RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Tomlinson struggled in Denver last season, carrying 21 times for 67 yards (3.2-yard average). He did, however, compensate with a strong performance as a receiver, catching three passes for 73 yards. Combined yards are the key number for the versatile Tomlinson. During his career, the Chargers are 11-1 when he totals 200-plus yards from scrimmage.
Paving the way for Tomlinson is rookie FB Mike Tolbert, who added a new dimension to the Chargers offense in his professional debut. Tolbert caught three passes for 35 yards against Carolina, showing speed, power and soft hands as a receiver out of the backfield.
The offensive line will have to open holes for Tomlinson without the help of Pro Bowlers Marcus McNeill (neck) and Nick Hardwick (foot). They will be replaced by 10-year veterans L.J. Shelton and Jeremy Newberry, respectively. Shelton and Newberry played well in the opener, although Newberry was called for an ill-timed holding penalty late in the third quarter. The penalty backed the Chargers up deep in their own territory; San Diego punted three plays later.
WHEN THE CHARGERS PASS
QB Philip Rivers
Rivers' biggest challenge against the Broncos is to get Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson more involved. Against the Panthers, Chambers was limited to one catch, albeit a 44-yard touchdown. It was his first game as a Charger without multiple receptions.
Jackson finished with three catches for 47 yards and a score, although his first grab didn't come until the fourth quarter.
Getting the receivers more involved will be no easy task against cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dré Bly. However, it's an important goal for the Chargers, especially with Antonio Gates battling toe and hip injuries. Gates posted impressive numbers against the Panthers (four catches for 61 yards and a TD) but he looked labored when cutting or changing direction.
If the Chargers are going to attack outside the hashes, the receivers will need time to get open. That means holding off a mediocre Broncos pass rush that sacked QB JaMarcus Russell only twice in 26 pass attempts in the season opener, despite the Raiders playing from behind and fielding a sketchy offensive line.
The matchup to watch is Shelton against DE Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil ranks seventh in the NFL with 21 sacks since being drafted in 2006. He endured a hand injury in the season opener but will play against the Chargers. Look for Brandon Manumaleuna and Tomlinson to give Shelton some help on the left side.
WHEN THE BRONCOS RUN
NT Jamal Williams
If the Chargers hope to slow down a Denver rushing attack that tallied 141 yards in the opener, they'll need better play from Jamal Williams. Williams looked rusty against the Panthers after sitting out the entire preseason to rest his surgically repaired knees. Hopefully for the Chargers, he is in better game shape with one contest under his belt.
Strong play by Williams and the rest of the defensive line should help a linebacker corps that struggled against the Panthers. Matt Wilhelm played badly, getting pummeled by some run blocks and failing to knock down the game-winning pass, while Derek Smith barely graced the box score with two tackles.
WHEN THE BRONCOS PASS
OLB Marques Harris
Things won't be any easier against Jay Cutler and Denver's dominant receiving tandem of Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. Marshall is coming off a 102-catch season, with 13 of those grabs coming against the Chargers. The rookie Royal was even more impressive in his professional debut, catching nine passes for 146 yards and a touchdown.
The Chargers must amp up the pass rush if they are to disrupt Denver's aerial attack. That will be a tall task with Shawne Merriman now officially removed from the equation. In his stead will be the 1-2 punch of Jyles Tucker and Marques Harris. Tucker is long on talent but short on experience, while Harris has been productive in limited playing time (5.5 career sacks).
The real heat must come from Shaun Phillips, who is now the unquestioned best pass-rusher on the roster. Phillips has 27 sacks over the last three years, including at least one sack against the Broncos in each of those seasons. The Broncos will field two rookie tackles –- Ryan Clady on the left, Ryan Harris on the right – and Phillips must exploit those mismatches.
JUST FOR KICKS
K Nate Kaeding
Scifres averaged 47.6 yards on five punts against the Panthers and should be able to push that number north of 50 in Denver. The high altitude will also help Kaeding's kickoffs. Last season, Kaeding was one of only five kickoff kickers whose opponents started inside the 20-yard line on average.
The kick coverage teams will be worth keeping an eye on. During last year's meeting in Denver, Carlos Polk forced a fumble on a kickoff that was returned by Brandon Siler for a touchdown. Polk is not in the mix this season, while special-teams stalwarts Tucker and Harris will be taxed by their roles on defense. San Diego cannot afford to lose this phase of the game.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.