OWINGS MILLS — There’s the prolific nature of San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a textbook package of skills built around electrifying moves and surprising power.
And then there’s the multi-dimensional game of Chargers halfback and kick returner Darren Sproles, Tomlinson’s understudy whose short stature and elusiveness in the open field in every phase prompted the team to designate him as their franchise player.
Even if Tomlinson is limited due to an ankle injury suffered Monday night against the Oakland Raiders, the Baltimore Ravens’ defense is aware that it faces a daunting assignment in trying to contain the two versatile runners on the road Sunday.
"The bottom line is you prepare for both of those guys," All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You get kind of the best of both worlds. Both of them are slash running backs. They really want to get the ball into those guys’ hands. So, it’s going to be great task for us."
Sproles piled up 246 all-purpose yards against the Raiders, scoring the game-winning touchdown on a five-yard scamper in relief of Tomlinson with 21 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
"Their last drive, Sproles really took control of the game," Lewis said. "Our job is to make sure he doesn’t get started."
Against Oakland, Sproles rushed for 23 yards, also totaling 43 yards and returning kickoffs and punts for a total of 180 more yards.
It was the second game-winning touchdown for Sproles out of the past three games, including an AFC wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts where the 5-foot-6, 185-pounder registered a thrilling 22-yard touchdown run in overtime.
"He’s the guy that’s moving the ball for them to a large extent in that game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Sproles. "He’s a big threat. He’s a north-south guy. He’s a big accelerator, and he runs through arm tackles.
"He doesn’t mess around too much. He gets the ball north and south fast, and they block really well for him. So, the return game, our coverage units are going to be really stressed."
Sproles’ combination of quickness and lack of height makes him a tough challenge.
Especially for tall defensive linemen like Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce. Maintaining an athletic position and keeping the outside containment is pivotal.
"What you don’t want to do is lose gap control," Pryce said. "If you stay where you are no matter where the ball shows up and try not to do too much, you have a chance. I’ve played against L.T. many times.
"Even when you think you have a chance, you really don’t. He’s a special back. Sproles, I don’t know much about him, but watching him on tape is like watching a Madden game. It’s interesting, if nothing else."
At 6-foot-5, 290 pounds, Pryce is 11 inches taller than Sproles and 105 pounds heavier.
For a man of Pryce’s dimensions to get down to Sproles’ level, he has to lower his center of gravity and practically get parallel to the ground.
"It’s a lot harder, because you have to leave your feet to dive at him," Pryce said. "You can’t squat that low. The bigger you are, the harder it is to tackle a small back. The lower he gets, the lower you have to get. By that time, you’re sitting on your behind.
"They’re strong. Shorter guys are always strong because they’re compact. You wouldn’t be so surprised on how strong they are, but when you see a guy like Sproles run through tackles, it’s not foreign to us. We see it all the time."
Tomlinson is regarded as one of the NFL’s top running backs in league history, rushing for 11,815 career yards and 127 touchdowns in nine seasons. He has also caught 511 passes for 3,802 yards and 15 touchdowns.
However, the 30-year-old former NFL Offensive Player of the Year was held to 55 rushing yards on 13 carries against Oakland.
He lost his first fumble in over 900 touches when he got hit after catching a shovel pass against Oakland, incurring the injury on that play.
Tomlinson didn’t practice Wednesday, but Chargers coach Norv Turner said during a conference call that he’s regarded as day to day at this point.
Regardless of the injury, the Ravens regard Tomlinson and Sproles as extremely similar weapons.
"They’re the same two people," Lewis said. "If you’re playing a totally different back, a bruiser and then a quick slasher [it would be different]. Both of those guys are slashers, both of them are game-breakers.
"They just really want to get the ball in their hands. From there, they run the same type of plays with them. They don’t really change their package at all."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.