Commentary

Stopped on the ground, LT still beats Bears

Chicago held LaDainian Tomlinson to 25 yards rushing, but the NFL's best running back found other ways to beat the Bears, John Clayton writes.

Updated: September 9, 2007, 11:31 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- Teams grow through adversity. At least, they hope to. The Chargers certainly have faced their share of challenges.

Two trips to the playoffs in three seasons, but no wins in the postseason. Firing coach Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season. Surviving -- and perhaps prospering -- after replacing popular quarterback Drew Brees with Philip Rivers.

And on Sunday, winning a 14-3 slugfest with the NFC champion Bears after struggling for much of the game.

For close to three quarters, the Bears' defense easily handled the best team on paper. LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL's best running back, was bottled up for 13 yards on 13 carries. Bears coach Lovie Smith used eight- and sometimes nine-man fronts, with safety Adam Archuleta playing near the line of scrimmage like a linebacker, to throttle LT.

Though most of three quarters, the Chargers trailed, 3-0. Tomlinson, continuing to grow as one of the game's best leaders, did his best open-field running while shuttling between teammates on the sidelines and the huddle. His speech to them was simple.

"Listen, guys," Tomlinson said he told them. "This is no team you are going to run up and down the field on. It's just not going to happen. They are going to make a mistake somewhere, and when they do, it's our job to capitalize on it. That's the way the game goes.''

Tomlinson, although he marveled at Chicago's defense and scheme, reminded his teammates that the Bears were getting numerous breaks. Sure-footed Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding had an easy 33-yard field goal blocked in the first quarter. Rivers threw an interception -- an unforced error -- on the next series. But the real test of the Chargers' character came on the first series of the third quarter.

Rivers had a second-and-goal at the Bears' 1. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris jumped so far offside that he knocked the ball from Rivers for a fumble before the snap reached the quarterback's hands. Unfortunately for the Chargers, no official spotted it, and San Diego lost another scoring opportunity.

"He looked like he was way offsides to me," San Diego coach Norv Turner said.

Rivers blew up, and Tomlinson pleaded with officials. He admitted that three years ago he might have lost focus after that play. Instead, he implored his teammates to wait for the Bears to make mistakes.

They finally did, on a mistake by the Chargers. Punter Mike Scifres mishit a punt, which went only 22 yards. The ball came down so far out of normal coverage that it hit Bears safety Brandon McGowan and was recovered by San Diego's Matt Wilhelm at the Bears' 29.

Six plays later, Tomlinson's patience was rewarded. Turner called for a Tomlinson option pass, a play he had completed for six touchdowns before Sunday's game. This time, Turner called it against perfect coverage. But Bears safety Mike Brown dropped deeper than normal because Archuleta, the other safety, blitzed and charged directly toward Tomlinson.

Tomlinson, who knows how to read a defense and throw to an area away from a defender, waited for Antonio Gates to break open. Gates caught the 17-yard touchdown pass, giving San Diego a 7-3 lead with 45 seconds left in the third quarter and turning the momentum in favor of the Chargers.

"When I got this job, [LT] said to me, 'You know, I throw the ball,' " Turner said. "I thought it was a good opportunity. We had been in the red zone, and we certainly struggled for a couple of reasons, and it was a chance. We liked the play. We liked it against their team. They way they were stuffing the run, we liked it even more.''

The touchdown and the tenacity and physical nature of the Chargers' defense broke the Bears' spirit in the fourth quarter. Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman ran only eight plays in the quarter, the last a fourth-and-1 stop of Cedric Benson. After that, Tomlinson looked to Chicago's sideline and could see its defense was tired.

"What I think happened is they were getting breaks and getting breaks,'' said Tomlinson, who had just 25 yards rushing on 17 carries. "But I think it finally caught up to them. I think they got wore down a little bit and got a little bit tired."

Tomlinson and running back Michael Turner ate up almost 12 minutes of the fourth quarter against the tired Bears defense.

"We bounced back; we had some adversity out there during the game multiple times," Rivers said. "We get the blocked field goal. I threw a silly interception. We get that play on the half-yard line. But you fight adversity. This is a championship-type game. This is a game we didn't win last year. We didn't win like this against Baltimore, Kansas City and New England. These are the games you have to win.''

The Bears proved they could play three quarters with the Chargers and stifle them, but they hurt themselves with four turnovers.

"We just shot ourselves in the foot when we couldn't get a rhythm going," Grossman said. "In the first quarter, we couldn't get anything going. But they played well, but it just wasn't our day. We can learn from it and get better, and hopefully we'll see them down the road.''

On the road next week, the Chargers face an even bigger challenge: a Patriots team that beat them in the playoffs last year, leading to Schottenheimer's firing.

"To me -- and this is what I'm going to tell the team -- it doesn't matter what happens on Sunday,'' Tomlinson said of the Patriots game. "... Our plan is to see them again in the playoffs. But I'll tell you what, it's going to be a barn burner.''

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer