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Ground control: Bolts must quickly plug holes in run defense

The run had started. The San Diego Chargers were doing what they always seem to do after digesting the Thanksgiving meal -- spring off the couch and surge into the playoffs. After pounding the Indianapolis Colts for a fourth successive win on Nov. 28, the Chargers looked primed for yet another perfect December, just as they'd done every year since 2006.

But as quickly as the run began, it stopped. Specifically, the Chargers stopped themselves because they couldn't stop the run of the Oakland Raiders, who piled up 251 yards on the ground in a 28-13 victory at Qualcomm Stadium.

As the Chargers' defenders brush off those cleat marks from the NFL's third-ranked rushing team, they find themselves with an even more daunting task to ponder: The Kansas City Chiefs, who have the league's No. 1 rushing attack, are coming to town Sunday.

For the 8-4 Chiefs, a win would virtually seal an AFC West championship. For the 6-6 Chargers, a loss would all but kill their chances of reaching the postseason.

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"We definitely backed ourselves into a corner a number of times this year," Chargers nose tackle Antonio Garay said. "We've been fortunate enough to crawl and scratch and kick our way out of it. This Sunday's just going to be another opportunity for us to go out there and fight.

"There's still a great possibility for us to do great things this year. I know it's been a roller-coaster, up-and-down season for us, but the ride is far from being over."

The Chargers didn't play well in any phase against the Raiders, but it was their run defense whose poor showing sent the biggest shockwaves through the team. Along with consistently brilliant performances by Philip Rivers, San Diego's defense did plenty to help the Chargers rebound from a typically slow start.

The Chargers' defense still ranks first in the NFL and is fifth against the run, which made the bottom falling out against Oakland's ground game all the more shocking.

"We didn't really give ourselves much of a chance," Garay said. "Early in the game, we had a couple of mishaps as far as (run) fits in our defense, and I think it kind of escalated -- guys just wanted to make plays and guys got out of their gaps and didn't really stay technically sound. When we're not technically sound, that's when it opens up holes in our defense. So we've got to really key in and make sure that we're technically sound, we're taking right steps, and we're playing what we're coached up to do."

The Chargers' theme at practice this week was "back to basics." According to Garay and inside linebacker Stephen Cooper, there is no sense of panic. The defense has a firm understanding of what it did wrong against the Raiders and how to correct it.

"It is all about being disciplined, being stout at the point of attack and being good tacklers," Cooper said. "We missed a lot of tackles last week, the running backs were falling forward. The biggest thing is starting the game out being physical, being disciplined, and being great tacklers. And if we do that, we'll have a great day."

It certainly sounds simple enough. Practicing it could be a different story.

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When the teams last met, in the season-opener at Kansas City, the Chiefs scored a 21-14 victory. The Chargers' biggest gaffes in that game were on special teams, which would continue to prove to be a major problem area, but the defense also struggled. Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones combined for 131 of the Chiefs' 135 rushing yards. Charles ripped off a 56-yard run for a touchdown.

"They've got two really good running backs that bring two different things to the table," said Garay, who was Jones' teammate in Chicago and with the New York Jets. "Being around Thomas, I know that he likes running in between (the) tackles. He wants to hit it up in there and then he wants to make his break. Charles is a fast guy. You definitely don't want him to break your contain, you don't want him to get to the outside, because he's definitely a dangerous guy. And a lot of it has to do with those guys they have up front. They have a really good offensive line."

Added Cooper, "Their offensive line does a great job of staying on blocks and getting lateral movement and getting defensive guys running. At the same time, you've got really good, athletic backs back there. So we've got to make sure, as linebackers, we get downhill."

Otherwise, the Chargers could be plain sunk as far as their playoff hopes are concerned.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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