If the San Diego Chargers expect to improve upon last season’s poor offensive showing, the running game, which ranked 27th last season, will need to get going. The Chargers’ offense became way too one-dimensional, which resulted in Philip Rivers trying to do too much to carry the team. If Rivers is to return to form, he must be supported by a strong running game to take some of the pressure off his shoulders. The team made some much needed changes to the offensive line this offsesason which should improve the run blocking. Now, the running backs must do their jobs to create a balanced attack.
The success (or failure) of this group begins and ends with Ryan Mathews, the oft-injured, yet super talented back who has yet to reach his full potential. In his three seasons, the former 12th overall pick has more lost fumbles than he does 100-yard rushing games, and is coming off a year in which he ran for only 3.8 yards per carry and one touchdown.
To be fair, Mathews hasn’t gotten much help from a declining offensive line, but the injuries and fumbles he’s had over the years are only his to blame. He also hasn’t quite figured out pass protection yet, which is a concern for a fourth-year player, and won’t be able to play on third downs until does. Still, he is the clear, top runner in San Diego, and the team desperately needs him to step up his game. Expectations will remain high for Mathews, and anything short of 1,000 yards will be considered a failure.
Danny Woodhead was brought in to help lighten Mathews’ load and push him for playing time, but he probably won’t be a huge threat to Mathews’ job. He’s more of a complementary player, who will be the team’s third-down back, primary receiver out of the backfield, and will likely play a Darren Sproles-type role in the offense, something Rivers desperately missed last season. Also in the mix for third downs could be 31-year-old Ronnie Brown, who was surprisingly retained this offseason. Brown performed well as the third-down back last season, but at this point in his career, provides little upside. There isn’t much Brown can do that Woodhead can’t, but Brown provides depth in case of injury.
With Woodhead and possibly Brown focusing on third-downs and receiving work, Edwin Baker could be utilized in what he does best – running the football. Baker, a seventh-round pick in 2012 who was on the practice squad for most of last season, doesn’t have the receiving ability or pass protection skills yet, but could be effective as a pure runner. Baker has good strength and vision and could see the field in 2013 with a strong offseason.
Also in the mix is Fozzy Whittaker, who the Chargers claimed off of waivers back in March. Whittaker may have gone undrafted in 2012, but has good speed and receiving ability to push for Brown’s roster spot.
The Bolts have an interesting group of running backs who complement each other well and should have some sort of role in the offense. However, there isn’t much depth, and if Mathews were to get injured yet again, the team doesn’t have another player who can simply be plugged in at feature back. The running game will again depend on Mathews’ ability to stay healthy and live up to his potential. If he can do that, San Diego’s running game should be just fine.