Ryan Mathews: A Work(horse) In Progress

Around the league, the San Diego Chargers’ offense under quarterback Philip Rivers’ control has and will continue to be known as a pass-first attack. That doesn’t mean that the Bolts’ offensive outlook needs to be without a running game however as it has been for the last two or three seasons. Fortunately it seems that this San Diego team in 2011 will finally have a ground game capable of making the Bolts more than just one-dimensional when they have possession of the football.

He may have only become a part of the Chargers’ team one draft class ago in 2010, but running back Ryan Mathews had such lofty expectations placed upon him coming into the league that he was widely considered a bit of a bust even after just one year in the NFL. The Chargers were far from drawing any such conclusion following Mathews’ rookie campaign which was marred by injuries and a makeshift offensive line for the bulk of the season. Mathews was also a bit careless with the pigskin fumbling several times in his first year and knew that he was in need of some significant improvement in that area.

With his great attitude and improving work ethic, Mathews has made tremendous strides thus far in 2011 including an outstanding workhorse effort in the team’s victory over the Kansas City Chiefs this past weekend. Mathews carried the ball 21 times for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the game and really propelled the team to victory in a game that was much closer than necessary down the stretch. When asked about the game that could be considered Mathews’ coming out party, his Head Coach Norv Turner told the North County Times simply: “It was time to let Ryan take more of the load.”

The win-first mentality of Mathews clearly showed through after the tilt when asked about his impressive outing, Mathews said: “The stats don't matter to me. Just as long as we got the win at the end of the game and we were up, that's all that matters." As cliché as it may be, the Bolts’ second-year back is adamant that winning games is the only thing on his mind from a week-to-week basis. His teammates aren’t being quite so modest for the emerging back when it comes to his improvement and many of them offered some insight as to why he has taken such a positive step forward in terms of development this year.

According to left tackle Marcus McNeill: "Ryan's doing a great job of preparing every week. He's really attacking and becoming a real professional in this game. It's not just out there on the field, it's at practice, too. He's becoming a better pass-blocker. He's becoming a better runner, trying to make sure we keep the turnovers down, and things like that. These are all things that a great back has to do, and he's doing them this year." This is quite lofty praise from a man who blocked for LaDainian Tomlinson during the latter part of his great decade spent in a Chargers’ uniform.

Perhaps the most telling accolades came from the man competing with Mathews for carries this season in short-yardage specialist Mike Tolbert. The Bolts’ bruising back said: "He played the game the way it was supposed to be played today. He hit the holes hard, read the right reads, (made) the right cuts, blocked the right guys. You see his potential." That potential is beginning to be realized for the Bolts’ 2010 first round selection and fans may start to realize why the team gave up so much to trade up for this guy.

Obviously one game does not a successful career make, but the skill set that Mathews possesses is undeniable. His burst to get to the edge when necessary like on one of his scores against the Chiefs Sunday from the 4-yard line when he outran cornerback Travis Daniels to the pylon is quite impressive for a player of his size. His strength and tenacity is just as extraordinary however as shown on his other touchdown run from the 2-yard line when he ran behind guard Kris Dielman inside to get the tough yards and finish a drive off right.

What Mathews showed on Sunday was just a microcosm of what he is capable of on a weekly basis over the course of a season. His multi-dimensional running style is something that makes him an incredibly valuable player on any down and distance and will make this Chargers’ offense even more potent in the red zone as the season wears on. As long as the often pass-happy head coach can keep feeding the ball to Mathews when he has the hot hand, the possibilities are endless for a finally balanced Bolts’ offensive attack.

Now it’s your turn. Do you think the Chargers will be able to shake the stigma of being a one-dimensional offense or will Norv Turner revert to his old self and go pass-happy in the near future? What will Mathews have to do in your mind to justify what the team traded away in order to secure the rights to draft him? Do the compliments of McNeill and Tolbert give you confidence that this past week’s game was more than just a one-time thing for Mathews? How important do you believe becoming a balanced offense is to the Chargers in ultimately making a Super Bowl push this January? Please fill up the comments section below with your thoughts!

September 28, 2011

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