Bolts Excited for Division Rivalry
RB LaDainian Tomlinson (Doug Pensinger/Getty)
RB LaDainian Tomlinson (Doug Pensinger/Getty)

Posted Sep 25, 2008


The Chargers are back and so is coach Norv Turner. Relieved their first victory finally came in Week 3, the Chargers face the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, looking for their initial AFC West victory.

"Well it's always a better feeling after you win a game," said Turner, who went 9-23 as the Raiders head coach from 2004-05. "We had two real tough, close games to start the season and I think we came out and played a little better on Monday night."

That they did in blasting the Jets, 48-29. The offense kept humming and the defense showed some life to breathe some life into what was to be a Super season.

But the Raiders -- as only the Raiders can -- are playing OK while their front-office implodes. The owner is mad at the coach, the coach is supposed to be fired, public relations executives are fighting with reporters -- good old Raiders football.

The Chargers, though, can't be distracted by the Raiders' distraction. Or the fact they have dominated this series to the tune of nine straight victories.

Among the challenges that comes with a 1-2 start is staying sharp for games you're supposed to win. Because in already trailing the division-leading Broncos by two games, the Chargers have left little wiggle room.


HC Norv Turner
Jeff Gross/Getty

Few know as well as Turner of the obstacles of coaching the Raiders.

"I think you know that's a question I'm not going to answer," he said. "We're getting ready for this game.

"The biggest thing for us is we look at the film and we see a very, very outstanding running game, a talented offensive personnel group. Defensively, they're playing as good a defense as anyone in the league. Those are the things we're focusing on."

The Chargers are well-versed in slow starts and fast finishes. Last year, they stumbled to a 1-3 start and were no better than 5-5 with six games remaining.

Still, they ended up in the AFC Championship Game. And that history is the kind the team leans on, helping them stay while looking up in the standings.

"It definitely does," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "Every team goes through a time period where they start out slow or they go through, it may be the first part of the season or midseason, and then they pick things back up.

"We learned where things are, how things went last year, and that was last year. This year, we just have to play football how we want to play football."

Many Chargers mentioned after the win Monday that it was a display of Chargers football. Almost as if what they are presenting is a brand which they are proud of.

And they should be, with the explosive offense leading the way.

But the defense needs to keep improving, and it will be tested Sunday against a Raiders team that is thriving on the ground.

When you can run the football as well as they are, when you have a lot of people who have been there, it is extremely impressive," Turner said. "It says a lot about what their offensive line and tight ends and backs, the fullbacks are doing. And obviously it says a lot about those running backs."

The Chargers' play came through loud and clear on Monday. They hope it's the soundtrack of the 2008 season.

SERIES HISTORY: 97th meeting. Raiders lead series, 54-40-2, but the Chargers have won nine straight -- their longest streak in this long series. In those nine wins, the Chargers' average margin of victory has been 15.4 points. The Chargers last lost to the Raiders in 2003 at Oakland, when falling 34-31 in overtime.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Coach Norv Turner is looking for a rebound from his coverage teams, which allowed a staggering 291 return yards against the Jets. "It's disappointing," he said. "It's really one of the best things we do."

--DE Jacques Cesaire admits he said a little prayer when Luis Castillo was rolled up in Monday's win. It appeared Castillo suffered a serious knee injury, but he was OK. "I was just like, 'Please Lord let nothing really bad happen to this man because we need him out there.'" Castillo has missed six games in each of the last two seasons with injuries.


FS Eric Weddle
Jeff Gross/Getty

--Two straight Chargers losses featured two last-minute game clips of S Eric Weddle flailing away at game-winning passes. But Weddle wasn't wearing goat horns against the Jets.

"Just the way the last two games ended, I was hard on myself," Weddle said. "I hadn't been playing bad, bad, but I studied hard this week. (Brett) Favre is a crafty veteran and I wanted to know where he was going with the ball and be in the right place." Weddle had one of the Chargers' three picks and added seven tackles.

--CB Antonio Cromartie was selected the AFC Defensive Player of the Week after posting a career-high nine tackles and two interceptions, including an interception-touchdown return.

--Raiders owner Al Davis coached the Bolts wide receivers ends from 1960-62. Raiders wide receivers coach James Lofton held the same position in San Diego from 2002-07.

--Oakland's defensive backs coach Darren Perry was on the Chargers in 1999.

--Turner expects to continue rotating Tim Dobbins and Matt Wilhelm at inside linebacker. "Tim Dobbins gives us a physical presence," Turner said. "He's very aggressive. Obviously Matt brings a lot of things from a coverage standpoint and from his knowledge of the defense so I think that's been a good mix."

--The Chargers signed veteran DT Ian Scott, a six-year pro who played three seasons for Chargers linebackers coach Ron Rivera when he was in Chicago. Scott's best season came in 2004, when he started 13 games and recorded career highs in tackles (77) and sacks (two).

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Touchdown passes by Philip Rivers in each of the first three games.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "With L.T.'s situation, it's been something that we've been forced into a little bit, putting a little bit more weight on him and asking him to carry the load and the passing game carrying the load." -- Coach Norv Turner, on Philip Rivers handling the bulk of the offense.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Chargers continue to tweak their pass defense after losing Pro Bowl LB Shawne Merriman to a knee injury.

Instead of that role falling on Jyles Tucker, the Chargers will continue a rotation of players -- and sending them from various directions to attack the quarterback.

The Chargers used the blitz more last game; Tucker was helped by Marques Harris and defensive backs being sent at Brett Favre.

Look for the Chargers to cut loose and attack JaMarcus Russell, especially if the offense gives the defense an early lead, which forces Russell to pass.

PLAYER NOTES

--C Nick Hardwick (foot) is expected to make his first start of the season. He was slow to return after undergoing offseason foot surgery.

--LT Marcus McNeill (neck) will make his second straight start after missing the first two games. McNeill said he needs to still knock the rust off his run-blocking.

--Darren Sproles returned to his punt-return duties against the Jets instead of Buster Davis. Sproles will likely remain in that role with LaDainian Tomlinson feeling better.

--WR Chris Chambers is making his contributions pay off. He has only six receptions, but four have gone for touchdowns -- no AFC receiver has more.

--Nate Kaeding leads all AFC kickers with 30 points.

GAME PLAN: If the Chargers can stop the run, they can keep one of the NFL's brightest offenses on the field. The Raiders are going to be bent on establishing the run by trying to lean on Darren McFadden. If they do that, they keep Rivers and Co., on the sidelines by chewing up the clock. If they don't run -- and RB Justin Fargas might not go with a groin injury -- they have to rely on a passing game still maturing under JaMarcus Russell. The Chargers' run defense showed some life in the win over the Jets, although New York ran but 13 times. Defensive tackle Jamal Williams needs to play to his Pro Bowl caliber and help get the ball back to the Chargers offense.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Chargers running game led by LaDainian Tomlinson, who in 14 games has rushed for 1,709 yards, vs. a Raiders run defense that could be missing DT Gerard Warren, who suffered a neck injury last week against the Bills.

Tomlinson is feeling as good as he has since the season started, the painful toe injury fading into the past. The Chargers need to look to the past and remember how Tomlinson has tortured this franchise. The running game could get a lift with the return of Pro Bowl C Nick Hardwick. But the Raiders linebackers are athletic with Kirk Morrison -- a San Diego State alum who always seems to play well against the Chargers -- and Thomas Howard. But Tomlinson is frisky, and if he's fit, look out.


WR Johnnie Lee Higgins
Greg Trott/Getty

Chargers leaky coverage teams vs. a Raiders return game led by Johnnie Lee Higgins, who has a 29.7-yard kickoff return average.

The Chargers gave the Jets too many short fields Monday by getting hit nearly 300 kickoff return yards. That has to improve or a Russell-led offense won't be required to mount lengthy drives -- something that can be a challenge for a young quarterback. But if the Raiders only have to go a short ways, their offense has a better shot at staying with the Chargers' high-octane version. So the special teams must come up big, and it's a tough challenge in Higgins, who has kickoff returns of 69, 58 and 42 yards. He also has a 20-yard punt return.

Chargers pass protection, with the return of C Nick Hardwick, vs. the Raiders' pass rush, which has eight sacks in its last two games.

Philip Rivers was seldom even touched last week and he was able to carve up the Jets secondary. His pass protection figures to get better with Hardwick (foot) starting for the first time this year. He can bark out the blocking assignments before what could be a lively Raiders crowd. Plus, LT Marcus McNeill is in his second game and should be better, although he graded well last week.

INJURY IMPACT: RB LaDainian Tomlinson (toe) didn't practice but that isn't a surprise with the short week. He'll go Sunday. ... TE Antonio Gates (toe) didn't practice but he will play Sunday. ... LG Kris Dielman (thigh) didn't practice but he will go against the Raiders. Dielman is among the toughest Chargers. ... C Jeremy Newberry (knees) didn't work and he'll likely continue to rest. Starter Nick Hardwick is coming back this week and they have pushed Newberry and his two banged-up knees along to get to this point.



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