The New England Patriots coaching staff offered a couple thousand words of insight on the Los Angeles Chargers offense during their weekly press conferences. While the Chargers rank just 20th in points per game and 17th in yards, the Patriots aren’t taking this game lightly.
“This is certainly a very hot team right now,” Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said about the Chargers and their three-game winning streak. “An offense that is doing everything they can to win the game, put their team in position to win, control the game...They do a good job, the offense, Coach Whisenhunt, Coach Lynn do a good job with mixing the personnel and the formations.
“That's one of the hardest things is the formations and the motions that they give you. There's a lot of adjustments that have to go on. Then they create angles in both the run game and then leverage in the passing game. So that's something that they've done an excellent job with.”
“I think the group is really kind of all on the same page right now,” Patricia added. “They're clicking very well together from the standpoint of what they're trying to do by game plan so that will be a big challenge for us.”
The Patriots defenders will have their hands full in their last game ahead of the bye week because of all the match-up problems the Chargers present. Here’s a rundown of every positional group of the Los Angeles offense.
“Rivers throws a great deep ball and they have a lot of good catch-and-run players with their skill guys,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “Phil is a tremendous player, a great competitor, a really smart player. I had him at the Pro Bowl and got to know him a little bit out there. He’s got a real thirst for knowledge. Not that there’s a lot of scheme at the Pro Bowl. I mean, I’m not saying that. It’s one coverage, but the conversations lead beyond that and how to attack different schemes and so forth.
“He’s a real football guy like Tom [Brady], like Peyton Manning, guys like that. They're just deep into it. He has a ton of experience. He does a great job of making adjustments on the line of scrimmage whether it’s changing protections or if he sees a certain coverage he can get into a play that will attack that coverage. He’s had a number of checks like that. Again, I don’t know what the original play was that was called but I see the play that they get into and how it’s designed to attack the defensive coverage that he’s identified and he’s identified it correctly and then it ends up being a big play.
“Being able to disguise our coverages and not just tell him what we're in, I mean that’s really suicide because he'll just chew that up. We're going to have to do a good job of not declaring exactly what we're in so that he doesn’t get to the perfect play every time.
“I have a lot of respect for him, too. He’s a big, strong guy, too. A lot of people can be hanging on him or draped all over him and he’s still strong enough to stand in there and throw the ball and throw it accurately. He’s very good with the deep ball. He kind of drives the deep ball but he drives it very accurately so he gets it into some tight spots.
“Again, he has some big receivers so those guys in a way are always open because of their size. Even if there’s a guy near them they are usually bigger than the guy who’s covering them. He can put it into a spot where they can go up and get it. He does a great job.”
Rivers is having a strong season after leading the NFL in interceptions in both 2014 and 2016. He ranks 4th in attempts and 5th in completions and yards. His 12 touchdown passes rank 7th. Rivers has a healthy receiving corps and it’s showing up on the stat sheet as he’s playing like a top 10 quarterback again.
“Philip Rivers still has control of the offense from the line of scrimmage standpoint,” Patricia said. “[It's a] ‘check with me’ system where he can change plays and the offensive line is right there with him.”
Rivers’ completion rate of 60.9% is a red flag (my, how the times have changed) and ranks 26th in the NFL. If the Patriots can force Rivers to throw low percentage passes, the defense will limit the Chargers and get the ball back to Tom Brady and the New England offense.
“I think the run game, Coach [Ken] Whisenhunt, obviously Coach [Anthony] Lynn has brought his philosophy of running the ball and trying to control the game from that aspect and wearing out the defense,” Patricia said. “Melvin Gordon is an extremely strong runner, a very powerful guy, kind of a work horse sort of running back. So being able to run the ball inside and outside with him, he's got great balance, burst, vision, very good stiff arm. This guy is really hard to tackle on first contact so with that kind of constant pounding that he can provide they've been able to really kind of establish the run from a number of just handing the ball off, handling the ball off and just repeatedly coming after the defense from that standpoint.
“[Austin] Ekeler, who has been in there more recently here, is a real good change up back for them. Both of these guys are also involved in the passing game but [in terms of] speed and quickness he's definitely a guy that's a different type of runner but also very, very productive. His run average is extremely high. Those two guys and then use them in the run game and then combine them into the passing game is kind of really where they've started with this offense.”
“They use their backs quite a bit in the passing game, as well Gordon, Ekeler,” Belichick added. “Their backs are very productive in the passing game, as well. It's a well-balanced attack. Of course, the running game with Coach [Anthony] Lynn is always a challenge. They do a lot of different things. They probably run as many different running plays as any team that we will face or have faced. They do multiple groups, multiple formations, multiple schemes and all of the complementary plays that go with it; the boots, the reverses, the misdirection plays. They really challenge you in the running game.”
Melvin Gordon is the Chargers lead back that plays 74% of the offensive snaps and is first on the team with 622 yards from scrimmage. He has been the target of 160 touches (carries + targets) in the Chargers offense, or 37.7% of every touch this year. He is the engine of this offense.
Austin Ekeler is the change of pace back with more receiving yards (89) than rushing yards (74).
Despite Gordon’s heavy usage, the Chargers run offense isn’t very good. They rank 28th in the NFL with 3.5 yards per carry, so the Patriots could be able to force the Chargers into some long distance downs. Gordon has a “successful run” on just 27% of carries, which ranks 34th of 34 players by Football Outsiders.
“Then when you get through all that you've got to try to deal with the wide receivers,” Patricia said. “Obviously, Keenan Allen who's an excellent, excellent wide receiver. He's got great hands, he's a big guy, he can get open, he's a great route runner, does all of the things that you want from that standpoint.
“Then you mix with [Travis] Benjamin and [Tyrell] Williams, guys that have been able to push the ball vertically or just get explosive plays. I mean obviously you can see the speed of Benjamin there the other day [with] how fast he is. They can take those what might look like small plays or small gains or short completion or whatever the case may be, a reverse and then turn it into just a huge play with their ability to get into space and make people miss and in some cases just run away from people. So it's a huge challenge.”
Allen is playing 86% of the snaps for the Chargers and leads the team with 487 receiving yards, which ranks 9th in the NFL. He’s only caught 53% of his targets, though, as he’s a big volume target and his 68 targets ranks second in the NFL behind only Antonio Brown.
Allen’s seen an increase in playing time out of the slot, so it will be interesting to see which Patriots defensive back gets coverage responsibility. I think Stephon Gilmore will get the task.
“[Benjamin is] very difficult as we remember from Cleveland,” Belichick said. “A very tough guy to tackle, great vision, speed, good quickness, just the same skills you see on offense when he has the ball there on catch-and-run plays and his vertical speed, so he’s a tough guy to handle.
“Offensively, this is a very big skill group. [Tyrell] Williams, [Dontrelle] Inman, obviously [Keenan] Allen, [Antonio] Gates, Hunter [Henry] – they're kind of receiving tight ends. They have a lot of size at those positions and then Benjamin gives them kind of the explosive catch-and-run player to go with that group. Big receivers, good players after the catch. Allen’s very, very good with the ball in his hands.”
“They have a very explosive passing game down the field and their skill guys, again, are big so they do a good job of blocking in the run game,” Belichick added, “so a lot of the plays that get to the perimeter with this group, really they have a mismatch with the size and the aggressiveness of their receivers. They’re tough to handle there.”
Tyrell Williams has 21 receptions for 298 yards and Travis Benjamin has 14 receptions for 240 yards as the deep threat. I put place Jonathan Jones or Johnson Bademosi in coverage of Benjamin as the deep threat, with Malcolm Butler covering Tyrell Williams, who has seen his targets sharply decline during the Chargers winning streak.
Williams averaged 4 receptions for 60 yards during the Chargers four losses to open the year, and he’s totaled 5 receptions for 60 yards over the past three weeks. The same could be said about Travis Benjamin, who averaged 3 receptions for 45 yards over the first four weeks and who has just 3 receptions for 60 yards over the past three weeks.
The Chargers passing offense has seen a sharp decline over the past three weeks and it seems like their winning ways are rooted in the turnovers forced by the defense, as opposed to any real dominance by the offense. Los Angeles has a -2 turnover margin over the first four weeks; they’ve been +5 over the past three weeks.
“Hunter Henry is a tough guy to tackle,” Belichick said. “I think Gates – he’s got a very deceptive style of route running. He’s big and he’s athletic and he’s got great hands, so he makes a lot of outstanding catches. But, he has a very deceptive and very patient style of route running, so he’s kind of subtle and then explosive at coming out of the break or to get the ball at the right time.
“So, he’s got that ability, so that really probably gives him a connection with any quarterback, especially one like Rivers who’s thrown to him for so long that it’s hard to – probably if you weren’t working with him all the time, you might not have quite as much appreciation for what he does to get open. Again, with the background that he and Rivers have together, I’m sure that Philip has a lot of confidence in Gates’ ability to make that sudden move at the last second to create some separation and then put the ball there.”
Henry is outsnapping Gates 65% to 54% and he’s definitely outproducing the veteran. Henry has 301 receiving yards on 21 catches, while Gates has just 119 yards on 13 catches.
Gates is averaging below 10 yards per catch for the first time in his career.
The Patriots have not been particularly great in coverage of tight ends this year, giving up 37 catches for 382 yards and 5 touchdowns, which ranks 28th, 25th, and t-30th respectively.
“We just talked about [Antonio] Gates and how great he is and then really Hunter Henry who's another guy who is coming on very strong for them,” Patricia said. “I think another guy in the tight end position that the quarterback has a lot of trust in, has really started to feature a little bit in the passing game also.”
Henry has really broken free in recent weeks and could be considered a big part of the Chargers win streak. He had 7 receptions for 80 yards in week 2 against the Dolphins, but had 0 targets in weeks 1 and 3, and just 16 yards in week 4. Over the past three weeks, he’s averaged 4 receptions for 68 yards as one of the focal pieces of their offense.
Patriots safety Patrick Chung will have to have a big game because Henry is a tight end that needs constant coverage.
“I'll tell you up front too, you know, I think the offensive line – a little bit of a change there for them coming in with [Matt] Slauson going out but really just being solid up front, playing smart, doing a good job with the adjustments,” Patricia said.
Rivers has only been sacked 10 times this year. Don’t expect the Patriots to get home too much with the pass rush, but instead look for them to disrupt the run at every turn.