The El Centro economy stimulus plan is officially underway.
The Chargers open their home schedule Sunday at 1:15 p.m. against the Jaguars, but with the game blacked out to local television sets, fans are making the drive as north as Santa Barbara and as east as the Imperial Valley, “where the sun spends the winter” and almost no one else does.
For fans fortunate enough to be attending the game or those hardcore enough to trek elsewhere, here are the five top things to watch in the home opener. For the rest of you, here are five things to read about when the game is over!
Ryan Mathews — Anyone waiting for the rookie running back to make his first splash of the regular season isn't going to have to wait long. After a costly fumble in last week's season opener affected how he ran the rest of the game, Mathews said he is ready to put the mistake behind him. “I know I am going to do better than last week,” he said. Mathews' first career 100-yard game is likely.
Shawne Merriman — The Chargers need Merriman. He's their potential X factor defensively. He sets up turnovers. He changes games. In his first game back from an Achilles' injury, don't expect the outside linebacker to instantly revert to his three-time Pro Bowl form, but don't be surprised if he does, either. It's a contract year, and this is one motivated football player who's waited a long time for his chance.
Punt coverage team — Oh dear. What's to say that hasn't already been said? Last game, the unit was terrible. Norv Turner has since predicted it will be better. On Sunday, we'll find out. The Jaguars' punt coverage team will be worth monitoring, too. Former Chargers standout Kassim Osgood is the gunner. After one game, fans miss him already.
Marcedes Lewis —Tight ends tend to give the Chargers trouble, and Lewis is a real handful in the red zone. The former UCLA Bruin caught two touchdown passes last week and led all NFL tight ends last season in yards per reception. The only reason he's not considered one of the top tight ends in the game is he's such a good blocker, he's utilized less as a receiver than he should be. When Lewis is running routes, the Chargers can't afford to let him escape the line of scrimmage freely without contact.
The Jaguars running game — By now, everyone should know about Maurice Jones-Drew. The 5-foot-7, fifth-year veteran is the arguably the most complete running back in the league. Last year, he rushed for a career-high 1391 yards with 15 TDs to go along with 53 catches for 374 yards. In the two teams' last meeting, Jones-Drew was held to only 34 total yards on 13 touches, but his day was highlighted when he rocked Merriman's clock. Don't sleep on change-of-pace runner Rashad Jennings. Jones-Drew is coming off a career-high workload, so Jennings is more fresh and just as dangerous.