The Patriots seem to find a new rock bottom every week. The defense has allowed 10 points in back-to-back games, holding Colts’ and Giants’ offenses without their starting quarterbacks under 75 rushing yards. But the offense managed to squander comeback opportunities, with Bailey Zappe replacing Mac Jones due to poor, turnover-filled performances. Unlike in Germany, when Zappe came in for relief duty on the game’s final drive, the backup took over after halftime in New York. Leading into Sunday’s meeting with the Chargers, Zappe is expected to start for New England, with Malik Cunningham as the #2 option.
Last week, Zappe told reporters that not being a focus in game plan prep has been “one of the hardest parts” of entering games cold. Among quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts this season, Zappe is dead last with a 38.2 passer rating, throwing a pair of interceptions in limited downfield throwing opportunities. Ideally, a full week of preparation will set him up for greater success. But going off of the Patriots’ most recent games, we will likely see a run and screen-heavy plan that asks the quarterback to do the bare minimum. And with Demario Douglas likely out as he goes through concussion protocol, there’s even less incentive for New England to throw this weekend.
The Chargers’ offense will be the defense’s greatest test since Week 8 in Miami. Superstar quarterback Justin Herbert leads the NFL’s 9th-ranked scoring offense (24.5 points per game), an impressive feat with deep threat Mike Williams tearing his ACL in Week 3 and 1st-rounder Quentin Johnston struggling in Year 1. While LA’s defense vs New England’s offense isn’t exactly a strength vs strength matchup, the Patriots have a sneaky advantage that could keep them in this game.
Winning this game would be bad news for the Patriots’ draft position, with the team currently projected to pick 3rd overall in April. But tanking isn’t an option in a violent, prideful game like football, so here are my keys to the Patriots ripping back some of their pride against the Chargers.
Keep Leaning on the Ground Game
After ranking dead last in rush EPA (-0.292) from Weeks 1-5, the Patriots have skyrocketed to 3rd (0.063) behind the Ravens (0.163) and Lions (0.087). While rookie Sidy Sow has been inconsistent, it’s no coincidence this shift occurred when he entered a disjointed lineup at the top right guard. A formidable run-blocking unit was born once Mike Onwenu kicked out to right tackle. This change helped Rhamondre Stevenson regain form after an uncharacteristically slow start. He’s been one of the league’s best backs since Week 6, slipping and dragging tacklers more consistently by the game.
Bill Belichick was complimentary when asked about his top rusher on The Greg Hill Show earlier this week. He called Stevenson a “really good football player,” and explained, “He’s got good run skills — some of the best that we’ve had around here. Good balance, good power. Reads holes well. Just a good football player.”
Bill O’Brien noted how leaning on the ground game has allowed it to blossom through repetition, which wasn’t a luxury the front had when their lineup was changing weekly.
New England’s run at least 30 times in back-to-back games, tying a season-high with four explosive carries against the Giants. Sow was at the point of attack on each of those totes, with David Andrews, Cole Strange, Trent Brown, and Pharaoh Brown also providing key blocks.
While the Patriots’ offensive line has bulldozed opposing fronts at times, they’ve also played some of the league’s worst run defenses. Luckily, that pattern is set to continue, as no defense has a worse rush EPA allowed than the Chargers’ split-safety scheme (0.165). LA’s allowed 150 rushing yards in each game since their losing streak began in Week 10, including 200 against the Lions and 197 last week against the Ravens.
Both offenses earned big gains on outside zone to the right by feigning a cutback before pressing forward. David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs had their best runs when they cut back left to exploit over-pursuit from LA’s defense.
The Patriots’ ground game largely centers around downhill runs that capitalize on their massive line. Their backs could create similar opportunities on these concepts, but Bill O’Brien could also dust off his Week 10 plan against the Colts. It wasn’t perfect, but New England had well-executed carries on a few outside zone and pin-pull runs away from DeForest Buckner.
Belichick called out two Chargers game-wreckers this week, saying edge defender Khalil Mack and do-it-all safety Derwin James have “ruined plenty of games, so got to do a good job on them.” Avoiding Mack will be a priority, as the future Hall of Famer leads the NFL with six tackles for loss or no gain against the run since Week 10.
Malik Cunningham looked like the second quarterback in practices open to the media this week, so we could see the undrafted free agent get another shot after a rough debut in Week 6 against the Raiders. O’Brien could take some ideas from Baltimore, who used the threat of quarterback runs and RPOs to put Mack, James, and the Chargers’ second level in conflict for explosive gains on the ground.
Cunningham’s process felt accelerated in his first game, but having gotten his feet wet in that opportunity and another full week of practice at quarterback could lead to a better result. He’s an exciting athlete who flashed in limited throwing opportunities under center this preseason. However, don’t expect to be overwhelmed by Malik Mania as the young weapon adjusts to the NFL game.
Harrass Justin Herbert
The Patriots’ pass rush is coming off its best performance in weeks, recording a season-high five sacks against the Giants. Losing Matthew Judon in Week 4 dealt a massive blow to the unit’s potency, but Deatrich Wise credited improved chemistry for their bounce-back performance. This was reflected on stunts and blitzes, where defenders attacked the pocket from multiple spots.
Situation, coverage, and Christian Barmore’s dominant play helped these rushes land, but it was a step in the right direction for a unit that desperately needed a spark. Anfernee Jennings, known for his work against the run, also had some solid rushes off the edge, using his long arms to keep tackles at bay and defeat blocks.
Admittedly, the Giants weren’t the toughest test, as they’ve allowed the league’s 3rd-highest pressure rate this season (41.9% ). But the Chargers’ front should be another confidence-builder, with LA allowing the 6th-highest pressure rate (35.5%). Their offense struggled to pick up stunts and blitzes last week against Baltimore, particularly inside, and New England will look to replicate their success.
When J.C. Jackson returned to New England after a brief stint with the Chargers, there were hopes that Mr. INT would reclaim his former glory as a semi-shutdown ballhawk. I thought there would be an adjustment period and was wary of some bad habits he seemed to pick up, but was hopeful he’d be, at worst, a solid presence on the boundary.
Jackson’s broken up a few passes, but the reclamation project has largely failed through six games. Coverage busts have happened weekly, with Jackson typically at fault, and his struggles go deeper than his already shaky stats suggest. His conduct and poor play then led to the corner being benched for two series against the Commanders and left stateside when the team traveled to Germany. The team reportedly hoped a two-week break would do Jackson some good, but his performance last week against the Giants was one of his worst this season.
He had a breakup, but he contributed to Jaylen Hyatt’s first career 100-yard receiving game, and the pass rush covered multiple other lapses. The issues last week were the same as they’ve been throughout his return to Foxborough: poor recognition, angles/tackling, and execution. Jackson will have a tougher assignment against NFL targets and receptions leader Keenan Allen this week.
Allen has missed the past two practices with a quad injury, but he can’t be overlooked as LA’s best and most reliable wideout. Bill Belichick believes the 5x Pro Bowler has stepped up to the plate with a career year, saying, “He’s a very difficult player to cover, very strong, great hands, instincts, hard guy to tackle. Obviously, Herbert’s got a lot of confidence in him.”
The 11-year veteran isn’t as explosive as he once was, but he’s still one of the league’s craftiest route runners. Moore’s scheme has also created several big-play opportunities for Allen, who’s gained over 100 receiving yards in three straight games, including three touchdowns.
When the Patriots and Chargers faced off in 2021, Allen got the better of Jackson on two targets against man coverage. He dusted the corner on a deep out-breaker and lost him on an “Arches” concept.
The receiver also exploited soft spots in New England’s zone coverage for a touchdown and two other conversions.
You can’t sleep on any of LA’s receivers with Herbert under center, but reducing Allen’s impact would force him to play with one arm behind his back. After weeks of subpar play, their secondary must be at its best to contain the Chargers’ passing attack. Herbert and Allen will make their plays, but the defense can’t provide freebies by dropping assignments. If the pass rush and coverage complement each other, we should get a competitive game in Foxborough.