Chargers-Ravens Game-day Primer

The Chargers and Ravens are mirror images of each other. Both share the same weaknesses: turnover-prone quarterbacks, inefficient offenses and injury-plagued defenses. They also share strengths: elite running backs, powerful linebackers and dominant special teams. Who will crack as both squads fight for their playoff lives?


LaDainian Tomlinson is more comfortable running at home; he's averaged 104.2 yards in the Chargers' five home games this season. He will be running with extra incentive as well, as he is 29 yards shy of becoming the 23rd player in NFL history to reach 10,000 rushing yards. That elite club has been expanding in recent weeks, with Fred Taylor joining on Nov. 11 and Warrick Dunn on Nov. 22.

L.T. will have his work cut out against a Baltimore Ravens run defense that ranks second in the league, allowing 77.4 yards per game. The defense is anchored up front by Haloti Ngata, a former teammate of Igor Olshansky at Oregon, and Kelly Gregg, an underrated two-gap player. Those two gobble up blockers and allow Ray Lewis and Bart Scott to rack up the tackles -- so far, they've combined for 154.

"All I care about is playing and winning," Gregg said. "That's it. I play for my teammates and my coaches. As long as they think I'm doing a good job, that's all I care about."

Tomlinson will be hard-pressed to gain much real estate up the middle, despite the possible return of Nick Hardwick. Even if Hardwick is back in action, he is still not at 100 percent. Instead, the Chargers will attack the edges and work to get L.T. the ball in space, both as a runner and receiver. The Chargers have waned from their early-season reliance on runs to the left and are now attacking both sides of the line with equal effectiveness, largely because of the improving play of RT Shane Olivea.

WR Craig Davis
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty


Philip Rivers looks to post back-to-back 300-yard games for the first time in his career. If he is successful in that endeavor, it will also mark his first 300-yard passing game at Qualcomm Stadium. Rivers struggled some against the Jacksonville Jaguars, hitting on 55 percent of his passes and throwing two fourth-quarter interceptions. However, he did a nice job of moving the offense and getting everybody involved, connecting with seven players by day's end.

The offensive line is holding up well in pass protection, allowing only five sacks in the last seven games. There is still too much pressure coming up the middle, and that more than anything else is causing Rivers' regressive season. When Rivers lacks a clean pocket or is forced to throw on the run, his accuracy goes down substantially. The Ravens are middle-of-the-pack in terms of applying pressure. They have 22 sacks on the season, led by Terrell Suggs' four. DE Trevor Pryce, who is tied for second with two sacks, was placed on the injured-reserve list earlier this week with a torn pectoral muscle.

The Chargers' receiving corps is stepping up to shoulder some of the burden. Chris Chambers is coming off his best game as a Charger (four catches, 93 yards) and is building chemistry with Rivers. Craig Davis caught three balls for a season-high 39 yards last week; he appears over the ankle injury that limited him for several weeks. Legedu Naanee has caught multiple passes in three consecutive games and is the go-to receiver on third-and-short. Vincent Jackson must be more aggressive going after the ball but remains a downfield threat.

The Ravens are optimistic they can contain the Chargers' receivers. Baltimore will have both Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister in the starting lineup for the first time since week two. That will provide a big spark to a defense with only four interceptions from the cornerback position. Corey Ivy slides back into his role as nickel back.

The increasing involvement of San Diego's receivers correlates with Antonio Gates' three-game slump. He has only eight catches for 90 yards and a touchdown over the last three games. After posting three 100-yard games in the first five weeks, he has not hit that number since. He will have to work against FS Ed Reed, an aggressive ball-hawk who is battling neck and back injuries. Reed is expected to play.

DE Jacques Cesaire
Stephen Dunn/Getty


RB Willis McGahee is quietly having a terrific season. He comes into Sunday's game ranked fourth in the league with 851 yards rushing, 76 yards more than Tomlinson. McGahee owns the unique distinction of having out-rushed every opposing back the Ravens have faced this season. He credits his career renaissance to his move to Baltimore.

"I got a warm welcome here," McGahee said. "I love the people in the organization, my teammates and the city. It's very different here. Once they are with you, they are with you. That's what I love about this organization and the city of Baltimore."

McGahee will have a couple of rookies leading the way for him. RT Marshal Yanda appears set replace Adam Terry in the starting lineup. Either way, Yanda is going to see significant playing time. Joining McGahee in the backfield is FB Le'Ron McClain, the premier blocking fullback from this year's draft.

Yanda will square off against Ryon Bingham and Jacques Cesaire, who are still subbing for Luis Castillo on the left side. The Chargers' top priority is to stop McGahee and force QB Kyle Boller to win the game. That will require Jamal Williams to win against C Mike Flynn, which is a given, and Olshansky to win against Jonathan Ogden, which is far less certain.

Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm will have to bring their "big boy pads" for all 60 minutes. Cooper leads the team with 69 tackles, although he picked up only three last week. Wilhelm has been on a tear since recovering from a calf injury, averaging 10 tackles per game over the last four contests. CB Quentin Jammer's expected return to the starting lineup will also provide a shot in the arm for the run defense.

CB Antonio Cromartie
Donald Miralle/Getty


The key in this matchup is turnovers. The Ravens own a turnover differential of -9, the second-worst number in the league. The Chargers boast a +9 differential, a number only bested by the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. Boller has thrown five interceptions and only four touchdowns this season and the Bolts' secondary looks to capitalize on his shaky hand.

"It's just a matter of going out there and executing, taking it one play at a time, getting that rhythm, getting that confidence back," Boller said. "We can do anything that any other team does. It's just a matter of penalties and not forcing the ball in certain situations; a punt is not that bad of a thing. Just little things…and knowing that we can establish and put together some really good drives."

The Ravens will be without their top target, TE Todd Heap, who is out with a thigh injury. That puts more pressure on receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton to make plays outside the hashes. Devard Darling replaces Demetrius Williams (ankle) as the slot receiver. Darling is coming off a banner game against the Cleveland Browns (four catches, 107 yards and a touchdown).

The Chargers hope to get a spark from the return of Jammer, who was greatly limited during last week's game. The team also hopes Antonio Cromartie resumes his Pro Bowl campaign -- after intercepting six passes and scoring three touchdowns in weeks 7-10, he failed to even grace the box score in week 11. Ted Cottrell needs a bounce-back game from Marlon McCree, whose poor angles and limited range have allowed too many big plays in recent games.

It will help if the pass rush can get back on track. Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips have both been held without sacks since week six. Merriman called out his teammates for a lack of "attitude" after last week's loss; it is up to him to lead by example against the Ravens. OLB Jyles Tucker, who was just promoted from the practice squad this week, is a natural pass-rusher eager for his first sack. The Ravens give up 2.3 sacks per game.

LB Carlos Polk
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty


The Chargers' special teams have been excellent this season, especially at home. The team scored three special-teams touchdowns in its last two games at Qualcomm Stadium -- a fumble recovery by Antonio Cromartie and two kick returns by Darren Sproles. Mike Scifres has been phenomenal, too. After landing only three of his first 22 punts of the season inside the 20, Scifres has landed 19 of his last 26 inside the 20 (73 percent). He's also hit at least one 60-yard punt in four straight games. Nate Kaeding is also on a roll as of late, having not missed a kick since week six.

The Chargers were dealt a blow this week when special-teams ace Carlos Polk was placed on the injured-reserve list with a shoulder injury. Polk played on all four of the kicking units and his aggressive attitude was infectious. His replacement, Tucker, is less vocal but can lay the wood with the same ferocity. With Kassim Osgood and Brandon Siler still in tow, there is no reason to expect much of a drop-off.

The Ravens boast some effective special teams as well. PK Matt Stover has connected on 87.5 percent of his field goals. P Sam Koch ranks seventh in the AFC with an average of 44.7 yards per punt. Return specialist Yamon Figurs ranks sixth in the league in punt return average (12.0) amongst players with seven or more returns; he ranks fourth in kick return average (27.5) amongst players with 12 or more returns. The Ravens will, however, allow some yards on returns. Opponents' average starting position is the 25.7-yard line after kickoffs, and Koch has allowed the seventh-most return yards of any punter (275).

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.

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