Chargers Want Raiders Out of Harmon's Way : Pro football: Third-down specialist seeks second straight big game; Chargers go after rare series sweep.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The football viewing public probably still looks upon Ronnie Harmon as the stiff who let Buffalo down after dropping what would have been a playoff-winning catch against Cleveland.

But when fans around the country tune in tonight for the ESPN game of the week between the Chargers and Raiders, won't they be in for a surprise?

"This is no stiff," said Charger nose tackle Joe Phillips. "If we were to elect a team MVP right now, it would probably be him. Time and time again he's made the big plays on third down.

"Everybody knows the ball is going to him, but it's like the pitcher with the 110 m.p.h. fastball. Everybody knows he's throwing a fastball, but damn, nobody can hit it."

The Chargers (3-9) haven't had much to brag about this season, but in addition to upsetting the Raiders (8-4) earlier this season, they know they have the best third-down running back in the league.

"I've talked to other players about it," Charger center Courtney Hall said, "and there's no reason why Ronnie shouldn't be in the Pro Bowl. The only reason he won't, is because he hasn't played every down. But he's very capable of doing that."

Like the versatile Marcus Allen of the Raiders, Harmon has been the Chargers' do-everything back since being banished from Buffalo two years ago via Plan B. Harmon is averaging 5.9 yards a carry on 66 rushes for 392 yards, and he's tied with Anthony Miller as the team's leading receiver with 44 catches.

"What would it be like to try and tackle Ronnie Harmon in the open field?" asked Charger cornerback Gill Byrd. "I can only imagine, because if I had that chance, I wouldn't be able to tackle him.

"The audience on ESPN is going to be pleasantly surprised when they see Ronnie Harmon. I mean I don't think there is anybody who can stop him."

If it's third down, the Chargers are going to go to Harmon. The Chargers know it, the fans know it and the defense knows it, but despite such advance warning, the defense has been unable to pin him down.

Harmon ran 10 times for a team-high 70 yards against the Jets last week and led Charger receivers with six catches for 39 yards. He also pulled first-team duty on the team's kickoff coverage unit.

"What this guy can do with the football is just insane," Charger guard David Richards said. "I was trying to get downfield and block for him last week and he juked the linebacker and the linebacker missed him and got me right in the legs. The linebacker thought he had him, just whiffed and got me."

Harmon, who is one of the most popular players in the locker room, has become the Chargers' most exciting player to watch. Stuck with third and long, they go short to Harmon and let him dip and stop and start and scoot for the yardage.

"I never know when I'm going to get the chance to run again so I just try and get as much as I can," said Harmon, who has faced double coverage most of the season. "You just have to play hard, play smart and be aware of anything because you only have one chance most of the time to get the first down."

When the Raiders require a first down they call on Harmon's idol: Marcus Allen. Allen has been rolling up first downs and scoring touchdowns for the Raiders for the past decade. While limited in play this season because of injury, Allen is expected to receive more playing time tonight against the Chargers.

"I think he's the top back in the whole game," Harmon said. "He's got it all. He's smart, he's tough, he can run around you, he can run through you, he catch and he can throw. What more could you want?"

The Raiders didn't have Allen in their first meeting with the Chargers this season and lost, 21-13. Former 49ers' running back Roger Craig has run 143 times for 508 yards in place of Allen, but it's just not the same.

"They didn't have Marcus before, and Marcus makes that team go," Charger cornerback Sam Seale said. "We're going to have to shut Marcus down. I'm not trying to pump Marcus up, but he's one of the best in the game and when he smells that goal line, he's gonna get in."

The Raiders are tied with Denver for the AFC West Division lead, but they have the tiebreaker edge on the Broncos as a result of sweeping their two-game series this season. The Raiders, however, have a difficult stretch run after facing the Chargers. They will play Buffalo, New Orleans and Kansas City to finish the regular season; while Denver closes with games against New England, Cleveland, Phoenix and the Chargers.

"A lot of people see us as a 3-9 team with not much going for us," Charger safety Martin Bayless said. "But we can salvage something by winning this game on national television."

The Raiders have won five of six games since falling to the Chargers. Quarterback Jay Schroeder, who has thrown 14 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions, commands the league's 22nd-ranked offense.

"Schroeder's still Schroeder," Charger defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said. "They are not putting him in a position where he has to win the game."

The Raiders continue to win with defense. They rank 10th in league statistics, have sacked the oppositions' quarterback 33 times and have 16 interceptions.

Charger quarterback John Friesz completed 12 of 22 passes for 118 yards in the first meeting, including a two-yard touchdown throw to Marion Butts. Friesz, however, was knocked out of last week's game with an ankle sprain.

The Chargers elevated Jeff Graham from their practice squad to their 47-man roster Saturday, while placing safety Anthony Shelton on injured reserve. Graham's promotion might indicate that Friesz hasn't recovered sufficiently to be counted on today. If so, Bob Gagliano will make his first start for the Chargers.

"We were able to win the last game with them because we didn't have any turnovers and they did," Coach Dan Henning said. "They're tough against the run and don't give up the big play on the pass. Their offense isn't knocking anybody dead, but last week they had 28 points and only 45 yards in offense (before going on to beat Cincinnati 38-14)."

The TV blackout has been lifted locally, and the Chargers have the first opportunity to sweep the Raiders since 1987, when the regulars and the strike team earned a victory apiece over the Raiders. The Chargers haven't swept the Raiders in a non-strike season since 1981 when the Raiders were still playing in Oakland.

"We beat them in the first game, and that probably really irritates them," Phillips said. "This one's gonna be fun. I'm looking for a war."

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