With just two games left in the preseason, the San Diego Chargers take their show on the road to the University of Phoenix Stadium to face the Arizona Cardinals. In what should be the most telling game so far, the Bolts will need to prove they can stop the run above all else.
The Cards have averaged just over 100 yards rushing in their first two games and look to feature Alfonso Smith and Beanie Wells. The two running backs have carried 34 times for 135 yards with a 4.0-yard average so far in the preseason.
The biggest news out of the Chargers camp this week has to be the season-ending injury to Stephen Cooper. With Cooper gone, the depth at the linebacker position is also gone.
Now is the time for Takeo Spikes and Larry English to step up and make a difference in the Chargers’ backfield. Shaun Phillips and Travis LaBoy have failed to record a single tackle in the Chargers’ prior two games. That must change against the Cardinals.
If the Bolts defense can keep the Cards rushing attack to under four yards a carry, it should be considered successful. Anything over that mark will be worrisome.
The Chargers’ defensive linemen can help defend the run as well. It would be great to see Antonio Garay, Luis Castillo or Corey Liuget disrupt a few rushing plays in the backfield. To me, that is a true litmus test for a solid rush defense.
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The rest of the defensive unit seems to be performing well. There have been a few blown assignments on some passing plays, but no more than what would be expected after two games and a lockout. Aside from staying away from injuries, the secondary doesn’t have much to worry about at this point.
If head coach Norv Turner hasn’t explained this to his running backs or himself yet, then he needs to reiterate that Mathews is the speed back and Tolbert is strictly a north-south runner.
If we see any more plays designed for Tolbert to go outside, Turner needs to be benched.
If Tolbert has to bounce to the outside because there are no holes for him to run through, then the offensive line is either failing to do their job, or simply aren’t good enough to do it.
Either that or once again, the blame falls on Turner, as the play itself lacks creativity or has been telegraphed to the opposition.
In general, however, when the Chargers line up with Tolbert in the backfield, chances are high that the play will be Tolbert up the middle. Defenses can key on this and make it very tough on the Chargers.
That’s why Mathews is so vital.
He does have the speed to get outside. A healthy and effective Mathews will keep defenses honest and open up the passing game as well.
Turner may say the Chargers will rush by committee this year, but in truth, the job is wide open for Mathews. It’s his for the taking; let’s hope he's up to the challenge.
Another burning question for the Chargers is the never-ending saga of Antonio Gates and his painful right foot.
It's very likely that Gates won’t see any action this week against the Cardinals and will remain sidelined until the Chargers face the Minnesota Vikings on opening day. Reports from camp indicate that he is practicing well and will be ready for that game.
Gates is irreplaceable, yet the jury is still out on whether the Bolts will have to find a replacement for him this year. If he can’t go, it will be a huge blow to the Chargers’ chances for a successful postseason run.