Battle of the Backs

I am not talking about LT versus Jamal Lewis, even though that is a pair of the league's most explosive running backs. The backs to watch on Sunday are the San Diego Charger linebackers versus the Ravens' WCO weapons. Ben Leber, Zeke Moreno, and Donnie Edwards have to perform like a wrecking machine to contain Lewis, limit Todd Heap, and keep Billick's game plan from exploiting the leagues 29th rushing defense.

One of the culprits that allowed the Charger's defense to be run on at will has been the inability to play gap control, coupled with sound tackling. Baltimore's offensive line has opened more holes on Sunday than Krispy Kreme did all week, so the issue of stuffing the run at the line of scrimmage is essentially folly. That necessitates discipline and monstrous work on the part of the Charger's linebacker corps if they are going to keep the Ravens from delivering the final phase of a losing trifecta.

Pittsburgh limited Jamal Lewis to 69 yards rushing, while Cleveland watched him set a new league benchmark of 295 yards rushing. Part of the key to Pittsburgh's success was not allowing the Ravens to score until the 3rd quarter. Contrast that to the 10 point jump the Ravens established in their outing against the Browns. The Chargers need to take a few pages, or maybe the entire defensive playbook that the Steelers used.

The Charger defense has permitted at least one touchdown in the first quarter of their last eight games. The offense, meanwhile, hasn't scored a touchdown during that span. It is no coincidence that the Bolts are 1-7 during that span.

I broke down the Cleveland game, and of the 295 rushing yards that Lewis rang up, 237 was up the middle on 1st or 2nd downs. Zeke Moreno better eat a pallet full of Wheaties before sauntering out of the giant inflatable Charger helmet at 1:15 P.M. at the Q. Look for Billick's call sheet to feature 40/50 slide, traps including 17 power or 20 slants and draws. Moreno is going to have to have the presence to shake the blocks from Bennie Anderson and Casey Rabach, who will replace Edwin Mulitalo, at the guards, and stuff the G-T gaps.

Ben Leber is going to have to defend on Y cross routes from Todd Heap. Kyle Boller or Chris Redman are going to be working out of a three or five step drops and both QBs are typically not going to go past the short to medium targets in their progressions. Boller connected with his wide outs on 19 yard and 26 yard passes in the middle and left side respectively, but Quentin Jammer and Sammy Davis should keep those routes less traveled in man-to-man coverage.

Donnie Edwards is nursing a groin injury from the Denver drubbing, and the Ravens are going to test him. Edwards needs to handle the back side containment and provide some pop in the middle to counter the Raven's rushing plan. In addition, Edwards is going to have to help call the positions and defend against Jamal Lewis getting to the corner and breaking into the secondary. Kwamie Lassiter and Edwards are going to have to be in concert when Dale Lindsey has the Chargers in two deep zone coverage. Edwards is smart and fast enough to get the job done, but communicating and being in sync, have not developed, yet. Two other plays that Edwards is going to have to attack are: the nickel runs and Jet screens. Billick's recent game plans have busted the big rushing plays in the middle, so he has not had to call much else. If the Chargers can limit the traps and draws, then I expect rushing plays on 3rd down and screens will be the alternative since the Charger's defense has performed poorly in containment. Running backs in space has been a painful thing to watch.

If there was a game the Chargers needed the linebackers to step up and execute brilliantly, this is the game. Jamal Lewis and his offensive line have already thrown down the gauntlet, now the battle of the backs needs a loud response from the Charger's side.

Jeff Sturgis can be reached at sturgisjg@netscape.net

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