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News » Struggling Bolts miss key players

Struggling Bolts miss key players

Struggling Bolts miss key players
The Chargers are essentially the same team that played for a shot at the Super Bowl last January. But not exactly.

Their roster is replete with Pro Bowl players, but the core is less solid than it was last season, or in 2006. Guys got hurt. Guys got older. Guys got out.

For all of its bone-deep bruises, a pro Football powerhouse is a fairly fleeting thing.

"If you keep blowing opportunities," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said yesterday, "at some point opportunities don't come anymore."

Uppermost in the Chargers' minds yesterday were the chances they squandered amid the snowflakes Sunday in Pittsburgh: the chance to climb back to the .500 mark, the chance to apply divisional pressure on the Denver Broncos , the chance to believe that they're better than they've looked.

Yet the specific causes of an 11-10 shortfall, a 4-6 record, and all of the the ominous implications that follow are largely attributable to preexisting conditions and ongoing decline.

Don't stop me if you've heard this before because the point bears repeating and the problems remain unsolved: Without the reliable running game and potent pass rush of their recent past, the Chargers have fallen from marvelous to mediocre in a matter of months.

They miss rehabbing linebacker Shawne Merriman, but you knew that already. They miss Tomlinson's thundering counterpoint, Michael Turner, whose eclipsed star has risen unobscured in Atlanta. And to a larger extent than many of us may have understood, they also miss the bravura blocking of fullback Lorenzo Neal.

"Mike (Tolbert) is a young guy, so it's hard to measure him with Lorenzo," Tomlinson said yesterday. "Lorenzo was a 15-year guy. Mike is a 10-game guy. So, obviously, we miss (Neal's) experience ...

"He can see sometimes the bigger picture. Meaning, if we get the ball and his man has gone away on the blitz, if he goes through the hole and sees the offensive linemen need some help, he's going to chip on (the defender). And if his man is gone, he'll get the next level. It might be a safety that I don't have to deal with. That's the kind of stuff that affects the running game."

There's more to it than that. Without Turner to spell him, Tomlinson's lingering toe problem had a lasting impact on the Chargers' season, which was exacerbated by Neal's absence, Tolbert's inexperience and by the inconsistent work of the offensive line.

Yet all of those contributing factors lead to the same melancholy conclusion: that the long-standing strength of the Chargers' offense has become a deficiency.

Concurrently, the Bolts' heretofore high-performance pass rush has deteriorated to below NFL average.

On a per-game average, the Chargers are gaining 34.3 fewer yards on the ground and allowing 53.7 more yards in the air than they did just last season.

An unreliable running game and an uneven pass rush is a costly combination at any level of Football. At this level, for this team, it has far-reaching ripples.

Between 2002 and 2007, the Chargers ranked among the National Football League's top 10 rushing teams six years in a row. This year, they rank 26th among the NFL's 32 teams.

Defensively, the Chargers ranked either first or second the past two years in a category we'll call Creating Havoc, which is defined here as sacks plus interceptions. This year, they're tied for 18th by that unofficial statistical standard.

Result: The Bolts' offense doesn't do ball control and their defense can't seem to get off the field. Sunday, none of the Chargers' six first-half possessions lasted longer than six plays. Meanwhile, though the Steelers repeatedly delayed their drives with penalties, their three second-half possessions spanned 14, 10 and 13 plays.

Through three quarters, the Steelers had bogarted the ball for 29 minutes and 16 seconds, nearly two-thirds of the total possession time. This example was extreme, but consistent with the Chargers' season-long trend line.

"You can't really let it change your approach," Rivers said of the possession disparity, "but it makes every play and every possession that much more precious when you may not get as many."

How much of this relates specifically to the loss of Merriman and the departure of Neal is highly speculative. But the Chargers are plainly a different and lesser team in their absence; a team unlikely to launch a closing rally that ends in the playoffs.

Mike Tolbert has gears Lorenzo Neal didn't get. The undrafted rookie from Coastal Carolina is remarkably nimble by fullback standards, and a legitimate weapon as a receiver. Yet to the extent that his primary task is to clear Tomlinson's path, Tolbert's learning curve has proved to be a liability.

"With Mike, since he's not as experienced, he focuses on his guy who he has to block," Tomlinson said. "A lot of times, he may not see that offensive linemen need help and that's why I might get hit by a defensive lineman where Lo would have kept that guy off of me.

"That has to do with experience again. It's tough to ask him to do that when he's just not seeing it."

Maybe it's coincidence, but Baltimore's running game has risen from No. 16 to No. 3 among NFL teams during Neal's first year with the Ravens. Maybe it's coincidence, but the Chargers have allowed more passing yards than any other team in the NFL since Merriman chose surgery in September.

"It's pretty big," Tomlinson said of Merriman's absence. "He's always been able to create pressure on the quarterback and sometimes make a play, a sack/fumble.

"Whenever you lose him, you lose that aspect, but you also lose a body. You lose a guy you have who is the best in the league. Then you've got to fill in with the next guy and his backup, maybe a guy you get off the practice squad."

Maybe another Shawne Merriman. Probably not.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 20, 2008

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