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Facing LaDainian Tomlinson, in the words of AFC West defenders who saw him most

“When he got the iso, open field, one-on-one. Forget it. I’m telling you, you’re on the highlight.”

LaDainian Tomlinson joins the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, five years and 272 days after his 145th and final rushing touchdown in the NFL.

Only Emmitt Smith’s 164 career rushing touchdowns are ahead of Tomlinson in NFL history, but even Smith never had a year like Tomlinson’s 2006 when he posted an impossible 28 rushing touchdowns.

Tomlinson was unstoppable for the San Diego Chargers that season, and AFC West teams that met him twice a year faced the brunt of that attack:

  • Tomlinson posted 240 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown in two games against the Raiders.
  • The Chiefs gave up 265 yards, two rushing touchdowns, a receiving touchdown, and a passing touchdown.
  • And he tallied another 208 yards, six rushing touchdowns, and a receiving touchdown against the Broncos.

In the 10 years since, no player has had more than 18 rushing touchdowns in an NFL season.

To celebrate Tomlinson’s enshrinement, SB Nation talked to four defenders in the AFC West during that era — Champ Bailey and Nick Ferguson of the Broncos, Kirk Morrison of the Raiders, and Eric Hicks of the Chiefs — about what it was like to try to stop the Chargers running back during his prime.

Eric Hicks (Chiefs DE, 1998-2006): LT was dynamic. He brought a set of skills to the NFL that a lot of people hadn’t seen before. His versatility. His speed. Any time he touched the ball, he could hit a home run or he could get a tough first down, whatever the Chargers really needed he was the heart and soul of the team for several years.

Champ Bailey (Broncos CB, 2004-2013): He was sort of ... electrifying. I compared him to a smaller version of Emmitt Smith, but he was faster and he was swifter. He just had a little bit more spark to him.

I could remember sitting in a meeting with Mike Shanahan and we were looking at tape, and it wasn’t the tape on LaDainian. It was just some defensive snaps. And I remember he came around the corner and I missed him, and I’m looking at Shanahan waiting for him to say something, and I’m like ‘Yeah I gotta make that tackle.’ I said something first. ‘I’ve got to make that tackle’ and he’s like ‘Aw man, I know many people missing that tackle. That guy’s special.’

That’s when I really knew from a coach’s perspective, they know that making a tackle one-on-one with this guy was almost impossible and that’s what made him so different from a lot of backs. He was so shifty, so explosive. Definitely one of the best I’ve faced. He could be the best.

Kirk Morrison (Raiders LB, 2005-2009): When I think of LaDainian Tomlinson I think of a guy who had the speed, who had the ability to make guys miss, who had the hands out of the backfield.

To me, if you had to describe him in one word: He was a problem. And if he was on your team, it was a good problem, and if you’re on the opposing team, it was a bad problem because he could hurt you in so many ways. The vision he had was unbelievable. He saw things that weren’t there and when you thought it wasn’t there, boom, he broke through the line and, trust me, he kept me up many nights trying to defend him.

Nick Ferguson (Broncos S, 2003-2007): He was one of those guys who wasn’t really a big guy when you compare him to someone like Marshawn Lynch. He didn’t have that second level burst like Tyreek Hill, but he was very dynamic within in his own right. For me, as a player who faced him a lot competing in the AFC West, for me, he revolutionized how we play defense. You had to account for him in the running game, and there were so many different things that he could do.

They ran that stretch system where they would isolate the back defender, whether it was a linebacker or defensive end or, in some cases, they would isolate the safety, but he was one of the best guys ever as far as winding back, bringing it to the backside. We in the secondary would always talk about it, the week leading up to San Diego, and it wasn’t one of those things where it was an offensive guy like Jerome Bettis where you would run downhill as fast as you can and just try to run through him. With LT, you had to come with balance.

We were normally coming from 12 to 15 yards deep and most defenders would either stop at the line of scrimmage or stop two yards before LaDainian got to you, but that’s exactly what he wanted. That gave him enough room to see the field and he had this jump cut style of running where he would press the outside and he would force you to kind of keep contain and you would think that you had it, but then he would cut right back up the sideline and he would give you a mean stiff arm. That was the thing that made him great and he was patient too. He was a very patient runner, and it forces you as a defender to be just as patient.

San Diego Chargers vs Oakland Raiders - September 11, 2006 Photo by Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary

Morrison: His jump cut — I’ll try to describe this — he could jump cut off of one foot, but the foot you weren’t supposed to do it on. And it’s so weird to even describe it, but it was weird because he would keep his shoulders so square, but could move and cut. He’d make the defense play so disciplined and have to make sure that everybody was where they were supposed to be. But LaDainian knew that everyone would flow a certain way and he always seemed to find the hole that was — in the beginning — never there. He was able to do that and that’s why to look him on tape each week, it’s like, ‘Oh man, I’ve got my work cut out for me.’

Ferguson: You had to understand the blocking scheme. If you want to be a good safety, week-to-week the running back is going to change — you have to adjust your level of preparation and your style of attack based on that runner. With LaDainian, he was really patient and those cut-back runs were hell. If you were to look at a lot of his highlights, you would see him breaking a lot of blown plays because he would start frontside and he would wind it all the way back. The defender would do one of two things: Either he would penetrate too much and leave that crease or he would stay behind the line of scrimmage.

LaDainian would make you try to overpursue just a little, and then he would cut right back inside you. If pursuit was not coming from the second or third level, that’s at least 10 yards, so everyone had to be on the same page. When you talk about defense, you talk about gap sound defense and maintaining that lane integrity. When you’re playing against him, he’s going to threaten that every time. One guy is going to get out of his gap saying ‘I think I have him,’ but as soon as he gets out of his gap, the other guy behind him has to overcompensate. When that happens, he had you dead to rights. That never ended up well.

Bailey: He was just unstoppable in 2006. There was nothing we could do to stop him. I would make a few plays and tackle him before he’d make the big run, but then he’d go the other direction and it’d be the opposite story. You know it was just frustrating because you can’t consistently contain him and that was just one of those years where everything just clicked and he was just rolling, man. He had some good pieces around him and it was just unstoppable at that point.

Hicks: The hardest part was the matchups he could create. They’d split him out against the linebacker or have to key him up with a safety and that would allow for Antonio Gates to get more exposure or a wide receiver to get more exposure. He was a matchup nightmare. I know for me, as a defensive lineman who had to drop and cover from time to time, I’d have to be ready to go out in space with him so he was just a matchup nightmare for you.

By the time he got to the league — I think he got drafted in 2001 — I had been playing for three or four years. I had covered some pretty shifty backs and developed some tricks of the trade, but by no means am I saying I was an athlete to the point where I could just cover him. I was always, on a pretty consistent basis, just trying to get my hands on him right away. I’m certainly not trying to sit there and play one-on-one basketball with him. So I’d just try to cut him off so he wouldn’t have an angle on me.

Morrison: The one thing as a linebacker you always wanted to do was look at a guy’s eyes and see where he was looking or even just thinking about. Possibly looking at safeties coming down late, maybe looking at the shifts and alignments of the linebackers.

You could never do that with LaDainian because he wore that dark visor. And I thought that dark visor gave him an edge because it was just so hard to figure out what he was thinking or what he was doing. He gave no indicators each play, and I thought that’s something that should be talked about as well. He came out with that visor, and you just didn’t know what was going on.

San Diego Chargers vs Oakland Raiders - October 16, 2005 Photo by Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary

Bailey: It sucked because you can’t really stop him. Our thing was we gotta try to limit his explosive plays. We always talked about ‘Just don’t let him break the big one.’

So really, the week before was just focusing on putting a lid on that and also not letting anybody else take off. Then you have to worry about Gates and then Philip Rivers gets going. That’s what made them so dominant. To add those pieces with LT, I’m surprised they didn’t win a Super Bowl.

Ferguson: I don’t think LT really got the respect he deserved as a running back in the NFL. I don’t think he got it, and the reason I don’t think he got it is because he was playing for the Chargers. And the Chargers never really got over that hump as far as playoffs and Super Bowl runs. If they had ever gotten to that point, now we’d be talking about LT in the same conversation that we talk about a guy like Emmitt Smith.

Some people look at yards. They look at how many yards a guy amassed over his career and then maybe Super Bowls, but I look at how important a guy was to his team. When you look at a lot of those running backs, you have to put LaDainian right up there with some of the best backs in history because he was so valuable to Philip Rivers.

Go back to that playoff game when I believe he went into that game against the Patriots with a big injury. He doesn’t play in that game, and it changed the entire complexity of what Norv Turner wanted to do with the offense. That tells you the value that LaDainian Tomlinson had as a running back. It was one of those things where you had Antonio Gates, but LaDainian Tomlinson opened up everything in the passing game for Philip Rivers, and not having him in there, they let it get away.

Morrison: I think he goes down as one of the more underrated backs in the NFL history, probably because there wasn’t a lot of postseason success. I think I’m more biased because I had the chance to go up against it and play against it and, to me, I always thought he was the San Diego Chargers. While he was there, it was LaDainian Tomlinson and you knew going into it he was going to score two or three times. He was going to be a factor in the game, so I think I’m a little more biased in that situation. But I think he might be a top-10 back of all time when you look at it.

Bailey: He’s top 10. I want to say top five because I played against him, but I have to respect all these other guys I looked up to. I was a running back. That was my first love as a position on the field, I played running back. I scored my first touchdown as a running back.

My heart has always been in that position and I grew up understanding and watching several running backs. I’ve got my top five, you know Barry [Sanders], Emmitt, Jim Brown and all my old time favorites. But LT, he’s right there nipping at them because he’s so good.

Ferguson: Adrian Peterson and LaDainian are the two best running backs that I played against. The third would be Jerome Bettis. When you look at guys who changed the game if he gets going, that was LT. He definitely changed the complexity scheme-wise of what you were trying to do on defense if he got going.

When you think about guys who are hard to tackle, I think of [Tomlinson and Bettis] — and AP is up there too — but those two guys had different running styles: Bettis was more power because he was such a big guy, it was hard to wrap him up; but LaDainian would kill you because when he got the iso, open field, one-on-one. Forget it. I’m telling you, you’re on the highlight.