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Bolts’ backfield can be explosive

Posted Jun 23, 2011

Thanks to Mike Tolbert’s better-than-expected ability to break big runs, San Diego’s backfield can compete with league powers Kansas City and Oakland and is a threat to rush for 20 yards no matter who gets the ball.

SAN DIEGO – The AFC West is a run-dominated league.

Sure, receivers Brandon Lloyd (Denver) and Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City) each made the Pro Bowl, as did Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.

But Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles had one of the most efficient seasons ever, averaging 6.38 yards per carry – two-tenths shy of Jim Brown’s all-time record. By contrast, Chris Johnson averaged just 5.6 yards per carry during his historic ’09 season.

Oakland’s Darren McFadden settled for second fiddle despite averaging 5.2 yards per carry himself, topping 100 rushing yards six times in spite of missing time due to injury.

Kansas City (164.2 rushing yards per game) and Oakland (155.9) finished No. 1 and No. 2 in the NFL.

Even Denver’s first-round rookie quarterback Tim Tebow got most of his playing time as a ball-carrier, and Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell is an above-average scrambler.

With first-round pick Ryan Mathews hampered by an ankle injury most of the season, converted fullback Mike Tolbert getting the most carries of any Chargers player and Rivers tugging the entire offense along with 4,710 passing yards, circumstances seemed to dictate runs of 20 yards or longer would be rare.

That wasn’t the case. Tolbert, 5-foot-9, 243 pounds, seems destined by nature to be a short-yardage, between-the-tackles back. He did excel in that area last season, notching 11 touchdowns. But as often as he plowed through a linebacker for a two-yard score, he stiff-armed a safety after bouncing through the rest of the defense.

McFadden and Charles are known for explosive runs that put points on the board fast.  It’s no surprise they led the AFC West with their rate of explosive runs (one per 21.8 carries for McFadden and one per 22.1 carries for Charles).

But who do you think finished third? San Diego’s jitterbug Darren Sproles? Perhaps the Chiefs’ Thomas Jones or the Raiders’ Michael Bush, each part of successful tandems with solid offensive lines?

No, no and no. The answer is Tolbert, who earned a dash of at least 20 yards once every 25.9 carries. He gets into the secondary almost as often as the division’s best. That’s quite a coup: everyone remembers Johnson’s jaw-dropping 4.24-second 40-yard dash at the 2008 NFL Combine, but McFadden (4.33 seconds) and Charles (4.38 seconds) also were among the fastest times.

Mathews finished behind Tolbert and Sproles (one per 28.6 carries), but shook off his ankle problem to reel off three runs of longer than 20 yards in his final 30 carries of the season.

Thicker than McFadden or Charles at 6-foot, 218 pounds, Mathews also possesses solid speed. His most productive runs came when he bounced outside. Many times early in the season he’d build up steam only to be knocked off his feet the instant before ripping off a huge gain.

Add in rookie Jordan Todman from Connecticut and defensive coordinators will have to guard against big runs no matter whom the Bolts hand the ball to this season. Though NFL defenses will present a stiffer test, Todman collected at least one run of 20 yards or longer in nine of the 11 regular-season games he played last year and then ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.

“Even though we jumped about 13 spots (in 2010), we think we can improve even more in our run game,” offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon said.

That presents a quandary for defenses, especially when Rivers could be throwing to Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson from Week 1.

“I think the running game will give us the consistency we need and we won’t put as much pressure on Philip as we did last year,” Head Coach Norv Turner said.

AFC West RBs, 2010 Season

Rate of explosive runs (20 or more yards, min. 50 carries)

1. McFadden, OAK – One per 21.8 carries
2. Charles, KC – One per 22.1 carries
3. Tolbert, SD – One per 25.9 carries
4. Sproles, SD – One per 28.6 carries
5. Mathews, SD – One per 39.5 carries

6. Bush, OAK – One per 39.5 carries
7. Jones, KC – One per 81.7 carries
8. Moreno, DEN – One per 85.8 carries

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