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As far as running backs go, San Diego Chargers star LaDainian Tomlinson has been one of the best passers since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. But the Miami Dolphins have proven that Ronnie Brown gives them some options from the backfield as well.
With Tomlinson appearing healthier, the Chargers on Sunday will look to snap a six-game losing streak against an upstart Dolphins team that used Brown and some unorthodox offensive formations to earn their biggest win in recent years.
An injured right big toe has slowed Tomlinson some, but he’s coming off his best game of the season. He ran for 106 yards and two touchdowns, including a 41-yard scamper, in San Diego’s 28-18 win over Oakland on Sunday.
The Chargers (2-2) have won two straight after falling by a total of three points to Carolina and Denver to open the season.
“I think we’re getting better as a football team in all three phases,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said. “That’s certainly what we need to do and that’s what every team needs to do at this time of year.”
Tomlinson will be featured again as the Chargers try to snap their skid versus the Dolphins (1-2). These teams, though, haven’t met since Dec. 11, 2005, when the Dolphins won 23-21 at San Diego.
Tomlinson didn’t throw a pass in that game and hasn’t yet this season, but he is 8-for-11 with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his career. Walter Payton is the only running back since the merger to throw more touchdown passes (8), but the former Chicago star was also picked off six times.
Miami, meanwhile, got a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brown in a stunning 38-13 win over New England on Sept. 21. That play was part of a package of tricks that has put the Dolphins in position to win consecutive games for the first time since a four-game run in November 2006.
Miami used its “Wildcat” formation to roll past the Patriots, with Brown taking direct snaps and setting a franchise record with four rushing touchdowns.
“It’s not so much tricks,” Brown said. “I think everybody’s starting to catch on. I’ve seen a few other teams try stuff like that, doing the direct snap, and it didn’t work.”
Miami, coming off a bye, had an extra week to fine-tune whatever offensive scheme it decides to use. Rest always helps, but the Dolphins hope the layoff didn’t take away any momentum.
“It’s important to get back out there and remind ourselves when we play with good tempo and up to our potential what can happen,” Miami running back Ricky Williams said.
It might have been tough for the Dolphins to utilize trick plays if they had an inexperienced quarterback in the huddle, but Chad Pennington has done an outstanding job while providing veteran leadership.
Pennington played one of his most efficient games of his career, completing 17 of 20 passes for 226 yards against New England. His 85.0 percent completion mark was a new personal single-game high, and the second-best in team history.
Pennington is 3-0 against San Diego, including a playoff win for the New York Jets in January 2005, completing 73.7 percent of his passes for 790 yards and five TDs without an interception. But the veteran will be facing a Chargers club coming off its best defensive performance of the season.
San Diego had six sacks against the Raiders, and is now set to get starting middle linebacker Stephen Cooper back after serving a four-game, NFL-imposed suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant.
Cooper led San Diego with 179 tackles in his first season as a starter in 2007, when the Chargers reached the AFC championship game. Turner has yet to determine if Cooper will start immediately.
“It’s going to be huge because he’s one of those emotional leaders on the field and he’s one of our better players on the field also,” San Diego outside linebacker Shaun Phillips said. “So anytime you can get a guy of that caliber back, it helps us out immensely. It’s going to be fun to have him back on the field.”
Sunday’s performance also was sparked by a couple of defensive linemen who missed time this summer.
Defensive tackle Jamal Williams, limited in training camp as he recovered from offseason knee surgery, was a force as the Chargers held the Raiders’ solid rushing unit to 3.1 yards per carry. He was joined by defensive end Luis Castillo, who had been nursing a back injury.