Source: USA Today
The Chargers need to match the Ravens' physical style of play Sunday night to possibly keep their playoff hopes alive.
But Thursday's practice didn't include two key players who'll be asked to deliver some brawn this weekend: inside linebackers Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler.
Spikes (back) and Butler (foot) haven't worked this week as the Chargers prepare to close out their home schedule in what has been a disappointing season.
Spikes and Butler have been slowed the past two weeks by their ailments; neither has missed a game.
But this week, more so than others, the Chargers need their muscle in the middle.
The Ravens aren't shy about pointing running back Ray Rice at the line of scrimmage - either through a rush or a reception. It's imperative the Chargers' two big run-stuffers at linebacker are available.
Rice, who has 12 touchdowns, leads the NFL with 1,622 yards from scrimmage. No running back can match his 593 receiving yards.
"He's a complete player," coach Norv Turner said. "He is like a lot of the great runners I have been around: he has great vision, great balance. He's an awful good competitor."
That's why Spikes and Butler need to be dressed and ready for the challenge. Not only is tracking Rice a tall task, but there's battling the Ravens' beefy offensive line and wrestling with bruising fullback Vonta Leach.
"If we don't have them, the guys (playing behind them) have played very little football," said Turner, who sounded optimistic Spikes and Butler would go Sunday. "That's a big difference so having them would be real important for us."
Spikes, who started his 200th career game last Sunday, has been solid all season. He leads the Chargers with 101 tackles. It marks the 11th occasion in his 15 seasons he's eclipsed the century mark, and fourth time in five years.
Butler's play has been among the Chargers' most pleasant surprises. After missing his rookie season with an Achilles' tendon injury, the first-year starter has 86 tackles.
—They are still alive and if that isn't enough for everyone else, so be it.
The Chargers' chance for the playoffs is the stuff for the statistical geeks to figure out. It can happen, and it has to start with a victory Sunday night against the visiting Baltimore Ravens.
In layman's terms the Chargers are two games behind the AFC West-leading Broncos with three to play. The chances for an AFC wild-card berth are even more out there.
So the Chargers will just worry about the Ravens, which is plenty. They have won four in a row and sixth of their past seven games.
But the Chargers are likely making this run too late. While outscoring their last two rivals by the tune of 75-29 in wins over the Jaguars and Bills, the Chargers are playing some of their best ball.
Too bad that six-game losing streak likely derailed their shot to return to the playoffs, and just maybe, might cost coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith their jobs.
But Turner's teams have fought on, and while that should be expected when you are a professional, it does speak to the team's character. The Chargers, by all accounts, are playing out the string but doing so in a manner which is commendable.
Is any of that going to come into play Sunday night? Possibly. But the Chargers are catching a hot Ravens team that is caught in a logjam of 10-3 teams shooting for playoff seedings. The Ravens will have plenty of motivation to give the best effort, something the Chargers will be challenged to match.
But if there is an offense that can test the Ravens' rugged defense, this is it.
Ryan Mathews is ahead of an impressive running game. And Philip Rivers has quit turning the ball over in a maddening fashion. He also has three key targets stretching defenses in Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd.
It's also true the Chargers seldom hold up well against teams with a physical template like the Ravens. Whether getting worn down or knocked out, the Chargers haven't shown they can match muscle with brawny squads.
Still, in playing their best ball of the season, the Chargers think they have a chance.
Just like, however small, they've got an opportunity to play past Jan. 1.
"Everyone outside talks about that, and I'm sure it's part of the thought process for everybody, but the biggest thing for us, where we were after," Turner said, with his voice trailing off.
Turner means that considering where the Chargers were three weeks ago, mired in a six-game slump, and where they are today, still alive for the playoffs, isn't too bad.
It makes a bad situation at least plausible and with a win Sunday, just maybe playing for something other than pride stays alive one more week.
SERIES HISTORY: 8th regular-season meeting. Ravens lead series, 4-3. This matchup has had a distinct San Diego bent as five of the games have been played at Qualcomm Stadium. That includes the last pairing in 2009 when the Chargers were poised to steal a late victory when at the Ravens' 15-yard line in the final minute. But on a 4th-and-2 call, Norv Turner elected to send running back Darren Sproles up the middle on a running play and it was sniffed out by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Sproles was dropped for a 5-yard loss and the Ravens escaped with the victory.
—Coach Norv Turner has been effusive in his praise for LT Jared Gaither, who has started two games after being released by the Chiefs. Turner gave him a game ball after Sunday's win. "He's a big man (with) long arms, and he's a very good athlete," Turner said. "So, he's kind of bailed us out. I don't know where we would have been without him. I don't think we would have won the last two games, and I think we would have continued to struggle to protect the quarterback."
—Everywhere he goes, people want to know: Is Philip Rivers, who has 22 turnovers, hurt? Turner gets the question on a weekly basis when talking with visiting writers. "He's not injured," Turner said. "You know guys during the season, you get hit, you get banged-up, you get knocked around. But, (that's) nothing any different for him than any other season."
—Left tackle Jared Gaither, who has found a home in San Diego, started his career in Baltimore. That makes for a warm coming-back angle but instead Gaither knows his biggest focus must be on slowing the Ravens' Terrell Suggs. "He is a good defensive end, good outside linebacker, pass rusher. He is a good player," Gaither said. "He can pretty much do it all. That's why he is up for Defensive Player of the Year. I'm looking forward to the matchup."
—Safety Eric Weddle is tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions. Two have been of the tipped variety and that means little to Weddle. "I've never had any tips go my way my first four years in this league and I have had two this year so it's been nice," Weddle said. "I'll take all the tips and bounces that I can get because when you're around the football, good things can happen."
—Inside linebacker Takeo Spikes started his 200th game on Sunday, an amazing feat for someone playing at his position. Spikes is in his 15th year and doesn't see another 200 games on the horizon. "Not as a player, but maybe as a general manager," he said.
—Tight end Antonio Gates keeps seeing the field and quarterback Philip Rivers keeps seeing an improving player. "It's been 8-9 weeks ago since he's been able to get back going and I think every week he's able to add another week of practice and rest and the better he feels," Rivers said. "He's playing at a super high level."
—Safety Steve Gregory said he and the team is behind embattled coach Norv Turner. "Norv's a great coach," he said. "We love him and play for him. He's our leader and we believe in him. Whatever we have to do - if it's go out and win to keep him here - then that's what we have to do."
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 - Number of losses for Philip Rivers in 12 December starts at Qualcomm Stadium.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If we can finish the way we've played the last two weeks, I think that'd be a real tribute to our guys, because they've hung in there." - Coach Norv Turner on his players' success in the past two games.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Look for the Chargers to keep four running backs active this week in going against the physical Ravens' run defense.
Curtis Brinkley should be the one joining Ryan Mathews, Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester - Hester being more of a fullback.
Brinkley has often been the odd man up with Turner needing to patch up other areas because of injuries. Mathews and Tolbert as well have been slowed this year and the possibility one or both might be compromised during the game can't be overlooked.
—DE Jacques Cesaire (ankle) didn't work on Thursday and there is a good chance he is down this week. The veteran Cesaire is a crucial member of the front line's rotation.
—S Darrell Stuckey (groin) was limited in practice and he has a shot of playing Sunday after missing the previous game. Stuckey contributes on special teams.
—C Colin Baxter (ankle) didn't practice, although he did some work on the side. Starting C Nick Hardwick battled a neck injury earlier this year, so the Chargers could be thin here if Hardwick was to aggravate it.
—OLB Antwan Barnes has been quite a pickup after being cut by the Eagles last year. But Barnes started his career as the Ravens' fourth-round pick in 2007, getting five sacks in three years. Barnes should be motivated for a big game; he leads the Chargers with a career-high seven sacks.
—KR Richard Goodman has started to give the return game a boost. Goodman, in his first year as a returner, ranks eighth in the NFL with a 26.1-yard average, with a long this year of 44 yards.
GAME PLAN: The Chargers will try for the second straight week to let the quarterback beat them. Although doing it against the Ravens and Joe Flacco compared to the Bills and Ryan Fitzpatrick are two different things. But the Chargers' run defense is playing better and just maybe it can load up and sell out to stop Ray Rice. Flacco can be effective, but the Chargers would rather take their chances with him.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Chargers running game, led by a surging Ryan Mathews, vs. a Ravens run defense, ranked No. 2 in NFL. Mathews has excelled, with three straight 100-yard rushing games for the first time in his career. The run-blocking has been better as well, but he's been cutting back for a portion of those yards. With the Ravens' Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody clogging the interior - and Ray Lewis, if he plays, keeping lanes plugged - it might be difficult for Mathews to jump-cut out of holes and change directions for yardage. Mathews, too, can exit games early with various injuries. Against a physical run defense like the Ravens, that's worth watching.
Chargers big three targets, WRs Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd and TE Antonio Gates, vs. Ravens pass defense. With Rivers' three big targets being fit, it presents a dilemma for defenses. Gates is playing his best ball of the season so singling him up is problematic. But either side gives the length and speed of Jackson and Floyd. FS Ed Reed will have to decide which way he wants to lean when lending a hand in coverage. Asking Lewis or another linebacker to take Gates is risky; but does Reed get burned deep if helping Lewis out? Ravens CB Cary Williams, at 6-1, is the taller of the two starters. That could lead to some jump ball passes to Jackson and Floyd hoping to exploit that, especially if Reed is assisting underneath on Gates.
Chargers pass protection on the edges, with LT Jared Gaither vs. the outside of the Ravens' pass rush, with Terrell Suggs. The Chargers tackles, Jared Gaither and Jeromey Clary, especially Gaither, have played well the last two weeks. But trying to stop Suggs and his 13 sacks is another issue. Suggs will move around and if he has a shot, he'll likely come at Clary on the right side. The other side has Jarret Johnson coming as well. Look for Chargers coach Norv Turner to use blocking tight ends and keep an occasional back in for protection.