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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

LT still healthy, thanks to Sproles

SAN DIEGO – Darren Sproles, a 5-foot-6 Hercules known to his family and friends as Tank, might prove to be more valuable to the Chargers this season than even his NFL-leading 2,279 all-purpose yards would suggest.

LaDainian Tomlinson, with an essentially inconsequential game to still survive, is looking forward to going into this postseason strong.

For that, LT can thank his head coach and their little buddy.

“Obviously I haven’t taken a lot of shots (this season) like I usually take,” Tomlinson said. “So I think it helped me.”

With what certainly will be less than a full game yet to play on Sunday against the Washington Redskins, Tomlinson is virtually certain to finish this season with fewer carries (currently 221), rushing yards (729) and receiving yards (242) than he has ever had or it ever occurred to anyone he would ever have.

But he is healthy, and he is smiling. Tomlinson acknowledged recently he is as content as he’s ever been as a Charger, because he believes this is the best Chargers team he’s been on in nine momentous seasons.

And the Chargers believe Tomlinson’s current spry step — he’s had a number of his most impressive runs of the season over the past three weeks — will be an important cog to any success they achieve in the postseason.

It was always the plan. As he has been asked doggedly all season about Tomlinson’s lack of production, head coach Norv Turner has repeatedly referred to Sproles’ output and how he believes it will help Tomlinson.

The Chargers’ rushing offense, while 29th in the NFL overall, is ranked 21st during the span of their 10-game win streak. The improvement is greater than that might seem — from 57.6 yards per game to 108.5.

While the identity of their offense remains Philip Rivers and his receivers, the Chargers have improved running the football. Over the past 10 games, they have run almost 11 more times per game versus the first five. And they’re averaging 3.5 yards per carry, up from 2.9 yards per carry the first five games.

“When we run the ball and have the threat of the run it allows our big-play people on the outside and Philip (Rivers) to have a chance to make plays,” Turner said.

Tomlinson, for his part in that, has over the past two games averaged 3.7 yards per carry.

That’s a half-yard better than in his first 10 games.

“One of our big things, and we’re a week away from doing it, was to have LT healthy and fresh going into the playoffs and to have LT and our running game making that type of progress,” Turner said. “If you look back, he started slow, there were injuries on the line, LT missed two games. But over the past 10 games and the past five, our running game has been more than effective.”

Tomlinson’s health has become a topic of great import at Chargers Park over the past two Januarys.

It was in the final game of the 2008 regular season that he suffered a severe hip injury, rendering him ineffective in the Chargers’ wild-card victory over Indianapolis and sidelining him for their divisional-round loss at Pittsburgh.

That came a year after he sprained his knee in the Chargers’ divisional-round victory at Indianapolis that allowed him to play just four snaps in their AFC Championship loss at New England.

“You really cherish it, you really do,” Tomlinson said yesterday. “You cherish it when you’re healthy and able to crank it up and do what you want to do versus playing hurt and just trying to gut it out for the team. I’m so thankful to be at this position and have two feet to run on.”

Spelling Tomlinson most often on third down — and later in routs, such as his three-touchdown game last Friday — Sproles has 91 carries (30 more than last season) for 325 yards and 45 receptions (16 more than last year) for 497 yards this season, while also remaining the team’s punt and kickoff returner. But he knows his value is also immeasurable.

“As long as we’ve got him in the playoffs, that’s a good thing,” Sproles said of Tomlinson. “I’ve saved his body some hits. It’s good.”