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One of the runners to watch in '11, Ryan Mathews could hold the key to a San Diego Super Bowl

Early in the second quarter of the Chargers' preseason finale against the 49ers last Thursday, San Diego running back Ryan Mathews took a handoff and hit the right side of the line. His guard slid a step to the right and sealed the defensive end to the inside, his tackle fired out to the second level and locked up an inside linebacker, and his fullback kicked out against the outside linebacker rushing upfield. When slot receiver Richard Goodman got a block on a defensive back and two other DBs took bad angles to the ball, Mathews sprinted untouched for a 56-yard score.

But while the second-year back left chagrined defenders in his wake, he has yet to outrun questions about what the Chargers, considered a serious Super Bowl contender, will get from him this season. Last year they traded up 16 spots to draft Mathews 12th out of Fresno State, hoping the 6-foot, 218-pound speedster would soften the departure of LaDainian Tomlinson. But as a rookie Mathews struggled with injuries (he missed four games with elbow and ankle ailments), fumbles (five, three of them lost), pass blocking and expectations. "Those are big shoes to fill," he said after the 20--17 loss to the 49ers in which he had four other carries for 22 yards. "Everybody was used to that all-star running back, but it takes time to get where [Tomlinson] was. This year it comes down to how I perform. I've got a great line, a great quarterback and great receivers."

San Diego was disappointed last season at Mathews's limited impact (with 678 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, he was outperformed by undrafted third-year back Mike Tolbert) and his slow transition from the college game. The feeling is that if he can be the big-play threat that the slower Tolbert isn't—and Mathews's TD dash against San Francisco offered just such a glimpse—the Chargers would have the potent complement to their passing game that could carry them to their first Lombardi Trophy.

"Your second year, you know what's coming," Mathews says. "You know how to prepare for a game, you know what's expected. I've got to take what I learned last year and use it to my advantage. This year is going to be a total 180."

And that could point the Chargers in the right direction come January.



THE NEXT STEP Outplayed by the undrafted Tolbert in '10, Mathews (24) must ramp up his game to become the big-play threat he was brought in to be.