AFC West: Benjarvus Green-Ellis

CINCINNATI -- John Pagano knew what was coming, and his defense still couldn’t stop it.

After giving up 164 rushing yards to the Cincinnati Bengals in an earlier matchup this season, the San Diego Chargers' defensive coordinator is looking for a bit of redemption on Sunday.

“At times, the same rush that we held to a minus rush or a 1-yard gain, ended up in the second half being a six or an 8-yard gain,” Pagano said. “And you can’t have those things. The biggest thing is we’ve got to tackle. We have to go out and finish, tackle, and get them on the ground.”

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
Stan Liu/USA TODAY SportsBehind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Bengals racked up 164 rushing yards against the Chargers on Dec. 1.
Powerful Cincinnati running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the charge, finishing with 92 yards on 20 carries for a robust, 4.6 per carry average, and rookie scat back Giovani Bernard totaled 57 yards on 14 carries.

The two combined for 57 yards after contact, as San Diego defenders failed to get either back down at the line of scrimmage.

“We definitely know we have to gang tackle,” Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget said. “They have two excellent running backs, and we know, defensively, that can’t happen again. We just have to be sound with our tackling.”

After that game, the Chargers played much better against the run defensively. The return of outside linebackers Jarret Johnson (hand) and Melvin Ingram (knee) helped shore up San Diego’s run defense.

And it showed up in the stat book, with San Diego holding its next three opponents to an average of 56 yards a contest, including a season-low 18 rushing yards allowed at Denver.

But all of those good feelings melted away during the final game of the season, when a Kansas City offense led by mostly reserves bulled through San Diego’s defense for 143 rushing yards.

The Chargers had just a week to try and figure things out before facing the Bengals’ talented rushing attack again.

While Cincinnati has several playmakers on offense, the run game makes that team go. The Bengals are 7-2 this season when they rush for more than 100 yards. Running the ball takes pressure off quarterback Andy Dalton to make too many plays in the passing game, and it also helps keep Cincinnati’s defense fresh by keeping it off the field.

And with snow in the forecast for Sunday, the Chargers likely will see a lot of Green-Ellis and Bernard.

“Any time your offense can control the ball and keep Philip Rivers off the field, that’s a good day for your defense,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “He’s such an outstanding quarterback, so it’s important that we do a good job offensively.”

Chargers rookie linebacker Manti Te'o said the defense obviously watched film from the first Cincinnati game, but that doesn’t mean San Diego will see the same running scheme on Sunday.

“It definitely helps a lot,” Te’o said. “But you’ve got to also understand they're watching the same things. And it’s all about knowing yourself. Knowing what you have to work on. Knowing how they’re going to attack you. They could come out on Sunday and run something totally different. Like I’ve always said, it’s all about us in this locker room knowing what we’ve got to do, knowing where we’ve got to be and executing.”

Ultimately, Johnson said his unit has to rely on being assignment-correct.

“We have to be gap-sound,” Johnson said. “They have two very different backs, but they’re both very effective in their own way. Their screen game to the backs is another thing they do really well. So if we’re going to win this game, we have to be effective stopping their backs.”


The last time the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals met, both teams were missing key players, they played in a local TV blackout, and they could comfortably compete on a 60-degree, postcard-perfect Southern California afternoon.

Those were the conditions just one month ago Wednesday.

At least one of them could be the same. With ticket uncertainty rolling over into Thursday, Bengals officials have been working hard to avoid the NFL's first postseason blackout since 2002. On the field, the Bengals and Chargers have been working to get back key members of their teams, and are anticipating playing in conditions much less favorable than what they had on the West Coast.

Sunday's playoff game isn't only a rematch of the regular-season game won 17-10 by the Bengals. It also marks the first time the teams have met in the postseason since 1981, when Cincinnati beat San Diego for the AFC championship at old Riverfront Stadium. Because of a minus-59 wind chill, that game was dubbed the "Freezer Bowl." While it shouldn't feel that cold Sunday, conditions will be tough. Snow, freezing rain and rapidly dipping temperatures are in the forecast. The weather could make passing difficult for two teams that rely heavily on their quarterbacks.

To break down Sunday's game, we turn to ESPN.com NFL reporters Eric D. Williams (Chargers) and Coley Harvey (Bengals).

Harvey: One of the Bengals' biggest keys in the first meeting was running the ball. They rushed for 164 yards, having success even late in the game when San Diego clearly knew a run was coming. How can the Chargers prevent Cincinnati from having another prolific ground game?

Williams: First, the Chargers will have two players available who did not play in the first game -- outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram. Both are pretty good run defenders who should help San Diego play more physical up front. Second, the Chargers have to do a better job of maintaining their gaps and not allowing Cincinnati’s talented offensive line to create space for the running backs. Last, the Chargers have to do a better job of wrapping up BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. Both running backs finished with a lot of yards after contact, as San Diego had trouble bringing down the hard runners in the back end of the defense.

One thing I'm curious about is the Bengals' defense. The Bengals are tied for third in the league in turnovers forced with 31, and have six defensive touchdowns this season, all at Paul Brown Stadium. Why has Cincinnati’s defense been so successful at creating turnovers?

Harvey: If you ask defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- which we did Monday -- he'll say it's because his players just know they have to do whatever is necessary to pick the offense up and to put the ball back in its hands. There have been several instances when a turnover put the Bengals' defense on the wrong side of the 50, needing to come up with a stop. Defensive players say they relish those opportunities, and believe in their ability to not only hold for a field goal, but get the ball back. Cincinnati's defensive line plays a major role in helping create a lot of the fumbles and interceptions. Even after losing Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, the defensive line has still pressured opposing quarterbacks, forcing poorly thrown balls. The line and linebackers also do a great job of stripping balls and forcing timely fumbles.

I'll add that there is something slightly different about the defense at home. When it comes to turnovers, for example, 21 of the 31 forced by the defense have come at Paul Brown Stadium. As you mentioned, six have resulted in scores. Each of those scores either changed momentum or helped ice the game.

How much do you think playing the Bengals just 35 days ago will benefit the Chargers? They clearly learned something from that loss, and haven’t lost since.

Williams: That is correct -- the Chargers are on a four-game winning streak since losing to the Bengals on Dec. 1. Defensively the Chargers have been stingy, holding teams to just 18 points a contest in the past four games. San Diego has played more consistently on offense, particularly in the red zone, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. And the Chargers are playing with more confidence now than earlier in the season. Chargers coach Mike McCoy has figured out a blueprint for his team to win on both offense and defense -- a prolific, ball-control offense paired with a bend-but-don’t-break defense that keeps teams out of the end zone.

Philip Rivers finished the regular season tops in the NFL in completion percentage (69.5), fourth in touchdown passes (32) and fifth in passing yards (4,478). The Bengals did a nice job containing Rivers in the first matchup. What will it take for a repeat performance?

Harvey: It's going to take a lot of pressure, and some tight coverage both downfield and near the line of scrimmage. Bengals cornerback Terence Newman was telling reporters this week about what he felt made Rivers special -- his intelligence. As an 11-year veteran, Newman has seen it all. According to Newman, what is most impressive is Rivers' ability to use his eyes to steer linebackers or safeties one way, only to pass another because he knows he has a tight end or running back open in a soft spot the defense isn't covering. Newman stopped short of comparing Rivers to Peyton Manning, but he believes the two have much in common. Members of the Bengals' secondary know they can't just key on his eyes, they have to know where his playmakers are at all times. Members of the Bengals' line know they have to keep hounding Rivers like they have hounded quarterbacks all season.

Rivers is San Diego's household name, but how important have running back Ryan Mathews and receiver Keenan Allen been to the offense?

Williams: The Chargers leaned heavily on Mathews during the second half of the season, with good results. San Diego is 7-1 this season when Mathews has at least 19 carries. He has carried the ball at least 24 times in the past four games, all wins for San Diego. Allen finished the season with 71 receptions for a team-leading 1,046 yards, becoming the first rookie since Cincinnati’s A.J. Green to finish with 1,000 receiving yards. Green had 1,057 in 2011. Mathews keeps defenses honest with his bruising running style, and Allen emerged as Rivers’ go-to receiver when San Diego gets near the red zone. Allen is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with eight.

We've seen the good (33 touchdowns) and the bad (20 interceptions) from Andy Dalton this season. What type of performance do you expect from Dalton on Sunday? And will it matter if he does not play well?

Harvey: Because of how good this defense is, especially at home, I'm not sure it will matter if he plays well Sunday. Last week against the Ravens, Dalton threw four interceptions -- the first came 1 yard outside Baltimore's red zone -- and the defense ended up acting as an eraser and pretending the turnovers never happened. The one interception that came on Cincinnati's 21 resulted in a field goal. An interception on the following drive also resulted in a field goal. Instead of being down 14-0 early, the Bengals trailed 6-0, giving Dalton enough confidence to calm down and make plays when he needed to as the comeback began. I'm expecting another mixed bag from Dalton. Just like last week, he has shown this season that he can pass for 270 yards, three touchdowns and still have three interceptions. I wouldn't be surprised if his nerves are elevated a little at the start of the game, but as long as the defense keeps playing the way it has been and his receivers are not dropping passes, I believe Dalton will come out OK on Sunday.

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The slow running back market moved some Wednesday when New England’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis agreed to terms with Cincinnati. That could help move along Michael Bush's process.

The Oakland backup tailback has suffered from the slow market. He is likely out of the mix in Cincinnati. He is also getting interest from the Bears, Seahawks and Jets. Maybe the Green-Ellis agreement may move things along faster for Bush.

I could see Oakland getting back in the mix. The problem is Oakland has other needs and limited cap room. Bush could be interested to going back to Oakland because it doesn’t look like he will get a starter’s job, at this point. If he has to remain a back-up, Bush may want to continue to play in Oakland.
It was almost 12 hours ago when I first reported that San Diego Chargers running back Mike Tolbert has signed a four-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. I ended the short post by saying I would have more on the story later.

I should have indicated it would be much, much later. I guess I got sidetracked by another little story that developed in the AFC West.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some thoughts on Tolbert’s departure:

I don’t like it.

Last month, I wrote the Chargers couldn’t afford to lose another running back. Last year, they saw Darren Sproles go to New Orleans and he was missed. So will Tolbert.

He is a stud in short yardage, he has nice hands, he is a fine blocker, and he is great on special teams. Winning teams have players like Tolbert.

Ryan Mathews will need a new complement. Two names to keep an eye on are Kansas City’s Jackie Battle and Oakland’s Michael Bush. Bush is getting interest from the Bengals, Bears and Seahawks. Perhaps the Chargers will join the party. Other running backs available include Cedric Benson, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Brandon Jacobs, Ryan Grant and Joseph Addai.

The Chargers will see a lot of familiar faces when they play the NFC South in 2012. They will see Tolbert and Sproles as they will see recently departed star receiver Vincent Jackson in Tampa Bay and will face former backup running back Michael Turner when they play the Falcons.

The Chargers' last real priority in-house free agent is defensive tackle Antonio Garay.
INDIANAPOLIS – Alabama star running back Trent Richardson is the premier player at the NFL combine at his position.

Richardson
Richardson
However, Richardson is unable to show NFL teams he is ready to be the league’s next great back. Richardson had minor knee surgery after suffering an injury in January. He is not participating in drills at the combine. He will have his pro day late in March where he is expected to be fully healed.

While many top prospects don’t do much at the combine, Richardson is upset he is not getting the chance to showcase his skills in Indy.

“I’m very disappointed I can’t do the stuff here that everybody else can do,” Richardson said. “In college, it irked my nerves when I heard guys say they don’t want to this and that at the combine. That’s something that you dream of and want to do your whole life and being a college football player and a competitor, I always wanted to come to this and show all my skills. That’s what the top guys do.”

If you listen to several league observers, expect the Kansas City Chiefs to have keen interest in Richardson’s workout. Many mock drafts have the Chiefs taking Richardson at No. 11.

In my mind, there are a lot of obstacles in the way of that intriguing pairing. The biggest issue is Richardson’s availability. There is a chance Richardson could go as high as No. 5 to Tampa Bay. If Richardson does drop to No. 11, the Chiefs would have to decide if they want to bypass needs at tackle and linebacker to take Richardson.

Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli said Friday that the Chiefs will look at running backs in the draft and in free agency. Starter Jamaal Charles is expected to be ready for training camp after suffering a torn ACL in his knee in September. Kansas City running backs Jackie Battle and Thomas Jones are free agents, so the position is a need area.

If the Chiefs don’t pursue a running back — New England’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis and San Diego’s Mike Tolbert could be possibilities — in free agency, Richardson could be a target.

The blunt Richardson said he is ready to make an impact in the NFL.

“When it comes down to it, I’ll be the dude that’s on the field and getting the ball on third-and-3 or fourth-and-1,” Richardson said. “Not to be cocky or anything, but I work on my game every day, and even if it’s not physical stuff, I work in the classroom learning plays and learning the defensive line and what the linebackers and safeties are doing so I can pick up my blitzes. I love to block. Everybody knows I can run the ball. I’ve never been caught from behind, so if anyone wants to question my speed, just look at the tape. When it comes to playing football, any game you want to, just look at it and try to find a negative.”

That could turn out to be a positive in Kansas City.

Pricey loss for Richard Seymour

October, 7, 2011
10/07/11
6:35
PM ET
It was an expensive first drive against his former team last week.

Richard Seymour, the Oakland defensive lineman, was penalized 15 yards on a late hit on New England quarterback Tom Brady and another 15 yards for yanking the facemask of running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the Patriots’ first drive of a 31-19 New England win in Week 4.

Seymour was fined $7,500 for each infraction by the NFL. Seymour was traded from New England to Oakland in September 2009.

In other AFC West news Friday:

ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly thinks the Kansas City Chiefs have a real shot to get Lucky (y).

Newly signed San Diego defensive tackle Tommie Harris is expected to get around 18 snaps Sunday against Denver.

Oakland special teams ace Rock Cartwright is likely going to have to play fullback Sunday at Houston because of injuries.

Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe had some interesting comments on the Doug Gottlieb Show.

The Colts will stick with Curtis Painter as their quarterback Sunday against the visiting Chiefs.

ESPN’s panel of experts do not expect much from the AFC West in Week 5 outside of the Chargers winning.

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