29 Oct 2006
The Chargers can do a lot of things well offensively. But they are still at their best when running the ball. Against the Rams on Sunday, they opened up with a 12-play, 80-yard drive that featured eight runs. On their next possession, the Chargers started with a sweep to LaDainian Tomlinson before gaining15 yards on a short pass to Antonio Gates. On first-and-10 from the Rams 38-yard line, the Chargers executed a simple running play that set the tone for the rest of the game.
The Chargers initially lined up in an I-formation with two wide receivers to the left side: Keenan McCardell split wide, Vincent Jackson in the slot. Gates lined up at tight end on the right side. The Rams countered with eight defenders in the box, including Corey Chavous, aligned across from Gates and about five yards deep. Before the snap, Jackson motioned to the right side, resetting in the wing about three yards right of Gates and one yard deep. Chavous responded to the motion by walking up to the line of scrimmage, while cornerback Travis Fisher, who was initially several yards off the line on Gates' side, moved up to cover Jackson. The Rams appeared to have three defenders in good position to stop a run to the right side: Chavous, Fisher, and linebacker Brandon Chillar, who was lined up directly behind left end Leonard Little.
At the snap, most of the offensive linemen slanted left. Center Nick Hardwick cleared out the nose tackle. Guard Mike Goff rode the 3-technique tackle several yards to the left. Right tackle Shane Olivea and Gates initially double-teamed Little, but the combo block was unnecessary. The Rams defensive line was also slanting to the left (their right), so the Chargers had no trouble taking them out of the play. The Chargers are running off right tackle, and left guard Kris Dielman is pulling into the hole forming to Olivea's right side.
Chavous reads the play and is in great position to make a tackle. There's only one problem: fullback Lorenzo Neal. Few fullbacks are as effective as Neal at neutralizing the first defender in the gap, and Neal effectively smothers Chavous. Tomlinson takes the handoff from Philip Rivers and does what running backs are coached to do starting at the Pop Warner level: he hugs the Gates-Olivea combo block.
Great runs often result from great blocks on the second level. Tomlinson got three timely downfield blocks on this run. The first came from the receiver Jackson, who initially tried (but failed) to engage Chavous. Alertly, Jackson picked up Fisher and kept him from filling the gap. Gates, who is known more as a receiver than a blocker, made the second great block. He peeled off his double team quickly and hammered Chillar, taking him out of the play. Dielman made the third great block. Thanks to Neal and Gates, he was able to pull from his left guard position, run through the hole, and climb out to engage middle linebacker Will Witherspoon. Witherspoon fought through Dielman's block, but he never got a clean shot on Tomlinson. Free safety O.J. Atogwe was the last person Tomlinson had to beat, and he did so with style, knocking Atogwe's helmet off with a stiff arm.
Players like Neal, Gates, and Dielman deserve a lot of credit for this play, but just as their blocks made Tomlinson's run possible, his running style made their blocks possible. By trusting his teammates, hugging his double team, and attacking straight up the field, he made it easier for his blockers to latch onto Chillar and Witherspoon. Tomlinson lines up his blocks exceptionally well, then uses his speed and power to turn simple plays into highlight-reel runs.
By the end of the game, the Chargers rushed for 217 yards, averaging 6.2 yards per attempt against a pretty good defense. Some of the AFC contenders have serious problems stopping the interior running game (hello, Colts). The Chargers should be able to exploit their shortcomings come January. Long live Martyball!
Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?