Patriots on the Charge(rs)
Wow, the Chargers really put on a master class against the Ravens, 7 defensive backs to stifle Lamar Jackson and keep the Ravens’ innovative offence in check. A bold strategy from a fine defensive mind, after all Gus Bradley is the architect of the Legion of Boom
It seems on paper that this Chargers Defense is a nightmare match up for a below par Patriots team. However, I don’t think so though. In fact I think it is a good match up. Here’s why…
We need to look at the history of Brady/Belichick and Co vs Gus Bradley’s defensive units. Seattle’s Legion of Boom was built on playing a lot of aggressive Cover 3, which was schemed to take away the deep balls and stop you getting big chunk plays. It tries to get you to throw the ball short and then have defenders fly to the ball, a la Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas etc.. Bradley took this scheme to Jacksonville with him, and Dan Quinn took over as DC, he then kept it and then took it to Atlanta himself when he became their head coach.
But like any defensive scheme, if you get the right personnel match up, you can exploit other areas and find the soft spots in the coverage. While Cover 3 covers the deep middle and the outside receivers, the seams can be vulnerable to the right play call. Running backs can get open coming out the backfield catching the ball short or in the flat and crossing routes that exploit the linebackers can be used to attack this defense.
Which is exactly what Brady and Co have done in the past by making heavy use of running backs in the passing game and exploiting the matchups in the short to medium part of the field with quick shifty receivers catching the ball underneath and getting yards after the catch. Death by a thousand paper cuts.
The first of these matchups was October 14th 2012, in a match that the Patriots ultimately lost 23-24 thanks to a 14-point rally by the Seahawks in the 4th Quarter. But prior to a Russell Wilson clinic, they looked to be in good shape. Wes Welker, feasted going 10/14 for 138 yards and a TD. Dany Woodhead caught all 5 of his targets for 46 yards, that’s 9.2 yards per catch for a running back. This was perhaps a more modest performance overall but things would get better the more they saw this defense.
There weren’t any relevant match ups to look at in 2013, so that brings us to 2014 and Super Bowl XLIX. In this game, Brady went often to Shane Vereen, with the running back getting 11 catches in the passing game. Julian Edelman, also had another successful game with 109 yards and a touchdown. For the opening touchdown, Gronk got matched up on a linebacker and burned him for a 22- yard TD.
Moving on to 2015 and the Pats put up 51 points on Bradley’s Jaguars. Now a heavy caveat here is that this Jags team was not as talented as these Seattle teams or the 2017 Jags, so this one can maybe be taken with a pinch of salt but the box score looks familiar with running backs, Gronk and Edelman all having good days. Dion Lewis, James White and LeGarrette Blount combined for 10 catches and Gronk went off for 101 yards and Edelman added another 85.
2016 saw the Patriots play both Seattle and then famously Atlanta in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots lost again to the Seahawks in the regular season but put up 24 points in doing so – in a season when the Seahawks were only averaging 18.3 points per game. Of course, the season ended in Houston and that comeback for the ages in Super Bowl LI. In the first half, Dan Quinn’s unit were looking like a Seattle team, stifling and confusing the Patriots Offence. They basically sold out on stopping Julian Edelman who had been a focal point for the Patriots after Gronkowski getting injured. James White had a record 14 catches for 110 yards which then freed up some space for Edelman and Amendola who accrued another 163 yards between them. They also dominated the time of possession in this game, 40:31 – 23:27.
So, looking forward to this weekend; assuming the Ravens wouldn’t be as ineffective as they were against the Chargers, I think the mobility of Lamar Jackson would have presented our defence with huge problems. The Chargers are a more typical type of offence and with Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler both a little hurt, I anticipate we will sell out on stopping the pass and try and force the Chargers to beat us with the run game. Gilmore is playing to an all pro level and JC Jackson is looking more like a starting quality corner every week, then you have the McCourty brothers and Patrick Chung – I have a lot of confidence in our defensive backs to match up with the Chargers weapons on the outside. I think the Chargers have to attack us with Gates and Hunter Henry if he is fit enough to play a role. They could have a big day if they can isolate our linebackers in coverage, I’d even be tempted to put extra DB or two in there just like the Chargers did last week.
For the record, I don’t think they do that again this week. That was purely to stop Jackson from running all over them. If the Patriots see looks like that, it’s time for a heavy dose of power runs with James Develin clearing holes for Sony Michel.
There are 2 x-factors for me in this game. The first is the Patriots offensive line, we have to find a way to slow down Bosa and Ingram or else they could wreck any offensive game plan we might have. This game will be determined by who wins the battle up front. The second is that there could be anywhere up to 5 inches of snow on Sunday and it could come down to who manages the conditions better.
I think the winner of this game advances to the Super Bowl. I’ve talked before about how the Chiefs Defence will be their undoing. If the Colts manage to pick them off this week and win another big game, it will be so hard to go on the road again and match that intensity for a third straight week. Make no mistake though, Frank Reich is building a machine that could rule the AFC in years to come.
For more NFL opinion and chat, follow Allan on Twitter.