Last week, the Chargers flew across the country for the opportunity to run over the Buffalo Bills.
This week, they’ll drive across town for the opportunity to run into a wall of Rams. Face-first, no less.
Week 3 brings these dominating two: Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. What the NFL has been fearing since the offseason awaits just down the street for the Chargers.
“You could argue they’re the two best inside players in the league,” right guard Michael Schofield said. “Me and Dan, we’re going to have to have our best game out there on Sunday.”
Dan is Dan Feeney, the starting guard opposite Schofield. Blocking Donald and Suh is a monumental challenge for the most veteran of offensive linemen, no matter how many times they’ve lived the experience.
Schofield and Feeney, though, never have faced Donald or Suh in a game. And the Chargers’ right tackle, Sam Tevi, will be making only his third career start Sunday at the Coliseum.
Yes, a challenge — of absurd proportions.
“They’re great players,” Feeney said. “They’re going to make plays. We know that. They’re supreme athletes. But we just have to do what we do.”
Through two games, Philip Rivers has been sacked only three times and the Chargers’ top two running backs, Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, have combined to average more than five yards per carry.
The offensive line controlled the first half against the Bills. Ekeler, in particular, exploited wide gaps, Gordon scored three times and the offense assembled four consecutive touchdown drives.
With Joe Barksdale, who has made 74 starts, out because of a knee injury, Tevi has been thrust into the starting lineup and has held things together.
Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has praised Tevi’s play and also noted the increased chemistry that appears to be forming along the line.
To help offset the inexperience, the Chargers do employ left tackle Russell Okung, who’s in his ninth season, and center Mike Pouncey, a seven-year veteran who spent the last three seasons as Suh’s teammate.
While practicing against Suh and sharing a locker room with him in Miami might not make a big difference on the field, the familiarity can’t hurt. At least Pouncey has felt Suh’s fury.
“Donald and Suh are two of the top defensive linemen in our league on the same team,” Pouncey said. “It’s going be a real challenge. But we’re up for it. They’re good football players. We’re good football players too.”
So far in 2018, Donald, Suh and their defensive teammates have been good … and then a whole bunch more.
They surrendered a touchdown on the first series of the season — on Sept. 10 at Oakland — and none since.
In the subsequent 20 opponent possessions, the Rams have forced 12 punts, intercepted four passes and given up two field goals. On the other two drives the games ended, mercifully so for Rams opponents.
“They like to shoot the gaps,” Pouncey said. “They like to get upfield and cause havoc. We have to be ready to protect Philip. In the run game, we just gotta make sure we’re the guys going forward and not backward.”
Rivers will try to aid his linemen by releasing the ball as quickly as possible, a trait that in part has defined his star-studded career. The man-to-man coverage of the Rams secondary, however, will make that more difficult.
The Chargers also will try to provide as much help as possible up front, while the schemes of Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will work in the opposite direction.
“We’re going to have to man up,” Schofield said, “and block those guys one on one.”
This is something that has been tried before, repeatedly, with the kind of results that have netted Donald and Suh contracts well into nine figures.
“They both have the power,” Schofield said. “Donald has pretty much everything you can have, which is why he’s one of the highest-paid defensive players. He can make people look pretty stupid out there.”
Pretty stupid and pretty overwhelmed, Donald possessing the sort of force that can leave 320-pound grown men with grass stains on their backs.
On Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals did not cross midfield against the Rams until the final play. This can happen in football, sure, but usually not beyond high school.
“That’s crazy,” Feeney said. “Obviously, those guys up front had a big impact on that. I assume we’ll do better. We just gotta handle our business and win our share of the one-on-one matchups.”