Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is known for heaping praise on his opponents as a form of gamesmanship, and this week was no different with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Belichick went into a nearly 600-word opening statement on Wednesday that made the 3-8 Chargers sound like the 2007 Patriots, highlighting a well-constructed roster.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 2, 2020
In Belichick’s scouting report, he praised “outstanding” rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, referred to defensive end Joey Bosa as a “one of the most disruptive players in the league,” and mentioned Keenan Allen and tight end Hunter Henry’s success dating back to High School (where Belichick shouted out Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley).
Although the Patriots head coach comes off as a bit much for a team likely picking in the top ten next April, the Chargers aren’t your typical three-win operation heading into December.
This season, only one of the Chargers’ eight losses, last week’s in Buffalo, was by more than one score, and two came in overtime, as they are an extremely competitive bunch.
Los Angeles’s offense averages over 25 points per game and ranks seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA efficiency metric as a passing unit, with Herbert having a terrific rookie campaign.
Defensively, the Chargers are ravaged by injuries to All-Pro safety Derwin James and pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, but Bosa can still cause havoc.
Despite having a roster that’s undoubtedly talented, there’s a reason the team that wears the powder blue is 3-8, and the disconnect between talent and record points directly to the culprit.
Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn doesn’t have his team winning in crunch time, and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is rolling out the same basic scheme for four seasons.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was practically giddy on Tuesday discussing the Chargers defense because it’s easy pickings for him; he knows the system, and Bradley doesn’t do much in the way of game-plan wrinkles to change things up.
Los Angeles does some things extremely well thanks to their roster talent, but the Patriots, who are still in the hunt for the AFC playoffs, have a distinct coaching advantage on Sunday.
For those keeping track of “the path” at home, New England now has a 13 percent chance of making the playoffs following Baltimore’s loss to the Steelers that finally ended Week 12.
Here’s a game plan for the Patriots on both sides of the ball against the Chargers:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
In the 2018 postseason, former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady led New England to 41 points versus a Chargers defense that many thought would give the Pats problems.
Although McDaniels already has the blueprint, Brady dissected Gus Bradley’s defense with only seven of his 44 pass attempts traveling more than ten yards in the air.
With Cam Newton at the helm now, New England, due to Newton’s struggles with short accuracy and timing, is far more efficient on deeper throws than passes of the shorter variety.
Furthermore, the Chargers are a cover-three heavy defense, playing three deep with four under on 36.5 percent of their coverage snaps, the third-highest percentage in the league.
Do you go with a short passing script that you know will work against the Chargers’ soft cover-three zones, or try to hit throws down the field that come more naturally to Newton?
The best answer is probably a little bit of both, and of course, incorporating a running game that’s getting mostly silenced by loaded boxes due to the Pats’ passing struggles.
Los Angeles’s defense ranks 17th against the pass in DVOA, but their run defense is 31st. Still, as we found out against the Texans, it’s a different ball game against New England’s offense.
The #Patriots have one of the most extensive running games in the league. He dials up lead, trap, power, inside zone, outside zone, crack toss, gap-read, zone-read, QB lead.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 2, 2020
Even if a defense struggles to stop the run, they can sell out against the Pats’ rushing attack.
Then, there’s the Joey Bosa aspect of the equation, who is coming off a monster game with three sacks, five quarterback hit, and six tackles for loss. Belichick’s praise of Bosa was fully warranted; he’s a game-wrecker and needs extra attention.
Let’s get into some of the schemes that might be productive for the Patriots offense this week.
As we mentioned, Brady, Edelman, and the Patriots had a huge day through the air by taking advantage of the Chargers’ coverage rules in their soft zones and off play-action.
The first part might not be the best recipe for Newton, but it’s worth trying a bit, and the play-action aspect needs to be a focus against a post-safety or single-high defense.
Starting with the underneath stuff, the Chargers’ cover-three rules often tell defenders to match vertical routes, so McDaniels will take advantage of that space.
(via James Light)
Like Seattle, the staple of the Chargers’ defense is cover-three mable, where the backside corner on the X receiver is in man coverage while the rest of the defense plays zone. The other key element of mable coverage is the middle hook defenders’ responsibility to match deep crossing routes, which McDaniels loves to take advantage of in different ways.
Here, Edelman and Chris Hogan both release vertically upfield to Brady’s right, taking the inside zone defenders with them. Phillip Dorsett runs underneath the defense from the boundary, and there’s nobody left in the middle to take him.
In this example, the Chargers play straight spot-drop cover-three, where Gronk’s vertical release takes the middle hook defender upfield for Edelman to fill in underneath.
Although those are easy pickings for Brady, precision short throws aren’t necessarily Newton’s strength of late, so attacking off play-action might be a better bet on Sunday.
Here’s a route design that I can almost guarantee we’ll see at some point. The Chargers are in mable coverage once again, and to Brady’s right, Cordarrelle Patterson runs a deep over route that occupies the middle hook. With Patterson clearing out, and the corner bailing on the outside, Edelman runs a glance route into the middle of the field.
Another route that hits between the numbers is Edelman’s patented over route, which is quickly becoming Jakobi Meyers’s go-to. Above, the Patriots suck up the linebacker level and the backside corner using play-action, and there’s nobody on the left side of the field to cut off Edelman.
New England also had tremendous success throwing to James White on screen passes and throws underneath soft zone coverage in the 2018 playoff game.
The Patriots continue to run slight variations on all the plays above, and Newton has been successful at times.
Still, regardless of scheme, it’ll be another long day for New England’s offense if Newton’s downfield accuracy doesn’t return to form.
With the running game, a Seattle-style scheme’s hallmark from a front perspective is a hybrid 4-3 that usually is flying up the field as a one-gapping defense.
With one-gap systems, running certain blocking schemes with pullers can lead to problems with defenders shooting gaps over pulling linemen, but you can also feast on that aggressiveness.
Here, the Bills run a center-guard lead play where the front-side blockers pull rather than the backside linemen. The distinction is important against a one-gapping front because the pullers travel a shorter distance than a backside puller scheme like power or counter, so they get to their landmarks quicker to take out the defenders getting vertical upfield. The left tackle executes his fold block on the three-technique, Bosa wants to shoot upfield but is met by the puller and the tight end and center climb to the second level for a big play.
The Bills got the idea for a G-lead design from the Raiders, who ran for 160 yards in a 31-26 win over the Chargers in Week 9.
The Raiders ran a crack scheme for a touchdown out of a nub formation, with the tight end as the furthest player out on the formation’s right side. The blocking scheme gets the play-side defensive end to crash inside, making it an easy pull for the center and guard, and the ball carrier walks into the end zone.
New England might use their long trap, crack tosses, or whams to get quick-hitting runs to the outside that feast on an aggressive front.
Overall, McDaniels has plenty of options for attacking the Chargers defense on Sunday.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The strength of this Chargers team is their passing game led by rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, who has the weapons around him to maximize his physical tools.
Time for some more Justin Herbert love
*Hanging in the pocket and attacking leverage
*A wee bit of manipulation
*Creativity and throwing guys open pic.twitter.com/fAOC4Ud44B
— Mark Schofield (@MarkSchofield) November 23, 2020
Herbert, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 draft, is impressive. He’s good in all scenarios, whether you pressure him without blitzing or bring extra rushers, and is extremely poised in the pocket.
The Chargers rookie is also reading coverage at a high level, making good decisions, and attacking leverage. Above, Herbert makes a great anticipatory throw to put the ball on Keenan Allen’s outside hip as he turns away from the inside defender on the goal line.
Herbert can also create outside the pocket and throws darts on the move into tight windows. Honestly, he’s the full package and the type of quarterback the Patriots would love to get their hands on in the future.
The 22-year-old also benefits from having Allen, jump-ball phenom Mike Williams, tight end Hunter Henry, and receiving back Austin Ekeler as an excellent group of pass-catchers.
Los Angeles ranks seventh in pass DVOA, but old friend Brian Flores gave Belichick a blueprint with a successful game plan against Herbert in Week 10.
THE FLORES BLUEPRINT
Former Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores’s game plan held Herbert in check a few weeks ago, with the Chargers QB producing his lowest PFF passing grade of the season.
Flores and the Dolphins limited Herbert by doing what Belichick always does against young quarterbacks: spin the dial with a variety of different coverages and disguises.
In all, Miami ran nine different coverages against the Chargers and gave Herbert various pressure looks, and for the first time, the rookie looked confused.
As most good play-callers do, Flores started the game off by committing to all-out pressure so that he could create problems without blitzing later.
In the play above, the Dolphins bring a zero blitz at Herbert, who knows he needs to get the ball out quickly, and sails it over an open Allen’s head.
Miami called a cover-zero blitz seven times, which set the foundation for the rest of their plan.
Here, Flores crowds the line of scrimmage with an amoeba front and the safety playing low, usually an indicator of a zero blitz. However, the defense bails out and falls into a typical cover-three zone. Herbert is confused by the bluff blitz and makes a rare mistake by throwing into Xavien Howards’ leverage on the outside for an interception.
Last week, the Bills also confused Herbert with post-snap safety rotations. This time, the defense shows a two-high shell but falls into a cover-three structure after the snap. Herbert loses Tre’Davious White on the right, and White jumps Henry’s route for a pick.
By disguising, the Dolphins and Bills both got Herbert to hold the ball and make mistakes.
When the Dolphins went to cover-one man, which they played 16 times, they sprinkled in two plays of cover-one double no. 13 (Allen). Allen’s 122 targets lead the league by 12, and he’s the straw that stirs the drink, so it makes sense that Flores would want to take him out.
Here, the Dolphins show man pressure once again with one deep safety. Instead of blitzing, the box safety falls off to bracket Allen out of the slot, which gets Herbert to hold the ball an extra tick, and the four-man rush gets home to force an errant throw. Herbert’s decision to go to Henry on the crosser is the right one, but he’s under too much pressure to make a good throw.
Flores also sprinkled in some cover-two structures and continued to complement their coverage with an aggressive pass rush.
The Patriots will undoubtedly borrow from Flores’s game plan against Hebert since his Dolphins defense is similar to New England’s scheme.
With the blueprint in place on both sides of the ball, the Pats just need to execute the game plan.
1. Pats RT Michael Onwenu vs. Chargers DE Joey Bosa: after his comments this week, there’s no way that Belichick will make the rookie take Bosa one-on-one all afternoon, but Bosa mostly rushes over the right tackle. The two-time Pro Bowler is as much a technician as he is an explosive rusher, using his trademark swipe and rip move as the basis of his rush plan. The Pats will chip with the running backs and tight ends and could even send some doubles towards Bosa, who will straight-up ruin the entire game for New England if they aren’t careful.
2. Pats CB Stephon Gilmore vs. Chargers WR Keenan Allen: Gilmore will likely draw the marquee matchup once again after having success against Allen in previous years. In the past, Gilmore has said that he wants to get physical with Allen to avoid his quick moves at the top of routes. The Pats cornerback is starting to look more and more like the player he was last season. This will be a great chess match.
3. Pats Tight End Stoppers vs. Hunter Henry: Henry had seven catches for 67 yards against the Bills last week. Although he isn’t as explosive in a straight line as some other tight ends, Henry is excellent at breaking off leverage and using his body to shield defenders. The Chargers tight end is a big weapon on “Y” option, which clears out the middle of the field for him to break inside or out based on the defenders’ technique. If it’s rookie Kyle Dugger on Henry, he’ll need to be ready for a proficient route runner that’s as good at the top of the route as any tight end in the NFL.
4. Pats “Linebackers” vs. Austin Ekeler: the Chargers do different things with Ekeler, who is their James White, and Herbert’s safety blanket while under pressure. They’ll have him run option routes out of the backfield, screens, and flex him out wide as a receiver. Plus, he’s tough to tackle in the open field. With the Pats playing mostly dime packages, Ekeler will see a defensive back in coverage, with the top candidates being Jason McCourty and Adrian Phillips.
5. Pats DTs Lawrence Guy/Adam Butler vs. Chargers IOL: with the Pats likely flooding the field with defensive backs, Guy, Butler, and company will need to hold their own inside against Los Angeles’s rushing attack. The Chargers do run the ball a bit but rank 28th in rush DVOA. Even though they aren’t a dangerous rushing attack, you still can’t get gashed.