FOXBOROUGH — The road-warrior Los Angeles Chargers will be coming to Gillette Stadium this Sunday after a 23-17 win over Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens on Wild Card Weekend.
With the differences between the two teams in mind, and there are many, it seems unlikely that the Chargers’ coaching staff will come to Foxborough with the same approach they had in Baltimore.
However, the Baltimore defense, one of the best in the NFL, held a loaded Los Angeles offense to 33 points in two games combined that were only a few weeks apart.
And as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick noted on Monday about the Chargers defense, “Coach [Gus] Bradley runs the Seattle system, and that’s again, a very sound and proven system of defense. That’s the core of it. Yeah, there’s game-to-game adjustments. I’m sure they’ll play Tom Brady differently than they played Lamar Jackson as anybody would. But their scheme is still pretty fundamentally their scheme, and they’ve had so much success with it.”
Below, we’ll go over five takeaways from the Chargers’ win over the Ravens that will likely show up again this Sunday as the Patriots try to reach their eighth consecutive AFC Championship Game:
1. Team That Controls the Line of Scrimmage Wins
This is an old football cliche that every coach stresses, but the Chargers’ performance against the Ravens solidified two things about their team:
One, their pass rush led by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram is one of the best in the NFL.
And two, the Chargers’ offensive line is vulnerable in pass protection.
If the Patriots’ offensive line can hold its own while the defense gets after Philip Rivers, they’ll win this game on Sunday.
During the regular season, the Chargers defense ranked ninth pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 39.1 percent of their drop-backs, and they did it without blitzing ranking 31st in blitz frequency (19 percent).
Against Lamar Jackson, it was more of the same, as the Chargers sacked the former Heisman winner seven times and pressured him on 47.5 percent of his drop-backs with only four blitzes.
On the other side of the ball, the Chargers’ offensive line ranked 30th in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency, and Rivers was under duress on nearly half of his dropbacks on Sunday (48.6 percent).
Rivers handled the rush better than Lamar did, but the pressure held the Chargers quarterback to five yards per attempt.
The Patriots will win this game if they can win the battle up front.
2. How Much of Chargers “Quarters” Package Will We See?
On Sunday, Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley deployed a “quarters” package with seven defensive backs on 58 of Baltimore’s 59 offensive snaps.
The Los Angeles safeties, including last year’s top pick Derwin James, played linebacker in the scheme to have more speed on the field to chase Jackson, and they picked up on Baltimore’s tendencies in film study allowing them to avoid getting overpowered in the running game.
— Ben Krimmel (@BenKrimmel) January 7, 2019
The Chargers also decided to go this route because they were thin at linebacker with starters Denzel Perryman and Jatavis Brown now on injured reserve, and that’s where this package could become a factor for New England.
No, the Chargers won’t have to put extra defensive backs on the field to account for Tom Brady’s legs, but they might decide to play dime or quarters to match New England’s running backs out of the backfield.
In last year’s matchup, the Patriots’ running backs caught 14 of 15 targets for 163 yards against Los Angeles’ linebackers in coverage opening up the possibility that LA will put their safeties on James White and company instead of linebackers.
To combat that strategy, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could utilize the Patriots’ heavy personnel with multiple tight ends and fullback James Develin to force the Chargers to play their linebackers.
The chess match between McDaniels and Bradley will be fascinating to watch.
3. Chargers Slot CB/Returner Desmond King a Big-Time Factor
Chargers slot corner Desmond King was named a first-team All-Pro this season and King backed it up with a terrific performance both on defense and in the return game on Sunday.
On the season, LA’s special teams unit only ranked 25th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, but King averaged over 13 yards per punt return and had a 72-yard kick return against Baltimore.
Furthermore, King played 48 of his 59 snaps in the slot mostly tracking Ravens slot receiver Willie Snead holding him to one catch for nine yards.
Although the Chargers play a lot of zone coverage, King will have his fair share of one-on-one matchups with Julian Edelman in a strength on strength showdown.
And the Patriots’ coverage units on special teams will have to be ready to smother King in the return game.
4. Chargers’ Travis Benjamin a Gadget in LA Offense
In many ways, the Chargers utilize the speedy Benjamin similarly to how the Patriots deploy Cordarrelle Patterson, different players but similar strategies.
For the Chargers, they like to use Benjamin on “orbit” motions bringing him behind Rivers giving the veteran quarterback a few options: handing it off to Benjamin, throwing it to him in the flat, or using the motion to displace defenders downfield to complete passes.
Here, the Chargers sent Benjamin into an orbit motion behind the quarterback and Rivers read that none of the second level players made their way to the flat, so he dumped it off to Benjamin for an 11-yard gain.
Whisenhunt will also use receiving back Austin Eckler in that role as well.
Speaking to multiple Patriot defenders this season, they say it’s on the defensive backs, not the players in the front seven, to account for these types of actions in New England’s system.
5. Ravens Blitz Schemes Confused and Dominated the Chargers’ Offensive Line
To take advantage of the Chargers’ weak offensive line, the Baltimore defense blitzed Philip Rivers 18 times and were mostly successful in generating pressure off of those blitzes.
The Ravens’ strategy was to crowd the line of scrimmage with defenders in two-point stances, and then they fired some players while dropping others into underneath zones into areas where Rivers might throw “hot” to beat the blitz.
Baltimore also showed blitz a few times and then backed off to give Rivers different looks.
To his credit, Rivers still completed ten of 15 passes against the Ravens’ blitzes, but the strategy held the Chargers quarterback to 5.4 yards per attempt forcing him to get rid of the ball so that he couldn’t take shots downfield.
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