San Diego's late magic runs out

September, 20, 2009
9/20/09
11:17
PM ET
Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
San Diego running back Darren Sproles and the rest of the Chargers just couldn’t escape Ray Lewis and Baltimore’s red zone defense.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson


SAN DIEGO -- Last week, the Chargers won in the final seconds on a running play deep in enemy territory, salvaging a game in which they didn’t play very well.

Sunday, the Chargers lost in the final seconds on a running play deep in enemy territory to ruin a game in which they played very well.

It's shaping up to be another weird season in San Diego.

But don’t get on the Chargers for stumbling out of the gate after their 31-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in a physical, terrifically played game. This was a stiff test for San Diego, considering all of the firepower it had sitting on the bench with injuries. The Chargers would have had to play perfectly in key spots to beat the bruising Ravens.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis made the perfect play, stealing the limelight from Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who played a brilliant game.

On a day when Rivers threw for a career-high 436 yards on 25-of-45 passing, the game came down to a running play.

On fourth down and 2 with 37 seconds remaining and San Diego at the Baltimore 15, coach Norv Turner called for a running play. In about the time it took Rivers to hand off the ball to Darren Sproles -- who started in place of LaDainian Tomlinson, who has an ankle injury -- Lewis had Sproles on the ground for a five-yard loss, securing a Baltimore victory.

“It was a great play,” Rivers said. “He made a great play.”
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Last week, San Diego beat Oakland on a five-yard run by Sproles in the final seconds. The play was put in the Chargers' playbook just days before the opener.

Rivers said the play on Sunday, although it was an inside handoff to Sproles just like last week’s game-winner, was a "totally” different play. He said the goal was just to get a first down and give the Chargers a new set of downs.

“If Sproles broke it or got three yards, it would have been a perfect play,” Rivers said. "You can’t throw, throw, throw.”

The abrupt loss could cause some concern for San Diego because it is in the middle of a tough early stretch with several health issues. San Diego plays host to Miami next week before heading to Pittsburgh, where its season ended in January in the divisional playoffs.

In addition to Tomlinson, the Chargers played without center Nick Hardwick (ankle) and guard Louis Vasquez (knee) on offense against the Ravens, who offered the makeshift line a healthy dose of blitz packages. Defensively, the Chargers began life without defensive tackle Jamal Williams. He was put on injured reserve Saturday with a triceps injury.

If San Diego is going to avoid a third straight slow start under Norv Turner, it will have to do so in adverse conditions. San Diego began the 2007 season 5-5 and began last season 4-8. Winning streaks to end both seasons resulted in AFC West division titles.

Here are other key issues from Sunday’s game:

Red-zones woes: Rivers said while the Chargers’ final offensive play will be remembered for the loss, there were several other miscues that cost San Diego.

Many of the problems persisted in the red zone. The Chargers had no problem getting inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line. They just didn’t do much when they were in it. San Diego had to settle for four field goals after stalling in the red zone.

According to ESPN’s Stats and Information, Rivers’ passer rating was 39.6 in the red zone. It was 95.5 out of it. Rivers threw for 432 yards outside of the red zone and four inside of it.

The Chargers were called for delay of game twice inside the Ravens’ 10, including once at the Ravens’ 1. San Diego had to settle for field goals on both drives.

“When you do those things it makes it tough on you,” Turner said.

Those are simply inexcusable penalties. That has to be fixed.

The call at the end of the first half: It was the type of decision that will fuel talk radio until the kickoff of the Miami game next week.

With 10 seconds to go in the half and Baltimore leading 21-13, Turner opted to kick a field goal on third and goal from the five instead of taking one more shot for a touchdown that could have resulted in a tie score at the half.

Rivers defended his coach’s call. Baltimore was blitzing on nearly every play and had Rivers been sacked or forced into throwing an interception (he was picked off twice), the Chargers wouldn’t have gotten any points. So Turner chose to take the easy field goal and cut the lead to five points.

“You have to do that there,” Rivers said.

I see the reasoning, but offensive plays are at a premium in the NFL. I’m not a Turner basher (there’s enough of those), but he had a hot quarterback. You have to try to score there, even if it’s a totally safe play. I’m just not a big fan of taking the ball out of the hands of a talented player like Rivers.

Defensive breakdown: The Chargers have to tighten up their defense. Overall, it has been solid and it has had many key stops in the first two games.

But for the second straight game, it allowed a long touchdown on what appeared to be broken coverage.

Baltimore confused San Diego’s secondary on a 27-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to Kelley Washington late in the first half. Last week, Oakland took the lead with less than three minutes to go from 54 yards out on a broken defensive play on fourth down and 14.

With Williams out, the Chargers are going to have to get creative on defense. They can’t help the opponent with mental breakdowns. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has said concentration in the game will be a key this year, and it is already becoming one of the team’s biggest issues.

Merriman injured: San Diego star linebacker Shawne Merriman sat out the final two defensive series with a groin injury, he said.

“It tightened up on me and they wouldn’t let me play,” Merriman said. "It shouldn’t be a problem [for the Miami game].”

Merriman, who missed all but one game last season with a knee injury, had one assisted tackle. He said he is still a few weeks away from being at full strength. Merrirman got close to sacking Flacco once.

With the Chargers dealing with another early defeat and massive injury issues, the last thing this team needs is Merriman on the sideline in key situations.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter

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