NFL rushing leader and record-breaker Jamal Lewis and Chargers elusive Pro Bowl runner LaDainian Tomlinson won't have a direct encounter at Qualcomm Stadium. However, their personal duels with defenders figures to have a determining impact as two teams with struggling passing games meet.
"Our defense knows we thrive off Jamal," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Our strength is our run defense. If your strength is your running back, I guess we've got a heckuva game."
Potential X-factors to changing this run-oriented scenario include:
- The Ravens suspending and banishing franchise cornerback Chris McAlister for this game for team-rule violations that reportedly include missing curfew and a team meeting. He will not be allowed on the sidelines today.
- Chargers blue-chip wideout David Boston's likely return from a heel injury.
Despite those developments, the running games will remain key factors.
Lewis ran roughshod over the Browns with 295 yards last week to shatter the league single-game rushing mark. Now, he faces the Chargers (0-2), one of the worst teams in the league at stopping the run, ranking 29th overall.
Despite both teams' desire to establish a semblance of a passing game, this looks like another exercise in stacking the box. Especially with rookie quarterback Kyle Boller's mechanics breaking down for a passing offense that ranks last in the NFL.
"Cleveland had eight in the box a lot and it didn't help," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "I draw comparisons in my mind to Earl Campbell because he has such great power in his lower body. "He's a great finisher. He has the ability to make people miss. This guy is going to be a problem for us."
Tomlinson presents another test for a stingy Baltimore run defense tied for second in the league in rushing average (2.7 per carry) allowed.
The Charger's contribution has been limited to 127 yards on 29 carries as his team fell behind in losses to the Broncos and Chiefs. Yet, he can be electric and set a team mark last year with 1,683 yards to finish behind the Dolphins' Ricky Williams for the rushing title.
Jamal Lewis said earlier this week that he doesn't expect this to be much of a matchup between Tomlinson and the Ravens' defense. "LaDainian Tomlinson is a tough-hard nosed running back, but I've got a cure for LaDainian Tomlinson: 21 meet 52," said Ravens defensive back Gary Baxter, referring to Tomlinson and Ray Lewis' jersey numbers.
That's an opinion Tomlinson hopes to contradict, saying he's not afraid of the Ravens' perennial All-Pro. "He's a great linebacker," Tomlinson told reporters in San Diego, "but Ray Lewis does not strike fear in my heart."
Even if Tomlinson isn't afraid, he might experience another emotion today: frustration. The Ravens have allowed only six rushing first downs, the lowest amount in the NFL. They are tied for sixth overall in run defense and tied for second in the AFC. Their longest run allowed is 12 yards.
That won't stop Schottenheimer from doing everything he can to involve Tomlinson, especially with receiver Reche Caldwell out with a dislocated wrist.
"I don't care how healthy their receivers are or aren't, you're going to see a lot of Tomlinson," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's one of the dynamic backs in the game. I can't imagine any game playing San Diego that doesn't begin with the focus of, 'Where is Tomlinson?'"
Meanwhile, Lewis wants to duplicate the success he enjoyed last week as he strode for two touchdowns on runs of 82 and 63 yards. A penalty negated a score and cost him a 300-yard game. To eclipse the NFL record set by O.J. Simpson's two-game rushing total of 476 yards, Lewis would need 182 yards.
"I don't know how possible it is," Lewis said. "I just have to put one foot in front of the other and never let up."
"We hope that Jamal is tired from running for 300 yards and has a hangover from it," Chargers defensive end Marcellus Wiley said. "We are going to get after him. We watched the film and see some of his tendencies. "He is a great runner and congratulations on last week, but we don't want to see that success in our stadium."
Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.