Life without Cornelius Griffin got off to a rocky start last month for the Washington Redskins' run defense when the Giants' Tiki Barber had the game of his life, running for 206 yards on 24 carries.
The last three games, though, the Redskins have adjusted without Griffin -- who continues to nurse a hip flexor injury. Opponents have combined for 156 yards on 77 carries.
But Sunday's game against San Diego presents an entirely new challenge with do-everything running back LaDainian Tomlinson. His 14 rushing touchdowns are second in the league and his 902 rushing yards are fifth. The Redskins rank 14th against the run (106.9).
Since the start of last season, the Redskins have allowed just five 100-yard rushers in 26 games. Only Seattle's Shaun Alexander -- who gained 98 yards against the Redskins in Week 4 -- can be put in the same category as Tomlinson among this year's opponents.
"A complete back -- a combination of speed, power and agility and those are his main staples," defensive tackle Joe Salave'a said. "You have a guy that can catch the ball, run the ball and even pass the ball. He's Superman."
Said Redskins linebackers coach Dale Lindsey: "He's the best in the league. He does have some Barry Sanders moves getting into a hole and you think you have him and he makes a cut and accelerates. I'm not saying he's Barry Sanders, but he has some Barry Sanders moments."
Tomlinson hasn't faced the Redskins since the first game of his career in 2001, when he gained 113 yards on 36 carries in a 30-3 Chargers victory that also was Marty Schottenheimer's debut with the Redskins.
San Diego offensive coordinator Cam Cameron uses a wide variety of play calls to keep defenses guessing. In the Chargers' last three games, Tomlinson has 61 carries -- 23 up the middle, 18 to the right side and 20 to the left.
"Their run game is a lot like other people's run game, it's just a better guy doing it," Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said yesterday. "There's not a lot of fancy plays. He just makes a lot of people miss. There are hardly any tackles for lost yards because you can get three or four guys behind the line of scrimmage and he can make them miss and get back to the line."
Said Lindsey: "The easiest he goes down is when he trips over his own feet."
Lindsey was San Diego's defensive coordinator in 2002 and 2003, so he has first-hand knowledge of Tomlinson's talents. In 2003, Tomlinson had 100 catches, giving defenses one more thing to worry about.
Tomlinson has four 100-yard games and should come into Sunday's contest rested -- the Chargers had their bye two weeks ago and he had only 19 carries last week in a 48-10 rout of Buffalo.
"Good gap control and good penetration upfield [are important]," defensive tackle Ryan Boschetti said. "And we have to swarm the ball. He's a good cutback guy, so you have to make sure you take care of your responsibilities."
Without Griffin, who remains questionable, Demetric Evans has moved from end to tackle to team with Salave'a, Boschetti and the now-healthy Cedric Killings.
"Grif brings a whole different dimension to our team and to not have him in there, those are hard shoes to fill," Salave'a said. "When you have him, you get spoiled because of what he brings. I don't know if they're blocking me any different, but they're probably breathing a sigh of relief that [No.] 96 isn't in there."
Griffin was playing when Seattle's Alexander gained 98 yards against the Redskins. Denver's Tatum Bell used runs of 34 and 55 to gain 127 yards in Week 5 and Barber torched the Redskins in Week 8.
Comparing Alexander and Tomlinson, safety Ryan Clark said: "They're both exceptional. LaDainian's probably a little quicker and a little faster. With backs like that, you stop him for 2 yards, 2 yards and then he goes for 50. And as you know, that's been our problem, holding running backs pretty good and then letting them break out on us."
It will be up to the entire defense to make sure Tomlinson doesn't have a game like he did against the Giants -- 21 carries for 192 yards, or Oakland -- 31 for 140.
"He can run it, he can catch it and he'll block you," Lindsey said. "I can't find a negative. He doesn't have a hole in his game."
Notes -- The Redskins had an abbreviated schedule yesterday, finishing practice before noon. Clinton Portis did not practice because he was sick. Returning were Chris Samuels, Sean Taylor, Ryan Clark and LaVar Arrington. Nic Clemons sat out because of a knee problem but is expected to play. Griffin took part in individual work but remains questionable.