San Diego fans got their best look at the Chargers this past Saturday as the Arizona Cardinals hosted the Chargers in Week 3 of the preseason. When all was said and done, the Bolts had secured an exciting come-from-behind victory over the Arizona Cardinals with three seconds to play.
The final score was 34-31, but the Chargers had no real business winning this game. Most of the starters played through the third quarter and had managed to dig an 11-point deficit before the backups came on to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.
When Chargers' reserve quarterback Billy Volek took over with 12:33 remaining in the game, the Bolts were on the wrong end of a 31-20 score line.
How many of you who watched the game thought the Bolts would pull the game out at that point? I know I didn’t.
But pull it out they did.
The turning point came with 8:24 remaining in the fourth quarter when rookie defensive end Corey Liuget stripped the ball from Cardinals’ running back William Powell as he was getting the handoff from quarterback Richard Bartel at the Arizona seven-yard line. The ball bounded backwards to the end zone, where linebacker Darryl Gamble fell on it for a Chargers touchdown.
The defense held the Cards the next possession, and the Bolts got the ball back on their own 10-yard line with 3:11 to play. Volek then led the team 90 yards on a 12-play drive that was capped with a 14-yard pass to Bryan Walters with three seconds to play, giving the Chargers a most unexpected last-minute victory.
While the game ended in a glorious fashion, it didn't start off that way. In a previous article, I had stated the Chargers needed to show they could stop the run above all else.
This they did not do.
The Cardinals ran the ball 25 times for 167 yards and an unacceptable 6.7 yard average. They managed six rushing plays of 10 yards or more and seemed to move the ball at will over the ground.
To say that is alarming is the understatement of the preseason.
I’ll go on record right now by stating the rush defense is the Chargers biggest problem this year—by far. If things don’t tighten up, there will be no playoffs for the Bolts for the second straight year.
I know some people will say, "But look, the Chargers haven't played all of their starting linebackers together once so far this preseason. Give them a break."
To these people, I ask: if not now, when? At what point will the Chargers decide it's time to play the starters together? Will it be against the San Francisco 49ers or will they wait until opening day against the Minnesota Vikings?
Exactly when is the defense supposed to gel into the lean, mean, fighting machine we all hope it will be? Frankly, I am very worried about the Chargers defense at this point.
Another issue I brought up in that earlier piece was the quality of Ryan Mathews’ contributions to the Chargers running game.
Mathews carried 10 times for 69 yards against the Cards with a 6.9-yard average. He even broke one run for 48 yards, but he also fumbled early in the game.
His numbers are a mixed bag, but they are mostly on the positive side, I suppose. If you take away that one long run, Mathews made nine other carries for 21 yards and a 2.3-yard average.
Mike Tolbert’s contributions were better, also, as he wasn’t trying to round the corner in this game. When he is set to barrel straight up the middle, he is at his best. Tolbert doesn't juke past people, he runs over them. I was glad to see some of that against the Cardinals.
The news that Stephen Cooper was gone for the season with a torn bicep seems to have been premature, as he was seen on a few plays, as was Antonio Gates. In limited action (his first of the preseason), Gates caught two passes for 18 yards and one touchdown.
That has to be the best news of all coming out of this game for the Chargers. The Bolts really need the threat of Gates over the middle this year to keep the opponent's linebackers a step off of San Diego's ball-carriers.
Liuget and Gamble made solid contributions again. While Liuget’s starting role is all but guaranteed, Gamble is fighting for a roster spot. He may still be destined for the practice squad, but he is making as good a case as anyone to stay with the big club. His name just keeps popping up.