Passing grade

There will be a new starting cornerback trotting onto the field on Sunday when the San Diego Chargers play the Carolina Panthers. His presence, however, doesn't reflect the heart of this team and the reason they are 3-3. <br><br> The Chargers have been able to stay in games because of their run defense.

The Chargers rush defense leads the AFC and ranks second in the League, allowing just 85.7 yards per contest.

Conversely, there have been several reasons the Panthers have struggled to find consistency in their running game and one of the primary considerations has been the opposition. Sunday's contest will mark the fourth consecutive game that Carolina has faced a run defense ranked among the top 10 of the NFL.

Since the end of last season, much has changed along the offensive line. Left guard Jeno James signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Miami Dolphins, left tackle Todd Steussie was released and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and right guard Kevin Donnalley retired. In addition, right tackle Jordan Gross moved to left tackle, leaving only Mitchell in the same spot he was a year ago.

"It is really difficult when you have to redo an offensive line," Chargers' coach Marty Schottenheimer admits. "We're right in the middle of it right now also, and everything revolves around the offensive line. I think it is extremely difficult when you are doing that."

And now the word is doubtful in Carolina as Stephen Davis has been downgraded on the injury report. With DeShaun Foster already out for the game, the running duties would fall to Brad Hoover.

Hoover has carried the ball 17 times on the season for 83 yards. His yards per carry are high at 4.9, but his 290 yard season in 2000 was the highest total of his career and he has 594 total rushing yards in his career – including his stats from this year.

Carolina will remain committed to the running game, much as the Chargers are to stopping it.

The Bolts believe their success against the run is the reason they have been able to stay close in games and pull out victories in others. It is a similar strategy that many teams employ against the Chargers.

It feels good to be on the other side of the coin.

"They are definitely going to run the ball," said Donnie Edwards. "Carolina is committed to running the ball so we will have a challenge again this week. We are going to have to stop them – make it one-sided like we have the past few weeks."

The Chargers haven't allowed any back to rush for over 64 yards against them over the past four games. Stout as a good beer.

"We have to go out and stop the run," Randall Godfrey agreed. "If we can control their running game and keep our offense on the field, we have a good shot."

They realize that the Panthers will be clawing – backed in a corner at 1-4 and likely without their vest running back. That won't make the Bolts change tactics.

It doesn't matter who is toting the rock, the Bolts remain steadfast in their belief that if they stop the run they greatly reduce the chances of success.

Then they will have to deal with Jake Delhomme, the Panthers quarterback. Compared to a two-pronged attack, the Bolts prefer dealing with the passing attack. It isn't that they have played that well against the pass but stopping the run will make the vertical passing game much harder to accomplish.

On Carolina's side of the ball, Delhomme has taken a leadership role and accepts the blame, especially after a four interception outing last week.

"We're not getting it done, especially offensively, and it has to fall on the quarterback," Delhomme said. "I just felt extremely good about what we were going to do out here, but it's just not happening."

What is happening is the Chargers run defense continually stepping up to the plate and winning the battle of the trenches. Another win this week and a road victory may be the reward.

Denis Savage can be reached at

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