CLNS Media Headquarters — the Patriots put the rest of the AFC on notice with a 45-0 statement win over the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
New England is still on the outside looking in for a postseason berth, but Bill Belichick’s schooling of Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn showed these Patriots at their peak.
Belichick, who took plenty of flack earlier in the season for his coaching and roster decisions, is proving to be the most valuable asset New England has in the building once again, shocking.
The Patriots out-coached Los Angeles in every way; they had a better game plan, miles better special teams, better fundamentals, and better in-game adjustments. It was like Lynn’s Chargers were on beginner mode while Belichick’s team was playing on All-Madden.
Ultimately, New England stifled rookie quarterback Justin Herbert and the Chargers’ passing attack, which came into Sunday’s action ranked seventh in DVOA, with a pretty basic pass-rush plan. There wasn’t a reinventing of the wheel on Sunday, yet LA’s offensive line couldn’t handle the Pats’ rush.
On the other side of the ball, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels scripted a terrific 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game that gave the Pats command of the game script.
As much as Belichick slow-playing young players’ development and certain draft decisions irk us at times, the Hoodie and his staff are an automatic six wins just by walking through the door.
And that’s why Sunday’s coaching masterclass against a talented Chargers team shouldn’t be taken for granted; 31 other teams would fire their coach tomorrow to hire Bill Belichick.
Here are ten things we learned as New England improves to 6-6 on the season:
1. Pats’ Pass Rush Fuels Defense in Shutout Victory
After a slow start to the season, the Patriots’ pass rush rattled rookie quarterback Justin Herbert into one of his worst performances of the season.
Herbert had season-lows in expected points added per drop-back (-0.49) and yards per attempt (3.9), thanks to a great marriage of rush and coverage by New England’s defense.
The Pats have a budding three-headed monster in defensive tackle Adam Butler and edge rushers Chase Winovich and Josh Uche, who embarrassed the Chargers’ offensive line on Sunday.
New England’s trio led a pass-rush that pressured Herbert on 47.4 percent of his drop-backs of 2.6-plus seconds, removing screens and designed quick throws. In other words, when the Chargers wanted to throw downfield, the Pats’ pass-rush got home, and often.
Let’s start with a key third-down sack by Deatrich Wise that stalled the Chargers’ opening drive. The Patriots only rushed three on the play, with Uche falling off the line into a short zone, but Butler’s inside penetration forced Herbert to step up into the pocket where Wise was waiting.
With Butler getting inside penetration, the Patriots used Winovich and others as wrappers on stunt schemes to get to Herbert.
Here, Butler and Winovich work in tandem on an LB/DT stunt where Butler gets immediate penetration on the center with Winovich wrapping around to come through the middle unblocked, forcing a check-down by Herbert on third and long.
Then, Uche got in on the fun. This time, Butler and Winovich’s stunt gives the Pats rookie a one-on-one against the left tackle, and Uche uses a punch-dip move to explode by Storm Norton to nearly sack Herbert, settling for a throwaway on third down instead.
Things were so easy for New England’s defensive line that it almost looked like they were bored with sacking Herbert by the end of the game.
On Adam Butler’s fourth-quarter sack, he ran a stunt with rookie Anfernee Jennings, and when Jennings wraps around, the left guard comes off Butler to pick up the rookie. Butler splits the two blockers, with Norton once again left helpless, and drops Herbert for the third time.
Despite only rushing three or four most of the time, the Patriots took advantage of a weak Chargers offensive line with several teach-tape reps on how to execute a line stunt.
2. Pats Special Teams Dominant in Win, Scores Twice
Along with a dominant defensive effort, Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord and his unit deserve a game ball for their performance.
New England’s special teams scored two touchdowns, downed three punts inside the ten, had another long punt return, and flat-out dominated the worst special teams unit in football.
We’ll get to Gunner Olszewski’s 70-yard punt return touchdown later, so we’ll focus on the field goal block before the half that Devin McCourty ran back for six.
The Pats overloaded the left side of the protection to get six rushers on four blockers on the play. With four rushers over the line, that left the left-wing in a two-on-one situation. It’s possible that the winger thought the four-man line would block five-on-four to the inside, but letting Cody Davis, the inside rusher, through is a big no-no, and Davis blocks the kick. Just like with pass protection, the blockers want to block inside out, so Davis needs a hat while it’s on the kicking operation to get the ball off before Bethel gets there.
On top of the two scores, Pats special teams ace Justin Bethel made a remarkable over-the-shoulder play to prevent a Jake Bailey punt from going into the end zone.
People often joke about Belichick’s focus on the kicking game, but his guys that are mainly on the team to contribute on special teams starred in Sunday’s win.
3. Pats OC Josh McDaniels’ Stellar Opening Script
As someone that watches the tape every week, McDaniels even took me by surprise with his opening script that put the Pats up 7-0.
McDaniels called ten running plays, no surprise there, but two of those were to Damien Harris in the wildcat, and the Pats OC also incorporated several option runs with Newton.
The drive starter was a screen pass to Harris that gained 15 yards, a nice call versus an aggressive Chargers front that likes to get vertically up the field against the pass.
New England then ran two wildcat plays that netted 14 yards, a wrinkle that took LA by surprise.
In theory, the wildcat is the same as the designed quarterback runs we see with Newton, but it’s something else the defense has to worry about and puts the ball in Harris’s hands.
On the second play of the drive, Newton lightens the box by taking a second-level defender with him when he motions out wide, leaving 7-on-7 in the box. The Pats use the numbers advantage to get a double-team on the line of scrimmage with Jakob Johnson leading to the linebacker level. Instead of following Johnson, Harris hits the B-gap to work off the double-team block and gains seven yards on first down.
After the wildcat run, the Pats threw another trick at the Chargers that would repeat throughout the game.
In this play, McDaniels motions Jakobi Meyers into the formation and then uses Meyers as a decoy. Based on Meyers’s alignment, Cam could be looking to him for a double-pass. Instead, it’s a draw up the middle, and the defense is slow to react to the run due to Meyers’s acting job and the ball fake by Newton.
As we mentioned, several of the running plays were designed option plays with Newton as the trigger man.
Here, the Pats ran a speed-option with Newton reading the play-side defensive end, Joey Bosa. With Bosa occupied by the read, right tackle Michael Onwenu climbs immediately to the second level. McDaniels uses a nice alignment for fullback Jakob Johnson so that when Newton tosses it out, Harris has an extra lead blocker, and Bosa crashes down to the QB, making it an easy read for Cam.
The Patriots’ passing attack had a quiet day, but McDaniels continues to find unique ways to run the football with the defense loading the box.
4. Pats QB Cam Newton Does More Than Passing Stats Suggest
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton only threw for 69 yards on 19 attempts, yet the Patriots offense scored 24 points with him under center, and he executed the game-plan well.
Newton didn’t have much of an opportunity to throw downfield, but thanks to the CBS mics, we could hear a lot of the pre-snap communication by the Patriots’ quarterback.
The Pats had Newton calling the direction of running plays based on the defense’s alignment and then often reading the defense after the snap as a part of those run concepts. That’s a lot mentally to put on the QB.
No, it wasn’t a sexy passing game. But Newton managed the game well and was a huge part of a dominating rushing attack, netting 0.37 EPA per rush on his 14 carries with two touchdowns.
In their opening TD drive, Newton makes a great fake to fool Bosa. Bosa crashes down to take the back, and Newton keeps it for 14 yards.
Cam was sensing pressure and making quicker decisions in the pocket while under pressure, along with running it himself on designed plays.
Above, Newton feels the heat coming off the edge when Bosa beats Onwenu and takes off for a first-down run.
The Patriots quarterback might not have impressed anyone through the air, but he was a significant part of the victory and did what was asked of him by the coaching staff.
5. Pats’ CB Duo of Stephon Gilmore & JC Jackson Erase Keenan Allen & Mike Williams
New England’s pass rush’s turnaround is a significant development for their defense, with Stephon Gilmore, JC Jackson, and the rest of the secondary always capable of lockdown coverage.
On Sunday, Gilmore and Jackson, along with the pass rush, erased LA’s prolific wide receiver duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who combined for 91 yards on nine catches.
Most of that production came late when the game was already out of hand because early, Gilmore and Jackson were in their hip pockets.
Here, LA tries to run a variation of the “sail” concept to Herbert’s right, where Williams’s vertical route clears out the sideline for Allen’s corner pattern. Well, Gilmore blankets Allen on the corner route, and Jackson gets a read on the route combination to peel off Williams and intercept a pass forced into tight coverage by Herbert.
Earlier, Gilmore registered a pass breakup in coverage on Williams with excellent route anticipation to stay on Williams’s outside hip and then drive underneath the slant.
After a slow start, Gilmore is allowing under 25 yards per game and is locking down the opponent’s top wideouts just like he did a year ago.
As for Jackson, he is one shy of league-leader Xavien Howard with seven interceptions this season. Both Pats corners are playing at a high level.
6. Pats’ Defensive Front Rapidly Improving in Multiple Ways
Although their main contributions were in the pass rush, it’s important to note how New England’s defensive front is improving in other areas too.
For starters, the Patriots’ run defense is rounding into form by having the defenders on the line of scrimmage eat blocks and set the edge so the linebacker level can make plays. Above, John Simon gets penetration off the edge to force the run back inside where the interior D-Line is like an immovable object, and the second-level is clean to help Simon make the tackle.
The Patriots also got an excellent interception from Winovich on a fantastic read against a designed rollout concept. In the play, Winovich is on the backside. Instead of chasing down the quarterback, he stays disciplined to fall underneath the throw-back crosser for the pick.
The turnaround in the front seven, thanks to improved health for Butler and the emergence of their young players, is remarkable.
7. Pats WRs Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry Contribute in Quiet Passing Script
Although Newton and Jarrett Stidham combined to throw for only 130 yards on 22 attempts, we saw flashes of Meyers’s consistent play and Harry’s potential as a red-zone threat.
Starting with Harry, he finally got a chance to use his size and strength down by the goal line. The Pats ran a stick concept to clear-out a spot for Harry to sit right over the goal line, and Harry boxes out the defender to make the contested grab.
The Patriots entered the week as the 24th-ranked red zone offense in the league; certainly, they could improve there, and maybe Harry is the big-bodied target they need inside the 20.
Harry might not be developing into the receiving threat New England thought they’d get with a first-round pick, but it would be beneficial for the Pats if he could be a red-zone threat.
Meyers was open often again, including on the catch above where he uses a quick inside release to get the defender in a trail position on his outside hip and then breaks off the “burst” corner route into the sideline. Excellent blitz pickup by James White, too.
Damiere Byrd also got open deep on a double move, but Newton was late to throw due to pressure. Although the stat-line was underwhelming, the Pats receivers created some chances.
8. Pats Backup QB Jarrett Stidham Throws Touchdown in Garbage Time
With the Stidham support starting to get louder due to Newton’s passing struggles, the Pats’ backup got some playing time thanks to the scoreboard rather than Cam’s performance.
Stidham’s touchdown pass to Gunner Olszewski was a nice fake, as the Pats ran their fake bubble screen concept with the receivers selling a screen into the flat before the blockers released downfield on vertical routes. Olszewski and Stidham’s pump fake sells it, and Stidham puts the ball on Gunner in-stride, allowing Gunner to elude the deep safety and walk in for six.
Although two throws aren’t much, it was Stidham’s best showing in mop-up duty over the last two seasons.
9. Pats “Pony” Package Starting to Become a Factor
As much as Damien Harris’s breakout has led to more criticism of Sony Michel, McDaniels used a “pony” package with both Harris and Michel on the field that’s intriguing. With three potential ball carriers on the field, including Newton, there’s a lot McDaniels can draw up out of that grouping to gain yards on the ground. The Patriots need to find schematic wrinkles to be an effective rushing attack while defenses load the box, and using “pony” packages with multiple running threats is one way McDaniels found success on Sunday.
10. Play of the Game: Gunner Olszewski’s 70-Yard Punt Return TD
There’s no way we could get through the entire game without crediting Gunner Olszewski for his two monster returns. Gunner might be a thing, at least as a punt returner, which is good. Plus, his 70-yard touchdown return is another example of the coaching mismatch in this one.
On the return, the Pats set it up by showing numbers in the rush like they’re going to come after the punter, which forces LA’s gunners to motion inside to max protect. Instead, the New England drops off to block for Olszewski, and without gunners running down to cover the kick, the Pats’ Gunner gets a head of steam and finds the crease; chess vs. checkers.