ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --A collarbone injury hindered Chargers running back Ryan Mathews from getting off to a strong start in 2012.
But last Sunday night against the New Orleans Saints, Mathews got on track. Head Coach Norv Turner said it was "certainly" his best game of the year, as the third-year back was a focal point of the offense and the most consistent weapon throughout the night.
"He obviously missed all of training camp, came back for the Atlanta game and had 10 carries or whatever and each week he's gotten better in practice and gotten better in games," Turner said. "It's hard if you're young and you get hurt in the first preseason game and you miss six weeks. I think it sets you back a little bit, but I still think he's going to have an outstanding season."
Mathews gained 80 yards on 12 carries in Week 5, giving him the second-highest yards-per-carry average of his career at 6.7. He also caught six passes for 59 yards, his highest total since Week 4 of 2011. Now that the Chargers have Mathews in top shape, he'll play a more principal role in the offense.
"He was fast and really running with great confidence and he caught the ball well," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. "For him, he had one snap in the preseason and then he was six weeks off and didn't play again until that Atlanta game, so he's kind of right now hitting his regular-season stride as far as getting the carries and the work that he would have had in the preseason and kind of getting on a roll. He obviously looked it the other night. He's going to be a big key to us having success this week."
Like the Chargers, the Broncos are also expecting Mathews to come out sharp on Monday night. Linebacker Keith Brooking, in his 15th year in the league, recalls one thing from his experience playing against Norv Turner-coached offenses.
"He does a really good job of establishing the run game," Brooking said. "I think Mathews is an exceptionally talented back and runs really strong. He runs through arm tackles, so we have to really focus and concentrate on not allowing them to get that run game going."
Turner has proved that he is committed to establishing the run this year, handing it off to his running backs more than 25 times per game. The Denver defense believes if it can stuff the run, the pass-rushers will be able to focus on getting after Rivers in third-and-long type situations - instances where defensive end Elvis Dumervil said he'll be "licking his chops."
But suffocating the San Diego rushing attack is a challenge in more ways than one. Mathews is a talented back, but the way the offense calls its running plays makes it even tougher on a defense.
"They have a lot of scheme runs and do a good job of mixing it up week-in, week-out," Brooking said. "We have to be really sound in our run fits. All guys involved in the run game."
Dumervil stressed the "all guys involved" method as well. The way to stop Mathews, he said, is to flock to the football.
"He's an explosive running back," Dumervil said. "We just have to rat-pack him, swarm to the ball. We just have to get more energy and be more up on defense. That's what we're working on this week."