When the San Diego Chargers jumped up to the 12th overall pick in April's draft to pick Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews, everyone expected the Chargers running game to become the Ryan Mathews show.
So who would've seen this one coming?
Mike Tolbert, the third year undrafted rookie free agent out of Coastal Carolina, has exploded on to the scene in San Diego, and has gained a lot of popularity in the NFL for his extremely physical style of play, earning him the Human Bowling Ball moniker.
His numbers cannot be ignored. While Mathews has been eased back into his starting position after spending a game and a half on the bench with a mild high ankle sprain, Tolbert has been demolishing defenses, racking up 281 yards on 55 carries and running in three touchdowns so far this season.
There's one problem, though. When the Chargers are unable to stretch a defense, Tolbert faces a loaded box. While he is capable of running through one or two tacklers, Tolbert does get stopped by dog piles, which is what happened against the Seattle Seahawks last week.
In comes Ryan Mathews. The rookie, despite having some ball security issues, has been pretty spectacular in his rookie season so far, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He has a unique combination of speed, elusiveness, and power, which make him very deadly on outside runs and pitch plays.
So, consider these two as a combination. Mathews provides a deadly running threat to the outside. The Chargers use that to stretch a defense out, and force the linebackers and defensive ends to contain the edge.
In comes Mike Tolbert. With the defensive players cheating toward the edges, Tolbert can easily pound the ball through the defensive line and up to the second level and beyond.
The draw back of this emerging philosophy change is that it elbows out San Diego fan favorite Darren Sproles. The Lightning Bug, as he is affectionately known, was given the franchise tag this year so that he would come back and rotate in with Ryan Mathews, so that the burden on the rookie would be a little lighter.
However, Sproles has failed to completely earn the roughly $6.8 million that he is supposed to earn this year. He has had some apparent ball security problems, and he has failed to produce the big plays on offense and special teams that the Chargers have come to expect from him.
While Sproles is certainly still a talent, he is not performing well enough to avoid being demoted on the depth chart to accommodate what appears to be the deadliest running back combination in the League.
The question is, though, what about their competition? There are a few teams who could also claim to have the best running back combination in the League:
- Kansas City: The young Jamaal Charles and the veteran Thomas Jones work off of each other much like Mathews and Tolbert do. Charles has the speed and the moves to kill teams out in space, whereas Jones has the power to pick up the tough yardage. However, these two lack consistency, something that they need, considering they are a big part of helping out a lackluster Kansas City passing game.
- New York Jets: The Jets have put together another prolific rushing attack, using veteran LaDainian Tomlinson as their new feature back while Shonn Greene struggles with his sophomore slump. The two still make a great combination, though. The problem that I see is that, again, there is a lack of balance and consistency between the two backs. They are both great players, but they don't seem to complement each other well.
- Atlanta: Michael Turner and Jason Snelling headline a running back group that would scare almost any team. In fact, it's hard to make a case that they are behind Mathews and Tolbert. We'll call this one a draw. Touche, Falcons, Touche.
Mathews and Tolbert work off of each other very well, and their complementary running styles should be just what the Chargers need to keep their newly revived running game on track to finish the season as one of the best, if not the best, one-two punch in the NFL (as a point of reference, the San Diego Chargers currently rest in the tenth spot, averaging 132.2 yards per game).