. He missed most of training camp and underwent surgery August 10 after breaking his clavicle on the first preseason carry of the season.

This third NFL season could be a make-or-break one for the young RB. LeSean McCoy broke through last year in his third try. Adrian Peterson had over 1800 yards of total offense during his third season.

And it's not as if Mathews isn't producing on the field when he's healthy. His sophomore campaign concluded with over 1500 yards of total offense, including over 1000 on the ground. His six touchdowns are indicative of goal lineback Mike Tolbert taking carries away the past few years around pay dirt.

Rivers hits a rough patch every season. Heck, all QBs do. Good running backs with big play potential like Mathews take the pressure of the passer. And the pressure is on to win now in San Diego.

Bad luck or not, Mathews has to stay on the field to help the Chargers. They didn't sign Brown and keep Brinkley around to carry the ball 15 times per game. They used a first-round pick on Mathews, and the offense is built around the one-back sets that allow him to find gaps and hit top speed very quickly.

After sitting out Week 1, Mathews was cleared for contact yesterday and is questionable this week against the Tennessee Titans. Keep checking back with Bleacher Report for the latest updates on his injury status and if he'll be able to go this week.

If he can't go, I'll take the Titans in the upset, considering they get back big weapon Kenny Britt and still have someone named Chris Johnson in the backfield.

Strangely enough, Mathews might be the savior to Norv Turner's job in San Diego. If he has a big year, the Chargers should compete with every team in the AFC, and challenge Denver for divisional supremacy.