The Los Angeles Chargers are currently the 12th seed out of 16 teams in the AFC, but the New England Patriots coaching staff won’t tell that to their team. In their mind, the Chargers have a dynamic offense with extremely talented players at every position, while the Los Angeles defense is one of the best in the business.
The Chargers defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley, formerly the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator. Bradley preceded Dan Quinn as the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks and the Patriots just dispatched Quinn’s Atlanta Falcons squad this past week. There are some similarities in their playbook, but Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels notes there’s a key difference.
“There's definitely some similarities,” McDaniels said, comparing the Chargers’ and Falcons’ defenses. “They’re not all the same. There’s enough variables and enough things that they choose to do differently based on their personnel that it’s certainly not a carbon copy of either scheme, whichever one you want to discuss and talk about. So, this team, the way they utilize their fronts, some of the things they do with their personnel is definitely different than what we've seen last week or what we've seen from that style of defense in the past.
“They're aggressive. They know exactly what they want to do on every snap. They rarely make a defensive miscue. They don’t give up many big plays and it’s all about taking the ball away and they’ve done that very well over the last two years even before Gus was there. I know that's a huge point of emphasis for them. They’re very active and aggressive.”
While the Falcons wanted to be aggressive, they struggled to reach Tom Brady in the pocket and that allowed the Patriots offense to move down the field with ease. New England can’t expect that same benefit with the Chargers pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram- “probably two of the best players on the same team that we're going to play all year,” McDaniels said- coming to town.
The 6’1, 264-pound Ingram has 8.5 sacks on the year to go with 6 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. His 14.5 combined negative plays are the third most in the NFL. Ingram is in his sixth NFL season and racked up 10.5 sacks in 2015 and 8.0 sacks in 2016.
Ingram is joined by the 22-year-old, 6’5, 270-pound Joey Bosa, the third overall selection of the 2016 NFL Draft. Bosa burst on the scene with 10.5 sacks in his rookie year and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. He already has 7.5 sacks in 2017.
“There’s not much that doesn’t impress me [about Bosa],” McDaniels said. “The guy plays with tremendous effort. He gets off on the snap. He can play with speed or power. He’s a very good run player, a disruptive guy who can knock back the line of scrimmage, set a good edge, create negative plays in the running game. He’s involved when they run their stunts and games. He can do a good job of disrupting the pocket with those types of plays, also. He’s incredibly competitive and you’re going to have to play every play until the whistle blows with him.
“For a young player it’s not all just one thing. Sometimes it takes guys a little time to develop a repertoire of rush moves in our league that enable them to have success and I would say this guy is really – for a guy that hasn’t played multiple, multiple seasons in the NFL he’s got a lot of different things to him as a pass rusher that you’ve got to get ready for. A really, really good player both in the running game and in the passing game. Tough, physical, explosive, capable of creating game-changing plays on every snap, so we're going to have to do a great job of getting familiar with him as well as the rest of their guys on defense.”
“Obviously, Ingram's a tremendous player, also,” McDaniels added.
The Patriots starting tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon will have their hands full against two of the best pass rushers in the league. Pro Football Focus ranks Bosa as their 9th best edge defender, calling him “unblockable” over the past three weeks. Ingram ranks 6th overall and as the 3rd-best pass rusher at the position.
While Cannon has looked better in recent weeks, Solder is still struggling and that could be a possible weakness for the Chargers to exploit. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots gave Solder constant help with either a tight end or a running back chipping in.
And the Chargers defense goes beyond just these two pass rushers, even though they rightfully deserve top billing.
“I mean, look,” McDaniels said, “they’re in the top ten in points allowed [actual rank: 8th], red zone defense [4th], passing defense [5th], third-and-long defense [6th], turnovers [17th], sacks [4th]. They know how to take the ball away. They know how to disrupt the offense and they don’t give up big plays, so they force you to drive the ball a long way and execute a lot of different plays while they're trying to create negative situations and get off the field. [They're a] really well coached unit [and have] got a lot of good players at all three levels.”
The Chargers have a pretty complete defense and have a quality secondary to go with their strong pass rush. Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams form one of the better cornerback duos in the league, while Tre Boston and Jahleel Addae are average enough safeties to get the job done. There’s no clear weakness for Tom Brady and the passing attack to take advantage.
Of course McDaniels left out praise for the Chargers run defense- and rightfully so. The Chargers have one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, ranking in the bottom five of expected points, DVOA, yards per game, and yards per carry. Linebackers Jatavis Brown and Hayes Pullard are the weak points of the defense and the interior line hasn’t been playing well, either.
This is a game for the Patriots resurgent run offense to assert itself for the third straight week, as running backs Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, and Rex Burkhead all could have their number called to pound the middle of the field. And if the Patriots are able to run the ball well, then the Chargers pass rush will not be able to sell out in their pursuit of sacking Brady.
So, really, the key to next Sunday’s game is the Patriots ability to run the ball. If the past few weeks are of any indication, the New England offense is up to the task.