Head to Head: RBs LaDainian Tomlinson & Michael Turner vs. LBs James Farrior & Larry Foote

A closer look at the game within the game

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When he was a running back with the San Diego Chargers in the 1980s, Hank Bauer was known as a player who relied on guile and toughness, a special-teams standout whose popularity landed him on the franchise's 40th anniversary All-Time team. He did not have speed and shiftiness like LaDainian Tomlinson. Nor did he have the raw power and burst like Michael Turner.

Bauer, a color analyst on the Chargers Radio Network, played seven seasons in San Diego before a neck injury ended his career in 1983. But he was around long enough to know the type of running back the Steelers have always embraced. And he will see one on the field Sunday night when the Steelers play the Chargers in San Diego.

But it's not Willie Parker.

Or Tomlinson.

"He's the perfect back for the Steelers," Bauer said about Turner, who backs up Tomlinson to form perhaps the best running back tandem in the National Football League.

"He's a perfect fit for their type of offense."

To be sure, other NFL teams have a solid, if not productive, combination in the backfield. Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in New Orleans. Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts in Washington. Even Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney in New England.

But, not only have Tomlinson and Turner combined for more yards than any running back tandem in the NFL (521 yards); they pose perhaps the most demanding contrast in style for an opposing defense -- the shifty scatback and the powerful battering ram.

"You got to have that mix," Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter said. "You can't have two sctabakcs. When they need tough, grinding yards to run the clock out, that's when they bring [Turner] in."

The Steelers have to do more than just worry about Tomlinson, who has rushed for 300 yards in three games and has the second-best yards-per-carry average (5.1) in the AFC among backs with more than 150 yards. The only player with a better average is Turner, who has rushed for 221 yards on 30 carries (7.4 yards per gain).

Together, they will pose the biggest problem for the interior of the Steelers defense, which ranks third in the AFC against the run and has allowed just one 100-yard rusher in the past 36 games. Especially because the Chargers are trying to keep the urden of responsiblity off the shoulders of quarterback Philip Rivers, a first-year starter.

Turner, a third-year back from Northern Illinois, is not Jerome Bettis-big -- he's 5-foot-10, 237 pounds -- but he combines power with speed. He had runs of 30 and 74 yards in a victory against Tennessee.

Tomlinson has had two modest performances -- for him, anyway -- against the Steelers. In December, 2003, he rushed for 91 yards on 22 carries and caught six passes for 8 yards in a 40-24 defeat at Heinz Field. Last year, he had 62 yards on 18 carries and caught seven passes for 68 yards in a 24-22 Steelers victory in San Diego.

"You just got to know who's in there, what you're going to get," said inside linebacker James Farrior, who leads the team in tackles (32) and unassisted tackles (25). "With LaDainian, you got to be conscious of being more gap sound, playing your responsibilities, not going away and trying to do something else. Everytone has to stay in their gaps because he can take the ball anywhere.

"With Turner, you still have to play the same way, but he's not as shifty and as fast. You got to buckle it up. He takes it up the middle. He's very strong when he has the ball."

Chargers LaDainian Tomlinson
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Chargers Michael Turner
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Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.


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