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Bolts' bye comes at an opportune time

Whether the players are in unison with it or not, the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement got it right by implementing more rest during the bye week.

There are injuries every week in the league; some are absolutely detrimental to a team and others less damaging. Players look forward to the bye for many reasons such as spending time with family, nursing a few nicks and getting away from football all together.

Heading into the break has to feel especially rewarding for the teams sporting a good record and sitting atop their respective division. The San Diego Chargers are the only division leader getting some rest this upcoming weekend after earning a 4-1 mark and a first-place tag in the AFC West standings. They have suffered their fair share of injuries through the initial five weeks of the NFL season, however, and now won't have to return to work until Monday, Oct. 17.

"It's cool," Chargers wide receiver Malcom Floyd said of the bye. "But the thing is, you've still got to stay on top of your game, keep your cardio up and just stay on top of maintenance on your body. Just be smart about everything on and off the field."

Players can still work out, watch film and rehabilitate injuries over the off period. Now is a perfect time for Chargers tight end Antonio Gates to inch closer to a return, something he has been trying to do since mid-September. Gates played in a Week 1 win over Minnesota and a loss at New England the following Sunday, but has been bothered by a right foot injury ever since and missed the last three games.

While his teammates are preparing intensely on a week-to-week basis for the next opponent, Gates is simply trying to get back onto the field.

According to the San Diego Tribune, Chargers head coach Norv Turner is optimistic Gates will be ready when the Chargers return to battle Oct. 23 versus the New York Jets at the Meadowlands. Gates, one of the more dynamic pass-catching tight ends in the league, had eight receptions for 74 yards in the season-opening win over the Vikings and can only make the Chargers a more dangerous team when he returns. Quarterback Philip Rivers' numbers are down a bit this season, and it's possibly due to the absence of his All-Pro tight end.

Wide receiver Vincent Jackson has taken over as Rivers' main target and owns 408 yards and three touchdowns on 23 catches this season. Like most NFL players, Jackson is also dealing with ailments, however, and the bye week should give him an ample amount of time to rest a sore hamstring.

Running backs have a short shelf life in the NFL, simply because they use their bodies as battering rams 20 to 25 times a game. With how fast 260-pound defenders are these days, absorbing hits can only take its toll for so long.

Ryan Matthews is in his second year in the league and already has taken plenty of cracks to his frame. The San Diego running back is currently dealing with a balky wrist and a calf strain, but has shown no signs of injury with how productive he's been this season. He ran for a season-best 125 yards on 24 carries in a win at Denver last Sunday and leads the team with 413 rushing yards and three scores.

Mike Tolbert, the next man in command in the Chargers' ground attack, suffered a concussion in last week's win. Barring any setback, he too is expected to be ready for the Jets game and add a change of pace in the backfield. Tolbert is second on the team with 36 carries behind Matthews' 85 touches, and was impressed with how his backfield mate battled through pain against the division-rival Broncos.

"To see him get hurt in the first quarter, to know he's grinding through it and it's getting worse as the game progresses, it's very impressive," Tolbert said of Matthews. "And respect is given to him."

The Chargers are favored to win the AFC West for the fifth time in six years, but will also need the defense to perform well to make that happen. That side of the football has gone through its collection of injuries as well, with safety Bob Sanders, linebacker Stephen Cooper out for the season and ends Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire also having missed time. Turner is hoping Cesaire will be able to return after the bye, but Sanders and Cooper are done for the season and Castillo won't make it back from a broken leg until at last December.

Cooper was just placed on injured reserve because of a biceps injury suffered in the preseason.

"I don't think Stephen's arm is going to get any better [without surgery]," said Turner. "It did limit him in some of the things he's trying to do."

Linebacker Gerald Hayes was signed to a one-year contract Tuesday to take Cooper's spot on the roster. Cooper was in his ninth season with the team and started 55 games over the previous four years. Chargers linebacker Donald Butler was appreciative of how Cooper helped him along and described him as a coach on the field. Now San Diego will have to deal without one of its more intuitive defenders for the long road ahead.

The Chargers have been solid against the pass and overall defensively, ranking second and fifth in those categories, respectively, but are 17th in run defense and 23rd in points allowed. Cooper's departure just means players will have to step it up and create competition at each position. That's what separates winning teams from the rest of the pack and makes coaches' jobs less stressful.

The first four games out of the bye are not easy ones for San Diego, as the Jets, Kansas City, Green Bay and Oakland will be lined up to take their swings.

"Not to look ahead, but you have to," Turner told the Tribune. "We get the Jets, then we get another extended period where we play Monday night [at Kansas City], and then we go a short period and play Green Bay and a real short period and play Oakland."

Turner reiterated that the team's main purpose going forward will be the Jets, because in this league championship-caliber teams take it one week at a time. His team has an added bonus with extra time off to heal that could give it perhaps an upper hand on New York, which gets no rest for the weary this week with a Monday night showdown versus Miami.

Catching the Jets on a short week could help give the Chargers their first 5-1 start since opening the 2002 campaign with six wins over the first seven weeks.