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Chargers Hoping to Prevent Another Getaway

Times Staff Writer

The Chargers are young, short on talent and laden with injuries. If you don’t believe that, just ask them.

The fact that they are 2-5 is a tribute to the motivational abilities of Al Saunders, their coach, and the under-appreciated technical skills of his assistants.

Saunders has convinced the Chargers that they have a chance to win any football game if they can stay close to their opponent going into the last 2 possessions.

Maybe he has convinced them too well. Two weeks ago, the Chargers bolted to a 14-0 lead over the powerful New Orleans Saints. Instead of building on that margin, they played like a team that expected the game to come down to the last 2 possessions. It did. And they lost, 23-17.

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Last Sunday, they led the Dolphins, 28-17, in Miami after 3 periods. Once again they played like a team waiting for the game to get close. It did. They lost, 31-28.

“The only thing wrong with our kids is they don’t know how to win,” says Steve Ortmayer, the Chargers’ director of football operations. “They’re playing hard. They haven’t gotten down. And they won’t get down.”

Today, the Chargers play the Dickersonapolis Colts at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. The Colts won 9 games last year and made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. This season, Indianapolis has won just twice. Its defense ranks 26th in the league. Its offense ranks 25th.

Their quarterback, Chris Chandler, is a rookie. Their coach, Ron Meyer, is a former agent. Their owner, Robert Irsay, is a public enemy in Baltimore, the city he fled 4 1/2 years ago under the cover of darkness.

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For the first time this year, the Chargers are not the underdog.

“We need to stop coming close,” Saunders says. “We need to get over the hump. This would be a good week to have that happen to us.”

Nothing wrong with being in the game for the last 2 possessions. Nothing wrong with putting the game away in the first 10 either. If the Chargers can contain Colt running back Eric Dickerson, this might be the best chance they have all year to run up the score.

Against Miami, the Charger offense got well thanks to the insertion of Mark Malone at quarterback. Malone replaced Babe Laufenberg (sore ribs) and completed 25 of 38 passes for 2 touchdowns and 294 yards. The Charger offense that had produced 6 touchdowns in its first 6 games scored 4 in the first 3 periods against the Dolphins.

“If anything,” Malone says, “it was just a reaffirmation of my own belief that I can play and should be playing.”

The belief around the league has long been that Malone’s confidence is more impressive than his passing mechanics. If that’s the case, he sure fooled the Dolphins. The Colts should be less surprised if the same happens to them.

“If the Colts continue to do what they’re doing from a defensive standpoint, and we execute the offense, we’re going to have the opportunity to make some big plays,” Malone says. “There are going to be times when they’re going to blitz us, and our guys will be getting man-on-man coverage. Even if we can’t pick up the blitzes, if you hit somebody hot and one of the speedsters running across the field breaks a tackle and makes somebody miss, we’re going to have the opportunity to spring some big plays.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Colts rank last in the league against the pass. Part of the blame belongs to a below-average pass rush. Be surprised if the Chargers don’t reprise the 3-wide receiver attack that was so effective in Miami.

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Don’t be surprised if Gary Anderson, the Chargers’ leading rusher, does not play. The Chargers say he is recovered from a leg injury. But they said that before the New Orleans and Miami games, and he played in neither.

The Colts don’t have that kind of problem with Dickerson, the NFL’s second-leading rusher behind San Francisco’s Roger Craig. Dickerson needs 34 yards rushing against the Chargers to become the eighth back in league history to reach 9,000. That’s remarkable considering this is only Dickerson’s sixth year in the league.

But there’s no secret to his success. At 6-feet 3-inches and 217 pounds, he is the fastest “big” back in the league. Moreover, he doesn’t get hurt.

“He knows when to take the big hits and when not to take the big hits,” says Gunther Cunningham, the Charger defensive line coach.

“Dickerson is sort of like Jim Brown,” says outside linebacker Keith Browner. “He takes a beating, but he comes back the next week.”

Right now, though, Dickerson is in a mini-slump, falling short of 100 yards in each of the past 2 weeks. Worse for him, he is nursing a sore ankle. But don’t expect that to cut into his normal 25 carries today.

Last week in Indianapolis, the Colts hung on to beat Tampa Bay, 35-31, despite losing the second half, 21-0, and allowing Buccaneer quarterback Vinny Testaverde to throw for 469 yards.

“Quite frankly,” said Meyer this week, “we’re just not quite the dominant defensive team that we want to be.”

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Meyer still fields questions about Irsay’s reported penchant for coaching from the owner’s box during games. And this year, he’s also having to defend the trade that looked so good last year when it brought Dickerson from the Rams.

In that deal, the Rams got the Colts’ first- and second-round picks in the 1988 draft, plus a second-round selection in 1989, plus running back Owen Gill. The Rams also got Buffalo’s No. 1 in 1988 plus their No. 1 and No. 2 in 1989, plus running back Greg Bell, in exchange for the Colts trading the rights to linebacker Cornelius Bennett to Buffalo.

After 7 games, the Bills are 6-1, the Rams are 5-2, Bell leads the NFL with 10 touchdowns and Bennett is having a Pro Bowl-type year in Buffalo.

“Let’s wait until the smoke clears on that one,” Meyer says when asked about the trade. “We’re not looking back. I still think it’s a win-win-win deal.”

In which case the Colts have won the least.

Charger Notes

The combined record of the Colts’ opponents this year is 30-19. The combined record of the Chargers’ opponents is 26-22-1. . . . Eric Dickerson rushed for 103 and 115 yards in 2 games against the Chargers last year. The teams split. . . . Charger wide receiver Jamie Holland has ascended to second place in AFC kickoff returns with a 25.5 average including a 57-yarder against Miami last week. . . . Indianapolis.


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