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Mathews producing in second season
SAN DIEGO – There’s no question Ryan Mathews has become a better running back his second year in the NFL, cementing that fact Sunday with a career-high 137 rushing yards against Denver.
“I thought he played well,” Head Coach Norv Turner said of Mathews’ performance Sunday. “I thought he was very decisive. I thought he made good decisions and I thought he ran hard.”
Early in the season, it seemed like Turner considered each game Mathews’ best ever as the back churned out six consecutive games with more than 130 yards of total offense. He now has a favorable history against the Broncos, going for 120 and 125 rushing yards in his other two chances.
Mathews has been hesitant to refer to anything he’s doing as “good” or credit himself, though he did acknowledge becoming a more patient runner and following his blockers better this season. He often looks for backside cuts to squeeze maximum yardage out of his runs, but found designed running lanes so well set up Sunday that he rarely deviated, even downfield.
“I’d like to give (my linemen) a lot of credit,” Mathews said. “They are doing a great job of just opening up those holes.”
A rookie season hindered by an ankle injury along with typical growing pains of a young player has given way to an encouraging second go-round. Through 11 games, Mathews already has topped last year’s figures in rushing yards, catches and receiving yards.
Mathews’ nine plays gaining 20 or more yards are more than double his ’10 total. He can become the most productive running back since Tomlinson in 2008 on Monday against Jacksonville. He needs 18 yards to pass Mike Tolbert (735 yards last year) and Tomlinson (730 in ’09). If Mathews averages 87 yards from scrimmage during the last five games, he’ll top Tomlinson’s offensive production in ’08 (1,536 yards).
Seventh among NFL running backs in all-purpose yardage, Mathews’ 188 attempts (rushes plus catches) are 21 fewer than Fred Jackson and at least 43 fewer than everyone else ahead of him. His 5.9 yards per touch tie him for third with Chicago’s Matt Forté.
Mathews and Mike Tolbert have produced as receivers to a much greater degree than most observers expected. Their combined 11-game totals project to 118 catches, 1,097 yards and three touchdowns over a 16-game season. That two-person production is better than the ’08 and ’09 trio of Tomlinson, Darren Sproles and Tolbert (94 catches, 939 yards; 82 catches, 843 yards) and the ’10 trio of Darren Sproles, Tolbert and Mathews (106 catches, 881 yards).
Despite a down year, Rivers has completed 75 percent of his throws to Mathews and Tolbert, targeting them on more than 25 percent of his attempts.
Mathews does have four fumbles this season and still is working to consistently avoid running too upright or too loose with the football. He’s also still developing in pass protection, though he’s had games and plays where he’s much-improved.
But he’s dealt with the pressure of following a legend, accepted responsibility for fumbling too frequently and learned to maintain a narrow focus.
“That’s what it’s going to take for the rest of the season. Just play one play at a time, one game at a time,” Mathews said.