Chargers battle injury bug in win

BY Alex Marvez • October 2, 2011

San Diego’s 3-1 start in the Norv Turner coaching era is unprecedented.

The patchwork approach that Turner and his staff must use is anything but.

Chargers injuries, especially to key players, have become as common as sunny days on Mission Beach during Turner’s five seasons here. That helps explain why San Diego could continue its personnel juggling act and still emerge with a 26-16 home victory over winless-but-dangerous Miami.

Wide receiver Vincent Jackson went out after tallying three catches for 108 yards and a touchdown in the game’s first 19 minutes. In came rookie Vincent Brown, whose 20-yard catch on a third-and-19 helped keep a touchdown drive alive.

Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips struggled with cramping. Backup Larry English stepped up with two sacks.

Starting cornerback Quentin Jammer was inactive. Rookie replacement Marcus Gilchrist made a first-quarter interception deep inside Chargers territory.

Even the unsung players get praised in San Diego. After leaving his postgame news conference, a smiling Turner’s first words to me were, ‘How about Randy?’ Turner was referring to Randy McMichael, the ex-Dolphins tight end who gutted his way through a bruised shoulder to catch three passes in place of injured star Antonio Gates (heel).

“That’s one thing around here we’ve gotten used to — shuffling guys around to different spots,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “All it’s done is make us better.”

Rivers also is too modest to state the obvious. Only a quarterback of his caliber could continue to thrive despite so many moving parts.

Rivers enjoyed his best outing of the season with a 21-of-31, 307-yard effort. He also added key scrambles on drives that ended with two of Nick Novak’s four field goals.

“I obviously never plan on running,” the slow-footed Rivers admitted. “It’s the last resort.”

The Dolphins (0-4) were beyond desperation even before suffering a major injury of their own. Chad Henne damaged his left shoulder nine minutes into the game after being forced to keep an aborted handoff to backup running back Lex Hilliard.

Henne’s replacement Matt Moore deserves credit for keeping Miami close throughout but nobody stepped up to offer the support he needed to win. Running back Reggie Bush cooled after a fast start in his hometown, wide receiver Brandon Marshall dropped two passes and the defense didn’t produce a turnover.

“We all just didn’t do enough,” Bush said. “That is the reason we are 0-4.”

Even against a soft opening schedule — the three teams San Diego has beaten are a combined 1-11 — the Chargers are doing enough to lead the AFC West. Such placement is nothing new. San Diego had won four consecutive division titles before a combination of injuries and awful special-teams play — where the constant depth-chart shuffling had a trickle-down effect — kept the 2010 Chargers from the playoffs.

The bumps and bruises are coming again this season. One starting defensive end (Jacques Cesaire) was inactive Sunday while another (Luis Castillo) is sidelined indefinitely with a broken leg. Ex-Indianapolis strong safety Bob Sanders has taken his customary spot on the injured reserve list, pushing Steve Gregory into the starting lineup.

The situation is just as painful on offense. Chargers running back Mike Tolbert admitted that if Gates were playing “it would have a different affect on the (opposing) defense. They would have to take him away instead of taking Vincent out of the offense.”

It was a strained leg muscle, not the Dolphins, that took Jackson out on Sunday. Jackson was so open on his 55-yard touchdown that he had time to make a diving catch and rise to run the remaining 10 yards into the end zone.

When he was forced to leave early in the second quarter, San Diego quickly adjusted by leaning on Tolbert and fellow running back Ryan Mathews. The duo combined for 10 catches for 119 yards and added another 98 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries. Rivers spread the football to eight different receivers overall.

This is the upside to last year’s mess. Chargers backups have learned they could be placed into a prominent role quicker than Gates can say plantar fasciitis.

“Obviously, we’ll be at our best when we have everybody,” Rivers said. “But throughout the course of a year, the more guys you have to use because of circumstances, in a sense that can make you better. You never know who’s going to make the play.

“Maybe the biggest play of the game today was Vincent Brown catching the slant on third-and-19. Who would have known he would have been in that position? When you’re in the biggest game of the year, which is always the next game, you’re not wondering who can do it. They’ve had the opportunity and they’ve stepped up big.”

Unless the Chargers heal as the season unfolds, those backups will remain vital if this franchise is going to take the biggest step of all — reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in the Turner/Rivers era.

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