2012 will be year three for running back Ryan Mathews in his NFL career and although last year was a step in the right direction, the team certainly hopes that the coming season will be a breakout one for the former Fresno State Bulldog. This year, the stage will belong to Mathews with Mike Tolbert’s departure for the Carolina Panthers via free agency and that will mean an every down responsibility on the shoulders of the12th overall pick in 2010.
The Bolts’ coaching staff seems to believe that Mathews is more than ready to make that jump to the elite category as a ball carrier. Head Coach Norv Turner said: “I personally think he’s ready to take that next step, that means, to me, the production goes way up, and he’s more of the guy that is on the field most of the time. I think he’s grown a lot in terms of understanding his responsibility when the ball is in his hand.”
Perhaps the place to begin this discussion is with the responsibility portion of that quote where Mathews has been less than responsible holding onto the pigskin during his first two seasons. With 9 fumbles credited to him during that timeframe, there is no denying the fact that there are some issues to be addressed with ball security.
Injuries are also an area of real concern for the Chargers who now have an even thinner backfield and cannot afford to have Mathews miss any time in 2012. If the past is any indication however, expecting Mathews to be on the field for all sixteen games this coming season might be wishful thinking. In 2010 as a rookie, the back missed four games due to injury and even last year he sat out two contests.
Two areas where ball carriers can’t fall short are durability and ball security. Both of those parts of Mathews’ game are suspect at best to this point of his short career.
The Chargers have said goodbye to some top notch running backs over the past five years beginning with Michael Turner, then LaDainian Tomlinson, and on to Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert in the last two offseasons. All of this leaves Bolts’ fans longing for that next high-quality back to again turn this offense into a balanced attack capable of beating opponents on the ground or through the air.
There was an addition this offseason in the backfield that could make an impact for the club as former Baltimore Ravens’ running back Le’Ron McClain signed with the Bolts. He proved capable as a fill-in during the 2008 campaign when he racked up 902 yards and 10 touchdowns. His prowess as a goal line back will also be a nice safety blanket for the team as Mathews has yet to show the ability to gain the tough yards.
One area where Mathews is sure to continue to excel is as a pass catcher where he had 50 grabs a year ago and has the ability to make defenders miss in space on the perimeter. More designed plays of this style with blocking leading the way could be a great way to be an extension of the running game and help to move the chains.
It will also greatly help Mathews if the play calling by Norv Turner in 2012 is less predictable with more first down play action calls or screen passes to keep defenses guessing. Instead of running the ball up the middle on nine out of ten first downs, the Chargers would be a much more effective offense if the calls were a bit more diversified. Mathews stands a better chance at living up to Turner’s lofty expectations if the coach goes a bit more unconventional with the playbook this year.
Clearly the biggest factor in deciding just how well Mathews fares this season is the play of the Chargers’ offensive line. It is a line that will be without its best run blocker from seasons past in Kris Dielman and a bit unproven across the board. The veteran of the group is center Nick Hardwick, but unless the unit can be cohesive, stay healthy, and play together, Mathews can only get so far on his own.
2011 saw some nice progress from Mathews as a runner, but it remains difficult to get beyond his shortcomings of frequent fumbles and being injury-prone when attempting to predict the future. If he is able to overcome these hurdles in the coming year, the Chargers could be back in the hunt for a trip to the Super Bowl. If Mathews again coughs up the ball and misses critical games due to injury, it could be more of the same.
Now it’s your turn! Do you agree with Norv Turner that Mathews is ready to take that next step as a back in the league? Will injuries and fumbles be Mathews’ undoing or will he overcome those issues to thrive in the coming season? Can the Bolts’ offensive line block effectively enough for Mathews to do his thing carrying the pigskin? Does the success of the Chargers as a team rest on the shoulders of Mathews in 2012? Please fill up the comments section below with your thoughts!
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