San Diego Chargers: 5 Reasons Why the Bolts' Running Game Will Be Back in 2011

Camden PaschAnalyst IIJune 29, 2011

San Diego Chargers: 5 Reasons Why the Bolts' Running Game Will Be Back in 2011

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    The 2010 NFL season was a disappointment of sorts for the San Diego Chargers and their fanbase. Aside from the Chargers not winning the AFC West for the first time in five years, the team was unimpressive in other facets of the game.

    An immediate letdown occurred when Pro Bowlers Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill decided to hold out for a lucrative contract for their services. McNeill missed five games of the season before returning to the Chargers offensive line while Jackson missed 11 before returning to his role as the No. 1 wide receiver.

    More importantly, though, is that San Diego's ability to run the ball was less than stellar. After drafting Ryan Mathews No. 12 overall in the 2010 NFL draft, the speculation was that the Chargers running game would be greatly improved.

    With McNeill missing games, Mathews' injuries and Philip Rivers having to put the offense on his back, the once dominating running game of the Chargers finished 15th in the league at 113.1 yards per game. While that's neither great nor awful, it's not up to the standards that San Diego football has in mind.    

5. Philip Rivers Will Have His Weapons Back

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    For parts of the season, Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers was without a few of his most lethal offensive weapons. Vincent Jackson was absent for 11 games, Antonio Gates was forced to sit out six games due to a foot injury and Malcom Floyd had a nagging hamstring injury taking him out of five games.

    Rivers managed to still have a spectacular statistical season throwing for 4,710 yards and 30 touchdowns, but opposing defenses weren't respecting the receiving core that San Diego ran on to the field.

    Instead of the superb core of Jackson, Floyd, Gates and Patrick Crayton on the line of scrimmage, the Bolts at times were forced to line up Legedu Naanee, Seyi Ajirotutu, Buster Davis, Richard Goodman and Kelly Washington in their place.

    While these are capable receivers due to Rivers' sheer brilliance at throwing the football, they don't have the same reputation that the others possess. This in fact led to opposing defenses lining up seven or eight players in the box to make sure the running game was stopped, leaving one defender on each receiver playing coverage.

    Certainly the Chargers offense still took advantage of that in several plays by locating the open receiver that was being played man-to-man coverage, but it was hurtful to San Diego's ability to run the ball.

    Next season, assuming at least Jackson or Floyd is back on the team, the Chargers will have that ability to make the defense play more coverage sets with double-teams on the outside allowing more rushing lanes for the Bolt's running backs to run through.    

4. The Addition of Jordan Todman

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    San Diego selecting running back Jordan Todamn out of UConn at pick No. 183 was one of the clear-cut steals in the 2011 NFL draft. Todman, who was projected to be a third-round pick, fell to the Chargers in the sixth round and general manager A.J. Smith must have been pleased that he had the chance to draft the young 21-year-old.

    Todman was one of the better and more proven running backs in the collegiate game before forgoing his senior season for the draft.

    Todman's list of college accolades include:

    • 2010 Big East Offensive Player of the Year
    • All-Big East First Team (2010)
    • All-Big East Second Team (2009)
    • All-American (2010)
    • Rivals First Team All-American (2010)
    • Sporting News First Team All-American (2010)
    • AP Second Team All-American (2010)
    • Walter Camp Second Team All-American (2010)

    He's 5'9", 203 pounds, has 4.3 40-yard dash speed and also is rare to fumble the ball as he had zero fumbles in 616 attempts.

    Many think of him as Darren Sproles' replacement in San Diego, and he is in some ways, but he's not going to be the same type of player Sproles was for the Chargers.

    He will be replacing Sproles on the roster, but Sproles was more of a pass-catching "scat back" that could pick up yards by being shifty and quick whereas Todman can rush up the middle or out-race the defender on the outside. His pass catching is still the question of his game, but with work and practice he should be more than usable in that role.

    Todman is a young back with fresh legs and should be more valuable in the Chargers run game than Sproles was last season. At the moment, Todman is looked at as the third running back on the depth chart behind Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert, but don't be surprised if he gets a ton of carries next season as he may be the only San Diego running back that doesn't turnover the ball.   

3. Mike Tolbert Will Be Better Conditioned and More Solid

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    In terms of predicting Mike Tolbert's value before last season, everyone was incorrect except Tolbert himself. Tolbert was supposed to be the alternate fullback behind Jacob Hester, but when Ryan Mathews went down early in the season due to an ankle injury, Tolbert stepped in and manned the featured back role.

    Nicknamed "The Bowling Ball" for his 5'9", 243-pound body, Tolbert brought a different look to the Charger's backfield. He's not the typical speed and elusive back with the muscularly toned body, but Tolbert ran harder than most backs in the NFL. He made sure that if a defender was going to get in his path, he would punish them with a hit for doing so.

    What surprised the majority of fans out there is how fast Tolbert actually was. He wasn't lightning-fast, but he surely wasn't close to being slow.

    To help him gain more speed and get into good physical shape, Tolbert has been in the boxing ring this offseason. He weighed a disappointing 258 pounds before checking into the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC) in National City to work with boxing trainer David Soliven. Since checking in, Tolbert has lost 14 pounds and gained needed stamina.  

    “My first day here six months ago I was taking it light and I was exhausted. I felt like I was going to die. But I fell in love with it. If I could do it 24 hours a day, I would. I feel like I could go seven to eight rounds now without breaking a sweat. Conditioning is so difficult; I really think it’s going to translate to what I do on the football field,” Tolbert said in an interview.

    If Tolbert continues boxing as a method of working out, he could be in the best shape he's been as a San Diego Charger. This would surely help him on the football field with endurance and preventing injuries.

    A faster, more-powerful Tolbert is better than the Tolbert of last season, and he was a beast.  

2. The Offensive Line Will Be a Positive Force as One Unit

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    In the 2010 NFL season, the San Diego Charger's offensive line was still one of the best in the NFL. Kris Dielman earned another Pro Bowl selection, Nick Hardwick returned to his reliable and above-average self and when Marcus McNeill returned to the line after his contract holdout he was beneficial as well.

    The Charger's starting right tackle Jeromey Clary is a free agent this offseason and while the Bolts could use an upgrade at the position, there isn't a tackle available that is better than him so expect Clary to be re-signed for next season.

    Last year's starting unit has been together since 2009 and has played better together as the seasons continue. "We need continuity because those five guys work as one,” offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon said. The more this offensive line plays together, the more they learn about how each other plays, which in turn makes them a cohesive unit.

    The line was without McNeill last season for five games, but didn't show to be hurt by that too much. Backup tackle Brandyn Dombrowski did a fine job filling in for him, but the line is certainly better with McNeill in the lineup, and he will be starting for the Bolts from the beginning of next season.

    San Diego's offensive line has been known for being exceptional at protecting their Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers, but they showed glimpses of being a punishing line to run behind. As long as the same five is in the game, this line has the ability to control the line of scrimmage and let the talented Chargers running backs go to work. 

1. Ryan Mathews Should Be Healthier in His Sophomore Season

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    Ryan Mathews, the highlight of the San Diego Charger's 2010 NFL draft, was thought to be the next great Chargers running back before the season began last year. He still can be, but he missed four games in his rookie season and was held back in several games he did play in due to a right ankle injury.

    When he did return to the field, his carries were limited in part because of the emerging Mike Tolbert. After his NFL debut in the first game of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs, he didn't have a 20-plus carries game until the season finale against the Denver Broncos where he rushed for 120 yards and three touchdowns.

    Granted, his impressive performance came against the second-to-last rush defense Broncos, it showed what Mathews can do when healthy. This was the type of game the Chargers and the fanbase expected from Mathews the whole season.

    Other than his trouble with holding on to the ball, Mathews portrayed his abilities to be a very good feature back in the NFL as long as he's healthy. Even with Tolbert doing his best to fill in, the organization still has faith in Mathews to make the running game dangerous again.

    Hopefully Mathews is working out hard this offseason. While there's a lockout, the young running back needs to work on his ball carrying and his ankles' durability. Running in sand and up hills would be workouts that his predecessor, LaDainian Tomlinson, would likely recommend to the Fresno State product, Mathews.