NFL Nation: Ronnie Brown

The Denver Broncos have won the offseason title and free agency is not even four days old.

John Elway signed safety T.J. Ward to a four-year, $23 million deal that guarantees him $14 million. He stole cornerback Aqib Talib away from the New England Patriots with a six-year, $57 million deal that guarantees him $26 million. Then he thanked the Dallas Cowboys for their cap woes and unwillingness to pay DeMarcus Ware and signed Ware to a three-year, $30 million deal that includes $20 million guaranteed.

Ware will make $250,000 more with the Broncos this year than he would have with the Cowboys.

Add those three to an offense that will still put up points even if Eric Decker leaves and Denver should be viewed as the favorites in the AFC.

In fact, they might look like a "Dream …" Sorry. Got something stuck in my throat. "A Dream …" Man, there it goes again.

One more time: A dream team.

Could the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles serve as a reminder that a "dream team" doesn’t mean a Super Bowl team?

To refresh: The Eagles loaded up with Jason Babin (five years, $28 million), Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million) and Nnamdi Asomugha (five years, $60 million). They traded Kevin Kolb and got Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in return. They added serviceable pieces in Ronnie Brown and Evan Mathis turned out to be a steal.

Then they signed Vince Young, who came up with the dream-team tag.

And Philadelphia finished 8-8.

The Broncos have Peyton Manning, so it’s hard to see an 8-8 season. But what happens if Manning gets hurt?
PHILADELPHIA – It makes for interesting discussion -- Manning vs. Brady, Kaepernick vs. Wilson -- but if you really want to know who will win Sunday's championship games, count the former Eagles.

Baseball has that thing about ex-Cubs never winning the World Series. The NFL playoffs, at least this offseason, have the Eagles jinx.

[+] EnlargeHightower
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaWhat's a sure way to predict who won't advance in the playoffs? Just count the number of former Eagles -- such as the Colts' Stanley Havili (39) -- on the rosters.
It's simple enough. Whichever team has the most significant connection to the Eagles will lose. The formula has worked for six of the seven postseason games for which it was applicable.

Start with the first round. The Eagles obviously have the most significant Eagles connection of all. They lost to the Saints. Kansas City, coached by former Eagles head coach Andy Reid, lost to Indianapolis.

San Franscisco/Green Bay really is a push. Neither team has an ex-Eagle on its roster. But each has the brother of a current Eagle: San Francisco's Garrett Celek and Green Bay's Clay Matthews. The ex-Eagles jinx did not apply here.

The exception was San Diego's victory over Cincinnati. The Chargers have a handful of ex-Eagles, including tackle King Dunlap and running back Ronnie Brown. Apparently, the ex-Eagles jinx isn't as powerful as the Andy Dalton jinx.

In the second round, the jinx was a perfect four-for-four. Carolina, with ex-Eagles assistants Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott coaching a defense with Quintin Mikell at safety, lost at home to the Eagles-free 49ers. The Chargers' ex-Eagles caught up to them in a loss to Denver (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie notwithstanding).

The Saints/Seahawks game was another close one. The Saints have Brodrick Bunkley, the Seahawks have Chris Clemons. Bunkley was a first-round pick and spent more time in Philadelphia. The Saints lost.

It was ex-Eagle Stanley Havili who bobbled a pass into the arms of a defender in the Colts' loss to New England. As if he needed to prove his genius one more time, Patriots coach Bill Belichick kept his only former Eagle, Isaac Sopoaga, on the inactive list.

If Belichick does the same Sunday, the Patriots will have the edge over the Rodgers-Cromartie laden Broncos.

In the NFC, the 49ers remain Eagles-free. Clemons, who spent two seasons in Philadelphia, puts the jinx squarely on the Seahawks.

If form holds, then, the 49ers will face the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and the outcome may depend on whether Sopoaga plays.

Preposterous, you say? About as preposterous as a franchise failing to win a single Super Bowl in the 48-year history of the game.


When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.

Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.

It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.

Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?

Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.

How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?

Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.

Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?

Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.

You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?

Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?

Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.

San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?

Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.

CINCINNATI -- It’s been six years since San Diego Chargers running back Ronnie Brown galloped that far on the football field in anger.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Brown
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChargers RB Ronnie Brown saw his most extensive action of the season on Sunday at Cincinnati.
"A long time, especially for an old guy like myself," Brown said, smiling. "It felt good, but I think the biggest part was us getting a victory. I think it pretty much put the icing on the cake at the end of the game."

Brown's 58-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter on Sunday sealed a 27-10 playoff win for the Chargers over Cincinnati. Brown hasn’t had a run that far since a 62-yard touchdown scamper in a 38-13 win against New England on Sept. 21, 2008. That season, Brown sometimes served as the Wildcat quarterback for the Dolphins.

The No. 2 overall selection in the 2005 draft for the Dolphins, at 32 years old Brown is one of nine players on San Diego’s roster 30 years old or older.

He helps provide a calming influence in the locker room.

“He shows up to work every day,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "All he does is work and help his teammates out, and that’s all you can ask. He’s a true professional -- a great guy to be around. We’re very fortunate to have him.”

Brown’s long run helped contribute to San Diego’s season-high 196 rushing yards against Cincinnati, and was the team’s longest run of the season. Brown finished with eight rushes for 77 yards.

The Chargers might have to take advantage of Brown’s fresh legs even more this Sunday in the team’s AFC divisional round game at Denver.

Workhorse running back Ryan Mathews entered the contest with a balky ankle. Mathews rushed for 52 yards on 13 carries, but gave way to Danny Woodhead and Brown after one carry in the second half.

"We're doing what’s best for the football team," McCoy said, when asked about Mathews' injury status. "We rested him a little this week, as we’ve done the past couple weeks. We’re still playing, so we have to do what’s best for the team moving forward."

What’s best for the team moving forward could mean more carries for a healthy Brown over playing a hobbled Mathews.

Brown should be ready for the increased workload. Besides handling kick return duties, Brown’s played in a total of 14 snaps in the month of December before San Diego’s playoff win against Cincinnati.

“Every guy is important,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Ronnie Brown is a team favorite and a great teammate. He's so unselfish. He’s dressed so many games and not played. When he’s called on, you see why he was picked high in the draft and why he’s had a heck of a career. We’re glad we got him."
SAN DIEGO -- Blocking for San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is an offensive lineman's dream.

[+] EnlargeSan Diego's Ryan Mathews
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsRyan Mathews has emerged as a running back this season, to the delight of his linemen.
At least that's the way the team's longtime center Nick Hardwick describes it. Hardwick says opposing defenders shy away from contact when Mathews gets his legs churning.

"He is built like a block of granite," Hardwick said. "He is a pretty intense specimen, so when he gets going downhill, he is inflicting some pain on these linebackers and safeties."

Mathews' physical running style is something the rest of the offensive line feeds off of, according to rookie right tackle D.J. Fluker.

"I love blocking for Ryan," Fluker said. "Ryan just makes people look bad on the field. DB's don't want to hit him. They're scared of him because he's physical with them. It's great to see him have a great season. And it's been great to see someone go out there and give everything they have for their teammates."

In his fourth NFL season, Mathews has finally emerged from the immense shadow of being drafted as the replacement for LaDainian Tomlinson as the No. 12 overall selection in the 2010 draft.

The Fresno State product topped 1,000 rushing yards for the second time as a pro, rushing a career-high 236 times for 1,012 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Mathews has run for 415 yards after contact, which is No. 7 in the NFL.

"It's been good, really good," Mathews said after the Denver game last week, in which he ran for 127 yards. Mathews carried the ball 58 times in two games over four days.

"I'm sore, but that's what they are asking of me, so that's what I'm going to do. I'm just going to keep grinding, and doing whatever this team needs."

Added receiver Seyi Ajirotutu, who played with Mathews at Fresno State: "He's always been tough. But there's just something about this year that has been special. He's running hard, and everyone can see it. He just looks like a different back, and obviously he's running confident."

Mathews has stayed healthy, and is on track to play a full, 16-game season for the first time as a pro. And he's avoided putting the ball on the ground. Heading into the 2013 season, Mathews had fumbled 12 times, losing seven of them through three seasons. But this year, Mathews has fumbled just twice, losing one of them.

Mathews has five 100-yard rushing games this season, which is tied with Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy for the most in the NFL.

But more than anything, at 26-years old Mathews has shown maturity. He's done a better job of taking care of his body, preparing himself for the rigors of an NFL season with a rigid regimen before the season started, one which included reporting to training camp at the appropriate weight on his 6-foot, 220-pound frame.

"He puts a lot of work in," fellow running back Ronnie Brown said. "There's a lot of stuff that's not seen. People give him a hard time. But he runs the ball hard. He prepares hard in the offseason. And he puts in the work that's necessary, and I don't think a lot of people see that, so it's not appreciated."

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said he first noticed a confident and decisive Mathews during offseason work by watching his feet. Rivers said Mathews benefitted from offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt streamlining the team's running playbook, focusing on a steady diet of inside and outside zone running plays.

"There have been less schematic things, which gives him a lot of reps at the run packages that we have," Rivers said. "He has been able to rep them over and over and over again, going all the way back to OTAs. As a runner, much like as a passer, if you run it five times you feel decent, but if we throw it 50 times over the offseason then you feel a lot better.

"It's the same way in the running game. If I run inside zone against every look they have 50 times throughout the offseason, I'm going to feel a heck of a lot better about it than if I get a lot of different ones. I think that is one thing I can see. I felt confidence in his feet, confidence in his vision grow over this whole offseason throughout training camp and all year long."

While Rivers has shown the ability to pick opponents apart through the air, Mathews provides the hammer in the run game, keeping defenses honest and closing out games by grinding out first downs to run the clock.

Once considered a good bet to leave town when his contract ends at the end of the 2014 season, Mathews has proved that he's a good fit long term for the Chargers.
SAN DIEGO – When it comes to getting carries, an offensive coordinator is never going to satisfy everyone in the running back room.

Everyone wants their touches. And when a running back is playing in a pass-first offense, those touches can be few and far between. But through four games, San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has done a nice job of managing the workload between his stable of running backs.

“A lot of it is package-driven,” Whisenhunt said. “We go in there with a lot of different personnel groups, and we have different guys playing in different spots within those groups. If we’re having success with that group, then whatever the rotation is, those guys are going to get more plays on any given Sunday.

“We’re certainly conscious of the fact that Ryan [Mathews] is running the ball very well and we’re trying to get opportunities for him to do that. But Danny [Woodhead] has been playing well for us. Ronnie Brown has been playing well for us. It’s really a good problem to have to be honest with you.”

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsRyan Mathews is the Chargers' top rusher and every-down back, but his role changes near the goal line.
San Diego is running the ball only 41.5 percent of the time (148 passing plays vs. 105 running plays). But when the Chargers have run the ball, they've been pretty effective, averaging 105 yards a contest.

Mathews is the team’s every-down back. The Fresno State product has a team-high 226 yards on 64 carries, a 3.5-per-carry average. His longest run is 20 yards. Mathews also has seven catches for 66 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown. But he has not scored on rushing touchdown this season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Mathews has only one carry inside the opponent’s 10-yard line this season, and only four of his carries have come inside the 20-yard line. Brown has handled both carries for San Diego from the opponent’s 1-yard line this season.

Even though he has not received touches near the goal line, Mathews said he’s comfortable with his team’s new offense, and his role in it.

“We've got a bunch of great running backs here that can all make plays,” he said. “If the personnel is called up, and your number is called up, then you go in the game and do your best on every play.”

Woodhead has been used mostly in passing situations and in the red zone. The Chadron State product is the second-leading receiver for the Chargers, with 22 catches for 162 yards. Woodhead had his first, two-touchdown-reception game against Dallas last week, twice beating Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter on wheel routes.

Woodhead also has 90 yards rushing, and is the closest player in terms of skill set the Chargers have had since losing Darren Sproles to New Orleans in free agency in 2011.

The unselfish Woodhead said that whenever his number is called, he’ll be ready.

“That’s the last thing I’m concerned about is how many touches I get,” Woodhead said. “I don’t want to get into that, because then the focus would be on myself. I want to focus on what we have to do to win the game. And when I’m out there, if I get the touch, I’m going to try and do the best I can with it. But you’ve got to realize that there’s 10 other people helping me if I get yards.”

Brown has been used mostly in goal-line and passing situations. Brown has 55 yards rushing, including a 1-yard touchdown. And then there's Le'Ron McClain, who at 6-foot and 260 pounds remains one of the most bruising lead-blocking fullbacks in the business.

The diversity of runners the Chargers have on the roster allows them to attack opponents in a lot of different ways, keeping defenses from just focusing on Philip Rivers and the passing game.

“I know Ryan would like to get the ball 20 times, but every back would,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. “Every receiver wants 10 catches. It’s a team game. There is going to be games from week to week where certain guys are the best guy for the situation.

“Ryan is the guy we are going to pound the ball with. That’s what we put him in there to do, and he did a good job with it running physical and making the most out of his opportunities. We’re going to play a number of guys. We not worrying about giving this guy this many touches, we’re going to do what’s best to win.”

Upon Further Review: Chargers Week 3

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
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An examination of four hot issues from the San Diego Chargers' 20-17 loss at the Tennessee Titans:

Offensive line woes: San Diego headed into Sunday’s contest already down an offensive lineman when D.J. Fluker was ruled out because of a concussion. Michael Harris played solid in place of Fluker at right tackle. But the Chargers potentially lost two more starters up front against Tennessee. San Diego coach Mike McCoy told reporters after the game left tackle King Dunlap had a concussion. Left guard Chad Rinehart also had a turf toe injury in the second half and did not return. Already thin up front, the Chargers do not have enough quality depth to withstand that many starters being out heading into next week’s Dallas game.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Brown
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiRonnie Brown's touchdown was San Diego's first rushing score in almost a year.
Throw to score, run to win: While the Chargers have one of the top passing offenses in the NFL through three games, they still have trouble consistently running the ball. San Diego’s struggles to move the chains late to close out games can be partially attributed to the team’s inconsistent ground game. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ronnie Brown's 1-yard touchdown run in the second half was San Diego’s first rushing touchdown since Week 5 against the Saints last year. That’s a head-scratching statistic. The Chargers finished with a respectable 102 rushing yards against Tennessee. Ryan Mathews led the way with 58 rushing yards on 16 carries. Third-down back Danny Woodhead added 31 yards on the ground and had seven catches for 55 yards. But the Chargers failed to successfully run the ball when it mattered most -- at the end of the game.

Turnover drought: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says that one of his primary philosophies is “It’s all about the ball” -- meaning take care of it on offense and look for ways to create turnovers on defense. Through the first three games, San Diego has struggled in one of the top indicators on whether a team will win or lose: turnover differential. San Diego has created one turnover through three games, which is among the worst in the league. However, the Chargers did create a sudden-change situation when Tennessee punter Brett Kern fumbled the snap, recovering his own fumble at Tennessee’s 30-yard line. The Chargers turned that opportunity into a Nick Novak 44-yard field goal. The Chargers have a minus-3 turnover differential through three weeks.

Third down struggles: Heading into Sunday’s contest, the Chargers were converting an impressive 58.6 percent of their opportunities on third down, tops in the NFL. But against Tennessee, the Chargers finished just 3-of-9 on third down, including being 0-for-3 in the first half. Just a week ago, San Diego ran a season-high 79 plays against an up-tempo Philadelphia offense. However, that same offense managed just 53 plays compared to 68 plays for Tennessee. The Titans’ ability to effectively run the football also led to a 31:38 to 28:22 edge in time of possession.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC West team?

DENVER BRONCOS

Offense: The Wes Welker Factor
Peyton Manning has a new toy. But with the wealth of options in this offense, it seems unlikely Welker will match his production from his days with Tom Brady. Manning will love exploiting the mismatches Welker creates from the slot. Welker’s experience in New England's up-tempo offense should pay off as Denver transitions to a similar pace. It is difficult to find weaknesses in the Broncos’ offense right now.

Defense: Pass-rush issue
Elvis Dumervil is now playing for Baltimore. Von Miller is one of the league’s premier defensive players and pass-rushers, but more is needed. Where will it come from? Derek Wolfe showed some flashes as an inside pass-rusher during his rookie season and on passing downs. Robert Ayers should also be effective when moved inside. Will the edge player opposite Miller -- Ayers on early downs and Shaun Phillips, most likely, on passing downs -- be able to produce? The wild card here is rookie Quanterus Smith.

Wild card: Pass coverage in the middle
Denver had a lot of problems last season covering opposing tight ends in the middle of the field. On paper, it doesn’t look as though the problem has been addressed. Denver’s safety play is average at best, but the middle linebacker spot manned by Joe Mays is the real issue. Look for opposing offenses to keep Denver in base defensive personnel and attack the middle of the field.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Offense: The Alex Smith Factor
Smith needs plenty of resources to be successful. But if he just makes fewer mistakes at the position than Matt Cassel did a year ago -- something that seems highly likely -- then Kansas City will be much more competitive. Smith also has underrated running skills, and the Chiefs should orchestrate plenty of designed quarterback movement and runs.

Defense: Interior pass rush
The Chiefs were among the worst defenses in the NFL last season at creating pressure on the quarterback between the tackles. Although the team made drastic changes across the roster, this area was not addressed. Unless Dontari Poe steps up in his second season -- and pass rush isn’t really his game -- little should change for Kansas City.

Wild card: Secondary receivers
The Chiefs are very light at wide receiver outside of Dwayne Bowe. They have three strong tight ends and could employ plenty of multiple tight end sets. Jamaal Charles should see plenty of passes thrown his way, but another outside threat needs to step up. Donnie Avery has the speed to open up room for others, but his hands are highly inconsistent. Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster have yet to find their place in this league. Keep an eye on Devon Wylie.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Offense: Man-blocking scheme
For some unknown reason, the Raiders switched in 2012 from a predominantly man-blocking scheme, in which Darren McFadden thrived, to a zone-blocking scheme. That was a failed experiment, especially for McFadden, who is entering the final year of his contract. Switching back could allow him to be the foundation of Oakland’s offense.

Defense: No pass rush
I fear the Raiders will be among the worst defenses in the NFL next season at rushing the passer. Lamarr Houston is a very talented player, capable of greatness, but he isn’t a typical edge pass-rushing defensive end. Andre Carter has had success in this area, but his best days are behind him. I like the additions of Pat Sims and Vance Walker at defensive tackle, but both are run-stuffers. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot of unobstructed time in the pocket this season. Calling Jadeveon Clowney...

Wild card: Building blocks
The Raiders are not going to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they must determine which players are their building blocks. I was impressed by the way the front office, despite many limitations, addressed the team's needs during the offseason. But many of their signings were only one-year deals. Which players do they want to bring back? Many players on Oakland’s roster are auditioning this season.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Offense: Pass protection
Philip Rivers needs to be protected, which San Diego hasn’t been able to do lately. Although the Chargers used a first-round pick on D.J. Fluker, who is a much better run blocker than pass blocker, I don’t see noticeable upgrades on the offensive line. I also don’t see much upside or potential star power in the group. Changing scheme could help by getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, but he could be headed for another punishing season.

Defense: Time to step up
The Chargers have several promising young defensive players who could be ready to break out. Eric Weddle is among the league’s best safeties, and Corey Liuget has already established himself as a real force on San Diego’s defensive line. Kendall Reyes might not be far behind Liuget and should become more of a household name this season. Manti Te’o could have an instant impact in his rookie season and pair with Donald Butler to be one of the better inside-linebacker tandems in the league.

Wild card: Receiver situation
Antonio Gates isn’t what he once was, but he still makes plays, and Rivers trusts him. The Chargers have many other receiving options now: Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, John Phillips, Ladarius Green, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. How will that sort out? My favorites are Allen, Vincent Brown and Green. Getting these young weapons plenty of reps could pay off in the long term for San Diego.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC West team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Denver Broncos: The Broncos still have Willis McGahee, but he could become a salary-cap casualty. McGahee still runs hard and effectively (he’s averaged 4.4 and 4.8 yards the past two seasons), but this will be his 11th season and he missed six games in 2012. When McGahee went down last year, Knowshon Moreno filled in admirably. But his role is undefined right now after the Broncos used high picks on the position in the past two drafts. They used a second-rounder this year on Montee Ball, which was a win-now type of pick. Ball is a no-nonsense runner who handled a heavy workload in college. He fits this athletic zone scheme quite well, and I just have a hunch that John Elway saw a little of Terrell Davis in Ball when he made that selection. Ronnie Hillman was Denver’s third-round pick in 2012. With his lateral agility, Hillman is unlike any of the top backs on this roster. If he proves himself as a worthy pass protector, Hillman could be a very solid third-down back who also gets snaps on early down-and-distance situations. Lance Ball remains on the roster, but it seems like an uphill climb for him to make the final cut, which is also the case for Mario Fannin and Jeremiah Johnson. Of course, whoever is getting carries for Denver will be aided greatly by Peyton Manning’s fantastic skill of getting Denver in the correct play at the line of scrimmage and exploiting defenses that are playing the pass heavier than the run.

Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles is a superstar who could even get more productive, especially as a receiver, with Andy Reid as his head coach. As a runner, he is more than just a home run threat, but few are as dangerous as Charles when he gets some daylight. The 26-year-old speedster caught just 35 passes a year ago. That number might double in 2013. Charles is in line for a gigantic season. The Chiefs used an early third-round pick on Knile Davis. There were quite a few backs on the board I would have picked before Davis, but he is a fine combination of speed and size, although injuries and fumbles are major issues for this incoming rookie. Also in the fold are Shaun Draughn and Cyrus Gray, who will have to prove their worth on special teams and in the passing game to stay with the team.

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are going back to a power-run scheme, which suits Darren McFadden better and might get him back on track. But scheme will not help him stay healthy, which is clearly the biggest knock on him to this point. He is still young, and when right, McFadden runs with great aggression to go along with long speed. McFadden also can be a major contributor as a receiver. One of my favorite players in the league is Marcel Reece, who stepped up huge last season with McFadden out of the lineup. Reece does it all. He is equal parts fullback and running back but has extremely soft hands and is an excellent route runner. Every team in the league would love to him on its roster, even though he might never be considered a full-time running back. The Raiders also signed Rashad Jennings, who had a terrible year for Jacksonville in 2012. He, too, struggles to stay on the field, which might open up a prominent spot for Latavius Murray, a sixth-round pick this year. Murray has a rare combination of size and speed, but is very much a work in progress. Look for him to get an opportunity at some point, as McFadden is up for free agency after this season. The Raiders will need to see what they have in Murray.

San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews is right there with McFadden as the most maddening and untrustworthy running backs in the NFL. But once again, it looks like Mathews will be getting an opportunity to be San Diego’s foundation back. And there is no questioning his ability, which ranks among the best in the league. At 25, he should be thriving now, even behind San Diego’s poor offensive line. He has missed 10 games in his three seasons as a professional. Surprisingly, the Chargers didn’t bring in another runner as a backup plan if Mathews once again cannot stay on the field. They did add Danny Woodhead, though, who is an excellent all-around player and the type of back the Chargers have not had since Darren Sproles. Expect him to be used as a receiver on many quick-hitting pass plays, which is much easier from a protection standpoint on the Chargers’ suspect offensive line. Mathews is a very good receiver, but questionable in protection, while Woodhead is an excellent receiver but lacks the size to play a ton of snaps. Ronnie Brown was San Diego’s third-down back last year and is highly reliable, although not flashy, particularly in the passing game. Brown, like Mathews, has had a tough time staying healthy.

AFC West running back update

April, 13, 2013
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With the draft less than two weeks away, here’s a look at the running back situation for each team in the division:

Denver Broncos: They could add another body here, but the Broncos’ running-back situation is serviceable and capable of developing into more if Ronnie Hillman takes a step forward in his second year. Hillman probably will never carry the full load, but he is Denver’s best big-play option out of the backfield and could become a force in the passing game once Peyton Manning and company trust him with protection and route-running. Willis McGahee's role should remain intact for the most part, and he is effective moving the chains and churning out tough yardage. Knowshon Moreno looked like a draft bust, but you can’t deny how well he played once given the chance last season -- very effective as both a runner and receiver. In fact, Moreno was probably the Broncos’ best running back in 2012, although I still feel that McGahee is the superior ball carrier. Of course, every defense will fear Manning and the Denver passing game -- especially now that Wes Welker has been added. Plus, Denver improved its offensive line by signing Louis Vasquez. So overall, this is a pretty sound unit.

Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles is a great player who could even step up his production, especially as a receiver, in Andy Reid’s offense. He is a big play waiting to happen, but also consistently churns out yardage even when his blocking isn’t superb. Expect a huge year from Charles in 2013. That said, the Chiefs would be wise to address the No. 2 running back spot in the draft or late in free agency with a bigger back to complement Charles. Right now, Shaun Draughn and Cyrus Gray, both heading into their second full seasons, are the only backups of note. Draughn carried the ball 59 times and caught 24 passes in 2012; Gray only touched the ball nine times during his rookie season. Reid could further utilize Draughn’s pass-catching skills, but he really was a liability in protection last season. The Chiefs need more from Draughn and Gray in 2013 and should find an improvement elsewhere.

Oakland Raiders: This might be the strongest position on the Raiders’ terrible roster, at least when Darren McFadden is actually healthy. But even when McFadden is on the shelf, which he so often is, the Raiders are not too badly off. Marcel Reece is just a heck of an all-around football player. A fullback in title, Reece is an outstanding receiver who caught 52 passes last year, a serviceable blocker and a solid runner. He is the type of player every team should want. Mike Goodson, who is talented but hard to rely on, is out. In is former Jaguar Rashad Jennings, who is bigger than Goodson and should fit the man blocking scheme Oakland will bring back. But Jennings also is tough to rely on due to his injury history -- and he really didn’t play well last season when he was healthy. Still, Jennings has produced at this level and was a good signing considering McFadden’s injury history. McFadden is only 25 years old, but he has never played more than 13 games in his five NFL seasons and appeared in only 19 over the past two seasons. And frankly, he was less than impressive when he did see the field in 2012, although next season’s scheme change could really benefit him. Even with this uncertainty, the Raiders will probably address their multitude of other needs in the draft rather than taking a running back high.

San Diego Chargers: The Chargers signed Danny Woodhead to go along with Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown as their primary running backs. Woodhead can act as a slot receiver and move all over the formation to create mismatches in the passing game as well as contribute with some carries. This is a fine addition, but Brown acted as the Chargers’ third-down back last season. With the problems with San Diego’s offensive line, checking down to Brown became a favorite decision for Philip Rivers. Few running backs have Mathews’ talent, but his injury history and lack of reliability are troubling -- especially for a former first-round pick. The new coaching staff might not be as enamored with Mathews as the last, but it is easy to overlook the fact that Mathews was rather effective running the ball last year for a team that had blocking woes. He also gives the Chargers three backs who catch the ball well, although neither excels in protection. Woodhead, Brown and Mathews combined to catch a whopping 128 passes in 2012.
Via the great John Clayton, I have some updated NFL salary cap numbers for each AFC West team. Remember, the salary cap is always fluid, so this is more of a guide of where each team stands as free agency moves to the second phase.

Denver Broncos

Cap room: $8.44 million

Comment: This is a result of the Elvis Dumervil fiasco. Denver needs to find a pass-rusher whether it’s Dumervil or another player.

Kansas City Chiefs

Cap room: $5.48 million

Comment: This does not include the deal for lineman Geoff Schwartz. The Chiefs can find some more room, but they’ve done a lot of heavy lifting so far.

Oakland Raiders

Cap room: $7.54 million

Comment: This does not include the deals for Nick Roach, Pat Sims and Kevin Burnett. The Raiders can find some more room by restructuring or cutting Carson Palmer and Tommy Kelly.

San Diego Chargers

Cap room: $9.95 million

Comment: This does not include the deals for Derek Cox and Ronnie Brown, so the number is closer to $7 million.
The Oakland Raiders have done a nice job by filling their starting linebacking crew in free agency, now they must work on their defensive line among other areas.

Oakland, which has six holes in the defensive starting lineup, has three openings on the defensive line to go along with Lamarr Houston. One option left in the form of Matt Shaughnessy. The former mid-round pick signed a one-year deal with Arizona.

Shaughnessy had potential and played well for Oakland, but he did not play well last season and was replaced by journeyman Andre Carter late in the season. Still, the Raiders have holes on the defensive line. Richard Seymour is a free agent and Tommy Kelly expects to be cut.

Second-year players Christo Bilukidi and Jack Crawford might get a chance. Oakland might draft Flordia’s Sharriff Floyd with the No. 3 pick, and has signed Cincinnati’s Pat Sims at defensive tackle, but Sims has started just one game in the past two years.

Thus, defensive line is a priority for Oakland.

In other AFC West notes:

The Chargers re-signed running back Ronnie Brown. On Friday, the Chargers signed Danny Woodhead. Both are different types of backs who will back up Ryan Mathews. I can still see the Chargers bringing in a running back, probably a bigger one, in free agency or in the draft.

Arizona signed former San Diego starting cornerback Antoine Cason to a one-year deal. The Chargers didn’t have much interest in bringing him back.

San Diego pass-rusher Antwan Barnes left his visit with the Jets without a deal.

AFC West injury report

December, 28, 2012
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Denver guard Chris Kuper is listed as questionable to play against Kansas City on Sunday. He has missed the past three games with an ankle injury. Denver coach John Fox said, even if Kuper doesn’t play Sunday, he is hopeful for Kuper's return in the playoffs.

Punt returner Trindon Holliday (ankle) is doubtful and cornerback Tracy Porter (concussion) is out.

For Kansas City, defensive end Tyson Jackson (toe) is doubtful. Kansas City has several players listed as questionable, including linebacker Tamba Hali (illness), tight end Tony Moeaki (head) and tackle Branden Albert (back).

For Oakland, guard Mike Brisiel (ankle) and safety Tyvon Branch (ankle, neck) are questionable. For San Diego , linebacker Donald Butler (groin) is doubtful and running back Ronnie Brown (hamstring) is questionable.

In other AFC West news:

Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and linebacker Von Miller and San Diego safety Eric Weddle all made John Clayton’s All-Pro team. It’s another indication that the fact that Weddle was a fifth alternate to the Pro Bowl is an utter shame.

There is some solace for Weddle. His teammates named him the team MVP. I think that’s a good call.

For what it’s worth, New England fans seem quite pleased with how the 2009 Richard Seymour trade to Oakland has gone for the Patriots.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was fined $10,000 by the NFL for kicking Oakland’s Tommy Kelly in the Panthers’ win Sunday. Newton was fined an additional $21,000 for contact with an official during the game. Also, defensive end Greg Hardy was fined $25,000 for his hit on Raiders QB Carson Palmer. It knocked Palmer out for the season with rib and lung injuries.

The Raiders promoted defensive lineman Brandon Bair and defensive back Cory Nelms from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. Cornerback Phillip Adams was put on injured reserve. Seymour went on the injured reserve Thursday.

Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel, who had his knee drained on Thursday, said he expects to coach Sunday in Denver from the sideline as opposed to the press box. Crennel said he felt much improved Friday.
The San Diego Chargers, whose already faint playoff hopes took a hit Thursday night when the Bengals beat the Eagles, got some good news when rookie left tackle Mike Harris was listed as probable.

That means the Chargers will play Sunday against Carolina likely with just two starting offensive linemen out. Right tackle Jeromey Clary (knee) and guard Tyronne Green (hamstring) are listed as doubtful to play Sunday. Harris, Clary and Green all missed last week’s win at Pittsburgh. Rex Hadnot will play for Green and Kevin Haslam will play for Clary.

Linebackers Donald Butler (groin) and running back Ronnie Brown (hamstring) are listed as doubtful and linebacker Demorrio Williams (ankle) is out for Sunday’s game.

In other AFC West news:

Denver guard Chris Kuper (ankle) and linebacker Wesley Woodyard (ankle) are listed as questionable to play at Baltimore on Sunday. Both players missed last week’s game at Denver and both were limited all week in practice.

Kansas City offensive linemen Ryan Lilja (knee) and Branden Albert (back) are questionable and safety Abram Elam (quad) is doubtful to play at Oakland on Sunday.

For Oakland, safety Tyvon Branch (neck) and defensive tackle Richard Seymour (hamstring) were limited Friday and both are listed as questionable to play Sunday. They will be game-time decisions.

ESPN.com columnist Ashley Fox makes the case for Denver linebacker Von Miller winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs will be a game-time decision on whether he will play against Denver on Sunday with a biceps injury.

The forecast for Baltimore for Sunday’s critical AFC game between the Broncos and the Ravens is for rain. Thus, the running games for each team will be paramount. That could give an edge to the home team.

In an Insider piece, Chris Sprow looks at possible free agents in 2013.Insider

Oakland’s home game against Kansas City has been ruled a sellout and it will be shown on local television. It is Oakland’s last home game of the season.
SAN DIEGO -- Thoughts from the San Diego Chargers' 16-13 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

What it means: The Chargers lost another close one, squandering a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. How many more crushing losses can this team take? San Diego is now 4-7 and two games out of the wild-card race.

Defense falters late: The San Diego defense was great for much of the game. But Baltimore made critical third and fourth-down conversions late in the game. The Ravens scored the game’s final 13 points, and it was just another late collapse by the Chargers.

Fourth and 29: The play of the game was a fourth-and-29 conversion on a short pass from Joe Flacco to Ray Rice with 1:37 to go in regulation. It set up Baltimore's game-tying field goal at the end of regulation.

No Rivers miscues: Philip Rivers did not commit a turnover Sunday. He has a league-leading 43 since the start of last season.

Under pressure: Baltimore had six sacks and San Diego had five. The quarterbacks were under constant duress.

Defense gets banged up: San Diego linebacker Donald Butler and safeties Eric Weddle, Atari Bigby and Darrell Stuckey were all hurt. There is no initial word on the severity of any of the injuries.

Alexander looks good again: San Diego receiver Danario Alexander continues to sparkle. He had five catches for 74 yards. He may have a future with the team. Big-money free agent pickup Robert Meachem did not play as his role in the offense has bottomed out.

Wildcat works: The Chargers dusted off the Wildcat in the fourth quarter as Ronnie Brown, a Wildcat original, took a direct snap and went 13 yards on a third down and seven. It setup a field goal to give San Diego a 13-3 lead.

Slow going: Ryan Mathews led the Chargers with 72 yards on 19 carries. The Chargers do not have a 100-yard rusher in a game this season.

What’s next: The Chargers host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The Bengals have won three straight games and are very much in the playoff hunt.

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