For years, the Chargers were known as a running team, and with good reason, as LaDainian Tomlinson established himself as one of the best and most dangerous runners in the entire league. For years, the San Diego offense consisted of Tomlinson running left, right and up the middle. To really mix things up, he'd catch passes out of the backfield.
OK, he wasn't quite that much of a one-man team, but it often seemed that way. Tomlinson was the league's most dangerous weapon, and the Chargers understandably made every effort to get the ball in his hands.
But times have changed in San Diego. Quarterback Philip Rivers no longer is tasked with merely handing the ball off to Tomlinson. Through 12 games, he already has 21 touchdown passes, making this season the fourth straight in which he has found a target in the end zone that many times. In addition, the Chargers now boast a fleet of huge, athletic wide receivers who make appealing targets for Rivers. Vincent Jackson, Kassim Osgood and Malcom Floyd all stand 6-foot-5, while Legedu Naanee is 6-2.
The Cowboys are fully familiar with the Chargers; head coach Wade Phillips came to Dallas after serving as San Diego's defensive coordinator, and the team signed defensive end Igor Olshansky away from the Bolts in free agency over the offseason. But a couple of weeks ago, the Cowboys also picked up free agent cornerback Cletis Gordon, who spent the past three seasons in San Diego.
"Obviously, he's playing with a lot of confidence right now," Gordon said of Rivers, "and he's built a chemistry with those receivers — he's been with them for a while now. Every day in practice, he competes — he competes at everything he does. He understands coverages well, he understands what's going on out there and he makes great decisions, so you have to be on your Ps and Qs when you play against him, because he knows what's going on."
The receivers are talented and fast, but Gordon said it is their size that makes them so formidable for opponents.
"Their size — they've got to be the biggest group of receivers in the league," Gordon said. "They create matchups with their size. They have the three 6-5 guys, and Naanee has pretty good size, too, and all of them can run. Philip (Rivers) does a great job of putting the ball high, so they can out-jump guys, and use their bodies to get position, almost like getting a rebound."
Opposing coaches alter their schemes all the time to try to compensate for physical disadvantages, but ultimately, there's only so much that can be done against a group of wideouts who resemble a basketball team in helmets and shoulder pads.
"That's the toughest part, their size," Gordon said. "So you've got to just kind of fight through their arms, and make sure you make a play on the ball that way."
The development the San Diego passing game is not the only change in recent years for the offense. Even within the running game, Tomlinson no longer is the Bolts' only weapon. Instead, he shares the rushing duties with diminutive Darren Sproles. Tomlinson has battled nagging injuries over the past couple of years, but has bounced back this season with 561 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Gordon said the reports that Tomlinson was on the downside of his career were extremely premature. It's no coincidence, he said, that the San Diego offense averages 28.5 points per game, the third-highest total in the NFL.
"L.T. hasn't lost a step — he hasn't lost anything," Gordon said of his former teammate. "He's battled some injuries the last couple of years, but I think he's still the L.T. of old. They've just got so many more weapons that they can spread the ball around more, but he's still effective. He's got moves in the open field, he's hard to tackle, he can catch the ball and run.
"Don't let them fool you. I played against them every day (in practice) — I know what type of team they are. They can put up some points in a hurry."
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