"Kill the body, and the head will die." - Joe Frazier
The late, great Smokin' Joe Frazier was one of the most vicious body punchers in boxing history (a statement no less an authority than Muhammad Ali will agree with). He knew the body is a bigger, less elusive, and much softer target than the head.
"There are places on a man's head that are as hard as a rock," Frazier once said. "Your head's actually stronger than your body. And you don't have too many instruments up there workin'. But you got a lot of tools workin' in that body: the liver, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs. You soften that up and see what happens."
Sure, the head is where the flashy knockouts can be found, but if you want to truly BEAT an opponent, you pound on his midsection, make his entire body ache with each punch. Eventually that head comes down, and that's when you land that uppercut and put on an oversized belt.
Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich is a big boxing fan, and often equates a prize fight to a football game.
"You can't underestimate the importance of those continual jabs to the midsection," said Reich on the Thursday before the Bolts were to play the New York Jets at Qualcomm Stadium. "So, we're going to keep throwing those jabs."
It was an interesting, and fitting, response to a question about the San Diego running game, which, without Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead (both out with leg injuries), is averaging a minuscule 2.4 yards per carry, easily the worst in the NFL. Donald Brown has carried the ball 50 times for 100 yards and no touchdowns.
However, Reich says he won't stop calling running plays unless forced in to an extreme situation.
"We're going to keep plugging away and get this thing on the right track."
Reich (unlike former Chargers head coach and offensive play caller Norv Turner) is reluctant to abandon the run because he sees the big picture. Even if you're not eating up large chunks of the field, you're landing shots to the defense's midsection.
Think of a one-yard run like a Floyd Mayweather jab to the body. It's not devastating. It's not going to bring an opponent to his knees. But, over time, they accumulate. The result of the play may only take the offense from 1st & 10 to 2nd & 9, but it provided another chance for behemoths like D.J. Fluker and King Dunlap to tee off on the defenders in front of them.
Those defenders are often giving up 30 pounds or more. Eventually that takes a toll.
The Chargers have outscored their opponent in the second half of all four games they've played in 2014 while maintaining a tremendous balance between run and pass. They're running on 46-percent of their plays and throwing on 54-percent, a statistic that's skewed because the Bolts have already played the Jaguars, who might have the worst passing defense since throwing the ball forward through the air was legalized in 1906 (San Diego threw 39 times and ran it 20 against Jacksonville).
Take away that Jags game and it's 98 pass plays, 97 run plays. That, my friends, is balance, and it's remarkable when you look at just how bad the Chargers are at running the football.
Which brings us to the Jets game, and this week's three players to watch for:
The Jets come to town with the NFL's best rushing defense, so you might think everything we just talked about is null and void. However, the exact opposite is true. New York also leads the NFL is sacks with 14, but for some reason is not very good against the pass. The Jets have allowed nine passing touchdowns (tied for third-worst in the league) and are one of two teams (along with the Saints) yet to pick off a pass. They don't defend wide receivers very well, but their front seven is so darn good the secondary often doesn't have to. The Jets want to take away the run game, put you in obvious long passing situations, and blitz until your ears bleed hoping you don't get the ball off in time to exploit the extra attacker. Here's where Fluker comes in. He is a run-blocking specialist. The Chargers need to load up and run early and (hopefully) often, earning enough yards to stay out of 3rd and long situations where New York can get hits on Philip Rivers. If Fluker is able to back his man off the ball a few yards and let Donald Brown and Branden Oliver get three or four yards a pop, Rivers will do the rest.
Jarret Johnson, OLB:
Johnson knows Jets head coach Rex Ryan better than anybody on the Chargers roster. Ryan is the one who suggested the Ravens draft Johnson in 2003 out of Alabama, and Rex spent six years coaching Jarret in Baltimore. The staple of every offense Ryan has had in New York is the running game. With stiffs like Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith under center, you really don't have any other choice. Ryan has always had capable running backs and a big (if not always athletic) offensive line to run behind, and this year is no exception. Johnson is one of the best edge setters in football, meaning he's the guy who makes sure no running back gets outside for a big gain, something Chris Johnson has done to the Chargers before. If Jarret is able to keep the Jets run game in check and force 2nd or 3rd and long situations, putting the game in Smith's hands, the Bolts will be in good shape.
Kendall Reyes, DE:
In his 3rd NFL season, Kendall Reyes has 11.5 sacks. Interestingly, 3.5 of those came in one game, the only time he's faced the Jets (Week 16 of 2012 in New York). The entire league knows about Corey Liuget and his game-changing ability, but he might not be able to go because of a concussion. Reyes has shown more consistency in 2014. He only has one sack but has put more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and been better against the run, as evidenced by his assist in stopping Jaguars running back Toby Gerhart on 4th and short a week ago. Jets QB Geno Smith is an interception waiting to happen. If Reyes can get close enough to make Smith rush a few throws, they'll more than likely end up in the hands of Chargers defenders, and New York's offense is nowhere near explosive enough to hang with the Bolts if they can't hang on to the football.
This one seems fairly straightforward. The Chargers have beaten the Seahawks by nine and the Bills, on the road, by 12. Both are better teams than the Jets. While Rex Ryan's teams are always competitive and this does not have the makings of a blowout, if it comes down to Philip Rivers vs. Geno Smith (and in close games it often does boil down to who has the better QB), this is no contest.
Final score: Chargers 23, Jets 13