Game Scout, Week 2: Chargers vs. Ravens

The San Diego Chargers are determined to come out against the Baltimore Ravens looking more like the contender everyone expected them to be. Here's a pre-game run-down of the latest injury news, match-up analyses and predictions.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
GAMEDATE: 9/20/09
TV: CBS (Dick Enberg, Dan Fouts)

SERIES: 7th regular-season meeting. Series tied 3-3. The Chargers won the last matchup, but the Ravens have won three of the last four. The last meeting was in San Diego, where the Chargers prevailed 32-14 in 2007. When the Ravens won in Baltimore in 2006, it was one of only two regular-season losses for the Chargers.

PREDICTION: Ravens 27-17

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Ravens are showing a more balanced attack with QB Joe Flacco now established in his second year. And his strong arm has to be a concern for the Chargers, who almost lost in Oakland due to assignment mix-ups in the secondary. San Diego's cornerbacks have proven to be vulnerable without pressure from the front seven. And if the Ravens get the lead, they'll turn the offense over to RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee.

The Chargers' running game is a serious question mark with injuries to a pair of interior linemen and RB LaDainian Tomlinson. The majority of what San Diego churns out on the ground will likely have to come on the edges - which is a difficult proposition against the Ravens' athletic defense. And if QB Philip Rivers is backed into long passing downs that beat up line will be put to the test against Baltimore's blitz packages.

FAST FACTS: The Ravens are 10-2 when Flacco throws at least one touchdown pass. ... San Diego leads the NFL with 47 interceptions since 2007.



--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (ankle) didn't practice and indications are he won't play Sunday.

OL Scott Murczkowski
Chris Park/AP
--C Scott Mruczkowski figures to get his third NFL start with Nick Hardwick not practicing. Hardwick looks to be out for Sunday with an ankle injury. It will be Mruczkowski's first start at center, with the other two coming at right guard.

--RG Brandyn Dombrowski may see significant playing time as well in his second NFL game. Rookie Louis Vasquez is nursing a sore knee, and even if he plays, there's no guarantee it will hold up against the Ravens' physical front seven. Dombrowski should see some work at some point; he spent last year on the Chargers' practice squad. Vasquez didn't practice on Thursday.

--WR Chris Chambers continues to be an afterthought in the passing game. Vincent Jackson became the No. 1 receiver late last year and most the looks are headed his way again.

--WR Legedu Naanee is the benefactor of Chambers' diminishing chances. Naanee is being used more as the No. 3 receiver and is often called upon in critical junctures, proving the growing confidence the coaches have in him.

--DE Jacques Cesaire (calf) continues to work and should go on Sunday after missing the opener and the preseason games.

--DE Travis Johnson (groin) didn't work again and his availability has become a concern. He played a lot in his first game with the Chargers.

--LT Marcus McNeill (hand) was able to work and will start Sunday.

--DT Jamal Williams (arm) will play Sunday but his strength inside is the key to the defense, and he's not 100 percent. He could be compromised, especially as the game wears on.

--DE Luis Castillo (elbow) practiced and should be able to go Sunday.

--LB Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) didn't practice is likely to miss this week's game.

--C Nick Hardwick (ankle) is hopeful he can return next week against the Dolphins.

--P Mike Scifres (groin) was limited in Thursday's practice.


--TE L.J. Smith has been limited in practice but there is a chance that he could play Sunday. He missed the last two preseason games and the regular-season opener with a hamstring injury.

LB Terrell Suggs
Matt Stroshane/Getty
--LB Terrell Suggs is expected to start despite missing Wednesday's practice with a rib injury. "He's really 100 percent," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "He's just got a little soreness in his stomach, in his rib area. He's fine." Paul Kruger would start in Suggs' place.

--FS Ed Reed is expected to start despite being limited in practice this week with a concussion. He has started 54 straight games. If Reed can't play, Haruki Nakamura would replace him.

--SS Tom Zbikowski missed practices Wednesday and Thursday with a concussion. He is very questionable to play Sunday.

--ILB Tavares Gooden is expected to start after having full practices on Wednesday and Thursday. He won't be at full strength because of a minor right knee sprain. Gooden has been limping around the locker room.

--RB Ray Rice is expected to make a second straight start over Willis McGahee and receive the most touches of the running backs. But because of his size (he's 5-7), he will give way to McGahee in the red zone.



The Chargers could very well be minus one of the NFL's greatest running backs on Sunday. Yet a sense of panic is not noticed at Chargers Park.

LaDainian Tomlinson missed another day of practice Thursday leading to Sunday's game against the visiting Ravens. Tomlinson, who has been compromised with injuries the past two seasons, sprained an ankle in Monday's season-opening win at Oakland.

In the past Tomlinson's potential absence would be a huge red flag for the Chargers' offense.

RB Michael Bennett
Mike Zarrilli/Getty
But that was before Philip Rivers and the passing game becoming the focal point of the unit. Plus, there are some decent alternatives to Tomlinson.

Darren Sproles showed again in the opener why he is such a weapon. Although considering his slight frame and his kickoff and punt return duties, he's not a back asked to do the heavy lifting.

If the Chargers want to have Sproles around late, they can't overwork him early.

Michael Bennett was once a 1,000-yard back in Minnesota. And while he likely won't get 25 carries against the Ravens, Bennett, a nine-year pro, is ready to help fill in for Tomlinson.

Bennett came to the Chargers late last year after being cut by Tampa Bay. He saw the field briefly in the two playoff games when Tomlinson was ailing and was brought back against somewhat stacked odds to make the team out of camp.

But the Chargers kept him on the roster -- even at the expense of losing fourth-round pick Gartrell Johnson to the Giants on waivers.

That move could pay off if Bennett can produce Sunday, taking heat off Rivers from a pass rush which would love to have him in third-and-longs.

Jacob Hester, a second-year pro, could also get a handful of carries. But he has mostly been playing in a fullback role.

Whatever the Chargers present to the Ravens in the fashion of a running attack, the team knows the sledding will be tough. The Ravens haven't allowed a back to rush for 100 yards in 36 consecutive games, the longest such stretch in the NFL.

It's not stretch to say the Chargers want to stretch the field. But to do so, they must at least get the Ravens to respect the run.

Tomlinson might not be able to do it -- but possibly three other Chargers backs will.


Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison seemed confident that defensive end-linebacker Terrell Suggs (ribs) and safety Ed Reed (concussion) will start Sunday at San Diego.

Suggs, who didn't practice Wednesday, has never missed a regular-season game, playing in 97 straight games. He returned to practice Thursday and didn't show any hesitation in drills.

"He's really 100 percent," Mattison said prior to practice. "He's just got a little soreness in his stomach, in his rib area. He's fine."

Reed, who has played in 54 straight games, was limited in Wednesday's practice, which came as a surprise to some.

"He wasn't supposed to go, but he's out here intercepting passes," Mattison said.

It's unclear whether LaDainian Tomlinson will play with a sprained right ankle, but his former offensive coordinator said he expects the Chargers running back to play Sunday.

"You never know. I'm not a mind reader and obviously, I'm not there," current Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "But I know, everybody knows, we all know the player he is."

TE Antonio Gates
Chris McGrath/Getty
The bigger concern for the Ravens' defense is trying to shut down the Chargers' passing attack under quarterback Philip Rivers.

"The Chargers are better offensively than Kansas City," said Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington, who allowed a 50-yard reception to Mark Bradley. "They've been together a lot longer than the Chiefs. They know their system so you have to expect them to be better in the passing game.

"I think we were solid against Kansas City. Except for the big play I gave up, we played lights out on defense. We gave up more points than we're accustomed to giving up, but if you look at yards and the plays we made on the field, we played pretty well."

The Ravens' focus will be on Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.

In 2007, Gates made the Ravens' defense look extremely vulnerable, repeatedly running free over the middle for touchdown catches of 35 and 25 yards. He finished with six catches for 105 yards, a performance that Ravens defenders chalked up to "miscommunication."

The Ravens get another shot at Gates on Sunday and can only hope their success against tight ends will continue.

Since struggling against Gates, the Ravens have not allowed a tight end to catch more than three passes in 19 of their past 22 games. In fact, only three (Tennessee's Alge Crumpler, Dallas' Jason Witten and Kansas City's Sean Ryan) have scored touchdowns during that span.

This stretch is even more impressive considering the tight ends that the Ravens have faced. Indianapolis' Dallas Clark had two catches for 17 yards against the Ravens last season. Houston's Owen Daniels and Washington's Chris Cooley were held to one catch each.

Ravens secondary coach Chuck Pagano explained last year that this good run was the result of the work of cornerback Frank Walker, whom he called "the tight end killer."

But can Walker -- or any one player, for that matter -- handle Gates, who is often considered in a class by himself? He causes so many mismatch problems because linebackers aren't fast enough to cover him and safeties aren't big enough to bring down the 6-foot-4, 263-pound tight end.

That's why he has caught 51 touchdowns in the previous five seasons.

"Antonio has great confidence he can beat a guy," Chargers coach Norv Turner said, "and Philip [Rivers, San Diego quarterback] doesn't need him to get too wide open."

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