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San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews carries the ball against the Minnesota Vikings at Qualcomm Stadium on September 11, 2011 in San Diego, California.
It had every look of a disaster.
The way the right leg bent backward beneath a pile. The pain while limping toward the sideline, forcing him to the ground several yards short. How he stood back up and hobbled the rest of the way, only to collapse again and clutch his right knee.
A minor injury gave Chargers running back Mike Tolbert — and about everyone else watching — a scare Sunday in the closing minutes of the team's season-opening win over the Minnesota Vikings.
If the injury had been serious, coach Norv Turner explained Thursday where that would leave the team's backfield-by-committee, which Tolbert composes with Ryan Mathews.
“Obviously, we have to adjust anytime a guy gets injured,” Turner said. “But Ryan is certainly capable of carrying the load. People forget that (fullback) Jacob Hester is a good runner and played running back. (Jordan) Todman isn't active, but we certainly could make him active if we needed.”
Turner's confidence in Mathews has grown with the 24-year-old's abilities in pass protection.
On Sunday, Mathews was on the field for 30 snaps. Eighteen were pass plays, although Mathews stayed in to block just twice.
By comparison, Tolbert took 44 reps, including all four available inside the 10-yard line. Thirty-two of the 44 were passes, and he stayed in protection 11 times.
“We can use (Mathews) in protection, and he's getting better in protection,” Turner said. “But obviously, he's got speed coming out of the backfield, and we try to use it.”
The greatest differential in how Mathews and Tolbert were employed Sunday came in the second quarter.
Tolbert was on the field for 21 of 25 offensive plays, including the final nine with the Chargers running their two-minute offense.
Those nine plays aside, 65.7 percent of Tolbert's snaps were passes. With Mathews, the Chargers passed 60 percent of the time. Each had 12 carries.
“It's about the flow of the game, and then it's about personnel groups,” Turner said of their usage. “When one guy breaks off a long run, we put someone in to play for the other. We have to be very careful that we don't fall into a tendency that when one guy is in there, we're doing more of this or more of that because, obviously, that plays right into the hands of other teams. We're going to be on top of that more than anything.”
To mix and match the two runners is a luxury, and despite the scare, the Chargers still have it.
Tolbert, a full participant in practice this week, isn't listed on the injury report. He is fully expected to play Sunday when the Chargers face the New England Patriots.
Tolbert called the injury "part of football."
“Part of life," Tolbert said. "Put some dirt on it and roll on."