Inside Job

LaDainian Tomlinson comes off his best game in more than a month, a 177-yard gashing of the Kansas City Chiefs. And what was the key to that breakout performance? It was the re-establishment of the inside running game. The Chargers will be hard-pressed to maintain that success when they face Albert Haynesworth and the Tennessee Titans.

The success the Chargers enjoyed between the tackles last weekend was due to a couple of factors. First was the return of Nick Hardwick. The Pro Bowl center missed four games with a foot injury before returning in week 12 to face the Baltimore Ravens. After using his comeback game to shake off some rust, Hardwick delivered his best outing of the season in Kansas City.

"Nick is the captain on the offensive line and he seems to help those guys out in certain ways," LaDainian Tomlinson said. "He knows when each guy on that line needs help and whatnot. He just has a knack for knowing what's going on out there."

Another factor in Tomlinson's success up the middle was the Chiefs' sub-par tackle tandem. That factor will be nonexistent on Sunday when San Diego's interior line locks horns with dominant defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

To put Haynesworth's value in perspective, the Tennessee Titans are 7-2 when he plays and 0-3 when he doesn't. Haynesworth returned last week after missing three games with a hamstring injury. The Titans defeated the Houston Texans, 28-20, to halt a three-game losing skid.

"Everything was there. He didn't have the chase that he'd had before the injury, but he was very explosive up front," said Jeff Fisher of Haynesworth's return performance.

"As you'd expect, when a defensive lineman takes that much time off practice, you're going to be a little rusty technique-wise. He settled down after the first couple of drives and was a factor in there for us. He should only continue to get better."

It is difficult to improve on Haynesworth's performance this season. He has 32 tackles and five sacks in just nine games, despite demanding constant double-teams.

That will be the case again on Sunday, when Kris Dielman will double-down on the big defensive tackle on most running plays. The Chargers will also bracket Philip Rivers with a personal protector in obvious passing situations, wary of Haynesworth busting through.

Haynesworth is the kind of player that teams scheme around, and the Chargers are in the midst of doing exactly that. Norv Turner will call more running plays to the edges, making it difficult for the 320-lb. Haynesworth to catch Tomlinson in pursuit. The Chargers will also run more play-action passes, allowing Tomlinson to run to the line and chip Haynesworth as necessary.

That is not to imply the Chargers will abandon the inside run. Firstly, it is needed to set up the play-action pass and other misdirection plays. Secondly, Tomlinson is too talented to let any defender dictate how he play's the game.

Coach Fisher deemed LT the toughest player to tackle in the NFL.

"He was the MVP last year and he's got it going again," Fisher said. "He went for 170 yards (on Sunday). Kansas City's pretty good on defense. So he's very difficult to get down in the open field."

Sunday's game will be a litmus test for both teams. A Chargers win would deliver the team's second three-game winning streak of the season, and could bring with it a division title if the Denver Broncos fall to the Chiefs.

A Titans win would solidify the notion that, with Haynesworth in the lineup, there is no offense they can't contain.

"We have a tough one this week with Tennessee," Tomlinson said. "We'll see where we are after this game."

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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