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Friday's key matchup: Chargers RB Ryan Mathews vs. Broncos defense

Pro Football Weekly
Chargers still confident in RB Mathews
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Chargers still confident in RB Mathews

Chargers RB Ryan Mathews vs. Broncos defense

In this key Monday-night matchup to help decide early supremacy in the AFC West, Chargers RB Ryan Mathews is in the crosshairs, as his performance means a lot to both teams. 

For San Diego, it’s time for Mathews to be unleashed and get utilized like the bellcow Norv Turner said he would be. Injuries and a fumble plagued the start of Mathews’ season, but reports indicate he will start over Jackie Battle. Mathews led the team in total offense last week against New Orleans, and he has thrived against Denver.

In three career games against the Broncos, Mathews has rushed for at least 120 yards in each and has three total touchdowns. He is gaining 127.3 rushing yards per game in those three matchups with Denver.

On the other side of the ball, the Broncos’ run defense needs to return to the form we saw early in the season, when it shut down Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Oakland on the ground. Last week, the Broncos gave up an astounding 251 rushing yards in a loss to New England, making observers wonder if the linebacking corps misses the suspended D.J. Williams. If the Broncos can shut down the run game and put the pressure on Philip Rivers, the secondary can focus on turning Rivers over to give Peyton Manning a short field.

Though both teams have top quarterbacks, the Broncos don’t have a running back like Mathews — though they hope that Ronnie Hillman can one day develop into that kind of dual-threat back.

Mathews can beat you on the ground and as a receiver. He has a great burst when he gets to the open field, as displayed in his touchdown run against the Saints after he bounced outside the tackle and ran down the sideline. Rivers also likes to target Mathews as a receiver.

Denver DTs Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan, and MLB Joe Mays will be counted on to clog the middle and force Mathews to the outside, where Derek Wolfe, Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard need to contain him. The Broncos could use DE Robert Ayers on some snaps, as his strength is against the run and he could help set the edge. Young LBs Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving also could help in certain situations.

The Chargers’ offense has not reached its potential, and part of that is because Mathews is not being used to the fullest. On national television with first place in the division on the line heading into the bye, it is primed to be a week for Mathews to get his touches. The Chargers’ O-line will have to create holes, and Mathews needs to hold on to the football. TE Antonio Gates can help attract attention from the linebackers and safeties to keep the middle of Denver’s defense from keying too heavily on Mathews.

All signs point to these two teams battling it out at the end of the season for first place in the AFC West, and there are plenty of questions about both teams after five games. If Mathews gets his opportunities and has another big day against Denver, the Chargers could be a force the rest of the way. If the Broncos can keep Mathews bottled up, that’s a great sign for the front seven and a defense that has struggled of late.

The spotlight will understandably be on Rivers and Manning, but Mathews could be the difference. 

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