Chargers' one, two punch

LaDainian Tomlinson's 95.3 yards per game are second most among active backs in the National Football League. Only suspension-facing Jamal Lewis has averaged more per game. He was also the first back in the AFC to pass 500 yards from scrimmage this year, yet he managed just 38 rushing yards and 30 receiving yards in the San Diego Chargers matchup with Jacksonville last year.

Jacksonville was only one of three teams to hold LaDainian Tomlinson to under 75 yards or less from scrimmage in 2003. They are also one of only three teams to hold the Chargers running back to under 50 yards rushing.

"They have some horses up front that can stop the run and rush the passer," quarterback Drew Brees said. "The more we are able to throw the ball effectively, the more they will have to drop guys back into coverage."

Is the mystique finally gone? While it is true they are allowing only 13 points per game – and that is skewed based on the 27 they gave up to Indianapolis Colts, the Jaguars are allowing 109.2 yards per game rushing, good for 16th in the league. The Chargers, by contrast, are allowing 85.2 yards rushing per game.

Yet, the Jaguars defense is the rush defense being talked about. That is because they still have the stone walls in the middle, John Henderson and Marcus Stroud.

"Stroud, Henderson, those guys take up a lot of space in there," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "They are very, very good football players. It is one of the reasons they have been ranked so high defensively."

Both are known for their ability to stuff running backs in the backfield. They also free up the middle of the field for linebacker Mike Peterson and safety Donovin Darius. Building the core.

It is similar to the design of many baseball teams. Solid defense through the middle is a sure fired way to begin building a strength of the team.

"This defense they have has been built down the middle," Schottenheimer agreed. "Outstanding middle linebacker in Peterson. Donovin Darius is one of the top safeties in the NFL. They don't try and fool you. They play physical and play with terrific energy. They are ranked third in defense scoring and it is understandable why."

And they take after their tough-nosed coach according to Schottenheimer.

But if the Chargers are looking to take the next step, it begins on Sunday. This is the best defense they will face this year. Tomlinson will play an important role. Schottenheimer said he stopped going to his star running back to early last year. That would mean a healthy dose this week.

That is if the Jaguars don't have any say.

They are ready, though. Despite the solid game from Brees last week, the Jaguars will challenge him to do it again.

"We game-plan each week for what the opponent is good at, trying to take away what they're best at," Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said. "Force them to do something they don't want to do."

Which would put the ball back in Brees' hands.

And the importance of scoring touchdowns can't be over-emphasized. The Chargers have actually performed well inside the twenty and hope the streak continues.

Teams have put yards up on the Jaguars and the Colts, of course, broke through.

"They are a solid team, bend don't break it seems," Brees said. "Teams have been able to put yards up but get down in the gold zone and get stopped or kick field goals. A big emphasis for us is when we are down there we need touchdowns and we need to take care of the football."

And if Brees pulls through, the Chargers will return to Tomlinson in style. The running back shirks no challenges. In fact, he looks forward to it.

"You want to face the good defense to see where you are," Tomlinson said with a sparkle in his eye. "Each week is a challenge to try and win a game."

A win this week will put them in good position with road games looming in the distance.

Denis Savage can be reached at denis@sandiegosports.net

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