When San Diego visits The New Arrowhead tomorrow night, they’ll debut a much different look in their offensive backfield. At least, much different to those of us accustomed to seeing #21 align as the Chargers running back the past nine seasons.
LaDainian Tomlinson drove the Chiefs crazy for nearly a decade. Kansas City saw LT twice a year since 2001, with the 2004 season being the lone exception. Over the course of those 17 games, Tomlinson rushed for 1,488 yards, caught 77 passes and found the end zone 14 times. Regardless what stage of Tomlinson’s career it was, LT was always represented a respected foe.
“LT is one of the best, but he’s moved on,” LB
That young player is rookie Ryan Mathews out of Fresno State, the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
“This is a guy that’s hard to take down,” Johnson said. “He’s fast and explosive; a little bit of both. He can run past you, or he can run over you.”
Mathews is expected to carry the load of San Diego’s rushing attack this season and much fanfare has gone along with those preseason expectations. He’s the odds-on on favorite by many to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and he’s already drawing the attention of opposing head coaches before taking his first regular season snap.
“Even though (Tomlinson) is not there anymore, this young guy they have out of Fresno looks like a big time runner,” Chiefs head coach Todd Haley said. “He was one of the top dogs coming out. We spent some time with him in a couple different places and when I saw that name going there, that is one of those that you pay attention to.”
A rookie the caliber of Mathews can create some big-time headaches for opposing defensive coordinators, particularly those who face off against the Chargers early in the season. In addition to preparing for Philip Rivers, Darren Sproles and Antonio Gates, Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has only Matthews’ 34 preseason carries to work with relative to San Diego’s offensive system.
In addition to those 34 carries, Crennel has also gone back to Matthew's tape from Fresno State to evaluate the player.
"You (look at college tape) because you don't know enough about him yet," Crennel said. "So we talk to our personnel guys and we watch some college tape so that we can find out a little bit more. Our personnel guys do a great job of giving us information, so it works out well."
Even though Mathews’ pro game remains untested, he’s already drawn rave reviews from those inside the Chargers organization for his physical running style and NFL-ready mindset.
“He’s a downhill runner that’s an aggressive runner that is very physical and on top of that the thing we like so much about him is he has great speed so he can make big plays and get on the edge,” Chargers head coach Norv Turner said. “I really felt like when we drafted him he was a complete back and after having him here for this period of time starting in May once our off-season program started, he’s everything we hoped for and more.”
Inside Kansas City’s locker room there isn’t a whole lot of familiarity in Mathews. Rookie LB
“I think San Diego turned out to be a good fit for him,” Cole said. “Fresno had a real downhill, power running team, which seemed to complement his assets really well. He’s a great competitor and it was always fun to play against him.
“He was one of the better running backs in the country every year and when we played him you always knew that you had to be ready to matchup with him,” Cole continued. “We played against a lot of good running backs last year and he was definitely the best that we played.”
Tomlinson is out and Mathews is in. The rookie is someone, much like Tomlinson was, that the Chiefs are going to become very familiar with over the course of this season and into the future.
“I definitely think he’s ready to go and carry a lot of the load from the run-game standpoint,” Chargers QB Philip Rivers said.
We’ll get our first glimpse at Matthews and how he matches up with the Chiefs defense tomorrow. While many believe that pressuring Rivers and stunting the chargers air attack is a key for victory, defending this rookie runner will be just as important.