Chargers Review: Running Back

Seeing Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson fight through obvious pain and contribute on a weekly basis defined how much he means to the San Diego Chargers. His livelihood is predicated on the health of his legs, groin and torso. When that equation is thrown into a flux, there simply is no way to go at 100 percent, but damn if Tomlinson didn't try.

Through four healthy games, LaDainian Tomlinson had rushed for 415 yards – a pace that would have put him at 1,660 yards and on par with his previous two seasons.

Over the next five games, Tomlinson gained just 274 yards, or 54.8 yards per game. It was due to a groin injury that took away his explosion – but he still made it onto the field every single week and did his best to compete.

"When it comes to sitting out or trying to play, I am always going to play," Tomlinson said.

In each of those five games, Tomlinson scored a touchdown, adding to his mystique. He ended the year with touchdown runs in 12 straight games, before getting shut out in the playoffs.

Part of the success since he arrived on the NFL scene is his ability to dodge the big hit. It is not quite Marvin Harrison-esque – the Indianapolis receiver who thrives on going to the turf before getting hit – but Tomlinson has a way of contorting his body so he does not take direct hits.

Tomlinson attributes that to his height and running style.

"You can hide behind offensive lineman at times and just being so low to the ground, it is hard for people to get a clean shot on you," he admitted.

The Pro Bowl back knew enough to take himself out of the game if the going was too rough, something that happened numerous times during the middle of the season.

Tomlinson simply wants to win and while he was not ready to completely take himself out of the game, he realized there were moments that his backup, Jesse Chatman, could also be effective.

"The only thing important to him is this football team," head coach Marty Schottenheimer said.

The biggest hindrance from the injury was his ability to make sharp cuts and get that burst through the hole. Known for his ability to take it to the house on any play, he was limited to six runs of twenty yards or more. In each of the past two seasons, Tomlinson has had twelve runs of twenty or more yards and even as a rookie he managed seven such runs.

He also couldn't reach the corner as easily and that put more pressure on the offensive line with runs contained between the tackles. When the gap was there, Tomlinson was a split-second late in getting through where in the past he was barely touched.

"You have to adjust to it," Tomlinson said of the injury. "You have to go at it a different way. That means doing straight down hill pounding and not trying to make as many cuts because it's not working for you."

He returned to form after the bye week, registering 37 carries against Oakland but while the injury wasn't talked about it was something that affected him the rest of the season.

Through all the pain, Tomlinson still managed to score 17 times on the ground, tops in the league and his 18 touchdowns overall placed him in second in the NFL. He finished the year with 1,335 yards rushing on 339 carries. He also caught 53 passes, his lowest reception total through his four year career, for 441 yards.

For all the talk on his 3.9 yards per carry total, Tomlinson averaged 4.5 yards per carry when the ball was anywhere on the field but the inside the red zone. His 2.3 yard per carry average in that area brought down his overall production. Some of that was playcalling and other runs were touchdowns from one or two yards out. Nineteen rushes came from less than two yards from the end zone and nine of those turned into touchdowns.

It may surprise to hear that Tomlinson was most effective in pro formation sets. His I-formation average was just 3.1 yards per carry while he gained 4.5 yards per touch in the pro set.

Posting 1,776 yards from scrimmage isn't a bad season.

"He is a pretty unbelievable running back," center Nick Hardwick marveled.

The other area that Tomlinson exerted himself in was as a team leader. He stepped up to defend teammates and show the type of character he possesses. It started with him signing a long-term extension in the face of a 4-12 season. He believed in the team and the chemistry being built and was finally rewarded.

"We have some young players, some really talented players," Tomlinson added. "We have two first-rounders in this years draft; we're better as a football team here."

Like Tomlinson, Jesse Chatman battled his own injury throughout the year. Limited in practice because of a toe injury, Chatman suited up each and every week and provided a great alternative to the starter.

During the time Tomlinson was at his worst, Chatman logged 41 carries over the five game span and gained an impressive 301 yards rushing, including a 103-yard effort against Jacksonville.

"When you lose a guy like Tomlinson and then his backup comes in and rushes for over 100 yards, that's pretty telling," Atlanta head coach Jim Mora said.

"Jesse answered the bell for us," Schottenheimer added. "There are certain blocking schemes he is very effective in. He can find cracks in the defense."

Chatman found more than cracks, he found crevices to run through and was rewarded with the most carries in his career.

Chatman has had difficulties maintaining his weight and it is a topic that Schottenheimer was cognizant of but the third year back still had the ability to hit the open field and run away from defenders.

His ability to provide a solid backup for Tomlinson limited the opportunities received by their fifth round draft pick from 2004, Michael Turner.

Nicknamed "The Burner", Turner made one meaningful appearance in the offense during the finale against Kansas City. He tallied 15 carries for 87 yards that day with an explosive 30-yard gain on his first rush of the day. He also added a 26-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. He did, however, fumble once after catching a ball out of the backfield.

He ended the year with 104 yards rushing and his opportunities in '05 don't figure to grow a whole lot with Chatman ahead of him on the depth chart.

Lightning Quicks:

Would you believe that Tomlinson had 80 rush attempts with one receiver on the field? Isn't that equivalent to throwing him in the fire? He averaged 2.8 yards per carry in such situations.

Denis Savage can be reached at denis@sandiegosports.net


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