San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews fumbles during a preseason NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 27, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona.
Football is a game of inches, Chargers running back Ryan Mathews says.
On Saturday, he gave the Arizona Cardinals two too many.
Mathews took a right handoff up the middle in the first quarter with the football pressed beneath his left pectoral. He broke smoothly past the hip of guard Louis Vasquez — still, the ball squeezed tightly under his chest.
Then the run went awry.
Improved ball security has been a priority for Mathews, who fumbled five times on 180 touches last year in a rookie season hampered by a high-ankle sprain.
The issue creeped up again when Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell exposed an opening between Mathews' body and the football, forcing a fumble the Chargers ultimately recovered.
“Two inches away from your body is more than enough for the defense to hit it out,” Mathews said. “You see what happened. You just have to be more aware. Guys are in pursuit … I've been working this week on carrying the ball differently — a little bit lower on my shoulder pads, so we're going to see how that works. I'm feeling real comfortable with it and everything.”
Trouble came Saturday when Mathews reached the second level.
About five yards downfield, the 24-year-old hopped to his right and made a sharp cut to the left behind center Nick Hardwick. Through the second motion, he raised the ball toward the top of his shoulder pads.
Mathews then lowered the ball just as Campbell, closing in from behind, came across with a punch.
“When I start cutting, I bring the ball up more on my chest, and it's a little more exposed
than I thought it was,” Mathews said. “I thought it was good ball security up there, but it's not.”
Chargers coach Norv Turner said he's worked with five or six young players in the past with fumbling issues, and improvement comes with teaching proper technique and situational adjustments for when the runner can “turn it loose a little more.”
Running in traffic isn't one of those times.
“Ryan has been outstanding with the ball through this camp,” Turner said. “Unfortunately, backs, at times, are going to lose a ball. It's not something we accept, but we understand it's a part of the game.
“People are working awfully hard to strip, and he's got to understand that when he's in a crowd, people are going to try to reach and strip the ball."
Mathews has improved in the area.
The next step is two inches away.