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OWINGS MILLS — Ray Lewis is going to trust older versions of game film, his memory and the sterling body of work San Diego Chargers All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson has amassed.
The Baltimore Ravens’ middle linebacker isn’t going to be fooled by the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player’s recently diminished stat lines.
On the precipice of 10,000 yards as he’s just 29 yards shy of that milestone heading into Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens at Qualcomm Stadium, Tomlinson’s impact has been mysteriously negated by two surprising sources: Chargers coach Norv Turner’s reluctance to pound the football on a regular basis behind burly fullback Lorenzo Neal and defenses that have grown ever stingier against Tomlinson’s patented jukes, spins and acceleration.
Despite Tomlinson rushing for 62 yards on 16 carries in the Chargers’ 24-17 loss last week to the Jacksonville Jaguars, gaining 76 yards on 21 attempts in a 23-21 win over the Indianapolis Colts and generating just 40 yards on 16 carries in a 35-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings over the past three games, Lewis is convinced that the Ravens are about to encounter vintage Tomlinson.
"L.T. is a football player," said Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "L.T. is one that when you strap your helmet on you know you better come play football. We carry a lot of respect for each other.
"L.T., man, I’m telling you, just what he brings to the game, being able to get the ball up the backfield, they’re going to make sure he touches the ball over 30 times. I think that’s what the papers are talking about now that that’s what he’s saying. He’s not getting enough touches. It’s going to be a great challenge for us with him coming back and touching the ball as many times as he’s going to touch it."
Although Tomlinson has gained 795 rushing yards to rank seventh overall in the NFL, he ranks first with nine rushing touchdowns. Still, his carries have steadily decreased and Neal was only in the game for 19 snaps against the Jaguars.
Three times this year San Diego has run the ball only 20 times, losing each time. After 10 games they have fewer runs and lower ground yardage with 1,076 yards than any of the previous four seasons.
â€œI would like to get it a little bit more, just my personal opinion,â€ said Tomlinson following the Jacksonville game. â€œBut I’m not the coach, I’m just a player. That’s all I can do is play, and whenever my number is called is try to make the best out of it.
â€œWhenever the play comes in I don’t pout about it and say, ‘Man, I should be getting the ball,’ because you never know what’s going to happen. If you think that way, then obviously you’re going to go into that play with a negative mindset; you’re not going to give it 110 percent. So I don’t really think like that until after the game and I replay it in my mind and obviously, yeah, as a competitor you say, ‘I want the ball more.’"
With 269 runs this year to account for 47 percent of the Chargers’ total plays, Turner hasn’t made full use of Tomlinson. He has just 70 carries over the past four games and his 192 carries are the second-fewest carries through 10 games in his career.
None of which is the Ravens’ problem, of course.
"We’re not running the ball as well as we have in the past," Chargers coach Norv Turner told San Diego reporters. "When you run the ball well, you run it more."
A year ago, Tomlinson rushed for 98 yards in a 16-13 Ravens win in Baltimore.
The Ravens sport the NFL’s third-ranked run defense, allowing just 78 rushing yards per contest with no runners hitting the century mark this year.
They are riding the NFL’s longest streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher. It has been 13 games since Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson eclipsed 100 yards against Baltimore.
Over the past 30 games, only two running backs have gained 100 yards against the Ravens: Johnson and Travis Henry, both last year.
Tomlinson is regarded as a special, slashing case, though, by the Ravens’ defense, which is especially stout up the middle with massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and penetrating nose guard Kelly Gregg walling blockers off of inside linebacker standouts Bart Scott and Lewis.
"L.T. is versatile, you’ve got to be sure you cover him up," Ngata said. "You got to do whatever it takes to stop him because he’s such a good athlete. Neal is a great hitter. He will come out and thump you, so we’ve got to watch out for him."
The Chargers are equally respectful of a Ravens defense that is allowing just 2.8 yards per carry by opponents with only four touchdown runs surrendered.
"The Ravens are obviously one of the best run defenses in the league that you’re going to see," Turner said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters.
"Statistically, that’s proven out. A lot of teams play the run well because they’ve got everyone loaded up in there.
"That’s not the case with Baltimore. They’re able to play the run with their front seven and still play coverage. That makes it that much more challenging."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.