Chargers' Run Game Lost in Witness Protection

Michael Scarr@@scarrpmContributor INovember 10, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 08:  LaDainian Tomlinson #21 of the San Diego Chargers rushes against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium on November 8, 2009 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

It hasn’t quite gone the way of the flying wedge, but it’s getting close.

If it were a television episode, it would require an update on the fate of the courageous heroes. Out on the town on a Saturday night, and there would be no need for it to avoid publicity seekers, gawkers, or paparazzi.

It’s the Chargers running game, and while not yet extinct, it’s about as effective as a leather helmet.

A once proud unit that featured LaDainian Tomlinson chewing up yards and spitting out touchdowns behind the human blocking sled of Lorenzo Neal is now an afterthought which can barely break the line of scrimmage.

Where game sheets once revealed stats like 192 now are barely visible with numbers like 22.

That 192, you may ask, was LT’s rushing total against the Giants in 2005. Of course, that was under the cloud-of-dust style of head coach Marty Schottenheimer and a season in which a younger-legs Tomlinson gained more than 1,400 yards on the ground and produced 18 rushing touchdowns.

In the Chargers’ 21-20 victory at the Meadowlands on Sunday, Tomlinson’s 22 was the leading output for a ground game that generated a total of 34 yards. LT didn't even have the biggest run of the game: that honor went to quarterback Philip Rivers, who got loose for 15 yards in the fourth quarter.

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The Chargers’ running game is less about keeping the opposing defense honest and more of a reminder they actually might hand it off now and then.

Out of 53 total plays, the Chargers ran the ball 15 times against the Giants on Sunday. LT had 12 carries while Darren Sproles and Rivers each rushed one time. Oh yeah, there was also the poorly executed end-around by Vincent Jackson that resulted in a four-yard loss.

That came on a third and five and brought punter Mike Scifres out to kick the ball away—twice. The first was a beauty that would have pinned the Giants at their own two, but was erased by Mike Tolbert’s holding penalty.

In eight games this season, the Chargers have eclipsed the 100-yard rushing plateau in just two contests, and that came in recent back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Raiders. They have not had a 100-yard rusher yet this season, with the high being a 71-yard output by Tomlinson at home against Oakland.

An intriguing shift in that game was the wildcat formation, dubbed “Wild Frog” in reference to LT’s Horned Frog days at TCU. Tomlinson scored from six yards out in that game as the Raiders looked confused.

But the wild frog remained buried in the playbook against the Giants.

It is impossible to say whether or not that would have breathed life into their virtually non-existent ground game, which is dead last in the NFL in yards rushing per game and yards rushing per attempt.

For LT, it is tough to accept those figures, but his perspective extends beyond statistics.

"Sometimes, for selfish reasons, I want to have a good game," Tomlinson told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I want to have 100 yards; I want to have a touchdown. Sometimes it doesn't work like that. Yeah, I'm going to look back and feel disappointed because I didn't have the numbers. But at the end of the day, we won the game."

"Things have changed. We haven't had the kind of rhythm in the running game we're used to having," said Tomlinson, who had his third lowest career rushing day. "It's disappointing. At the same time, we're 5-3 and I'm going to keep playing hard."

Winning essentially renders all stats meaningless, and Rivers is doing his share to keep fantasy owners happy. All three Charger touchdowns were the end result of strikes by Rivers, one to tight end Kris Wilson and a pair to Jackson, including the game-winner with 21 seconds left showing on the game clock.

With Rivers in the pocket, the Chargers will be in every game they play this season—a campaign they’re looking to extend into January.

Credit also must go to a once-on-its-heels defensive unit that has hit back in the last couple of games, as coordinator Ron Rivera has begun to unleash his safeties in a variety of blitzing packages. Contributing, too, has been Shawne Merriman who has four sacks this season, but all in the last two games.

It was Merriman, who shut down a Giants drive with four minutes to go in the fourth quarter by sacking Eli Manning. He struck again with a sack of Manning to end the game.

But putting each game entirely in the hands of Rivers will make it difficult for the Chargers to grind out the minimum five and possibly as many as seven victories needed to make the playoffs. Their rematch in Denver in two weeks will be against a squad that was rated No. 1 in total defense through Sunday.

Up next on the schedule are the Eagles, who are 10th in the league in total defense.

At some point, they will have to run the ball, as just two rushes for first downs on Sunday (and that includes Rivers’ scramble) would indicate. Center Nick Hardwick is practicing, and he will help, but no date has been set for his return from ankle surgery.

It may be as simple as will and effort from two proven game-changers in Tomlinson and Sproles.

But for the pair of Chargers running backs, who currently are as productive as two dudes in an empty bus station, getting them out front with the football will be necessary at some point if the team wants to make a run to Miami.