This Sunday, Philip Rivers makes his playoff return to Foxboro, as the resurgent Los Angeles Chargers look to exorcise their playoff demons. Tom Brady’s career 19-3 home playoff mark may have something to say about that, but this Chargers team is no pushover, unlike the Titans and Texans and Alex Smith-led Chiefs of the past. Finishing with a 12-4 record, tied for the best in the conference, the Chargers ended the regular season 7-1 on the road, with an impressive third best DVOA ranking behind only the Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams.
What can we learn from the last matchup?
The last time the New England Patriots faced off against the Chargers was in week 8 of last year, an ugly 21-13 victory that was filled with missed opportunities from both sides. The Patriots never fell below 50% win expectancy in that game but it still never felt out of reach for Los Angeles. Going one-for-four in the red zone, missing a field goal, and allowing pressure on a season high 46% (!) of Tom Brady’s dropbacks cannot be repeated if the Patriots are to win this Sunday.
In terms of overall personnel and scheme, the Chargers haven’t changed much since last year. Their offensive skill players have remained mostly the same, with Mike Williams taking the lion’s share of Travis Benjamin’s old snaps. Williams’ emergence, coupled with another year of development of their top two running backs, Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, have made them a much more dangerous offensive team. Defensively, they upgraded from Tre Boston to All-Pro rookie Derwin James and replaced last year’s outside cornerback (Trevor Williams, who is on injured reserve) with former undrafted rookie Michael Davis, a solid second-year option with great size at 6’2.
The Chargers’ defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley, and Patriots fans should be well acquainted with his defenses. Bradley, Dan Quinn, and Todd Wash are all former defensive coaches of Pete Carroll up in Seattle, and they incorporate heavy Cover 3 concepts with the occasional Cover 1 mixed in. So essentially the defensive schemes that the Patriots faced in the Seattle and Atlanta Super Bowls, as well as the ones we’ve seen out of the Jacksonville Jaguars defense the past couple years. The flats and seams will be open for running backs and tight ends, and the pressures will come from primarily a four-man rush, with only an occasional blitz.
Keys to Patriots victory on offense
Target running backs in the flat and tight ends up the seam
For those unfamiliar with Cover 3, it’s a zone defense that means that the two outside cornerbacks and the deep safety are all responsible for a deep 3rd of the field.
At this point, it is well known that the Cover 3 beaters are to get the running backs in the flat and the slot wide receivers and tight ends up the seam, often alternating their routes. The Patriots fed their running backs early and often against the Chargers in last year’s matchup.
The Patriots line up in a 2x2 formation on 3rd and long. The Chargers come with a rare blitz by the middle linebacker. Brady hits his hot target in the flat and he makes one guy miss for the 1st down (Addae).— Tian (@tianrossidraft) January 9, 2019
Gronk is running up the seam and takes 2 guys with him. pic.twitter.com/la7xibcBia
On the game’s first important 3rd and long, the Patriots are more than fine with hitting the running back in the flat. Chris Hogan takes the outside cornerback out of the play with a comeback at the sticks. Rob Gronkowski runs an aggressive seam route, carrying the other linebacker out of the play AND gives the strong safety, Jahleel Addae, just enough to think about for him to hesitate before covering the flat. James White one-on-one in the open field against a box safety that struggles in space? One missed tackle and the play goes for 25.
Once again the Patriots line up in a 2x2 formation and the Chargers bring the middle linebacker on the blitz. Burkhead, this time on the checkdown in the middle, makes a guy miss and converts.— Tian (@tianrossidraft) January 9, 2019
The Chargers continue to carry both seams up the field. pic.twitter.com/e0SlLTxhgU
The Patriots repeat the strategy in the fourth quarter with a similar concept. The Patriots run four vertical routes out of 21-formation with James Develin out wide on the bottom of the screen to keep their stud nickel cornerback Desmond King off the field. Bringing five rushers again, Rex Burkhead makes the middle linebacker miss in space and gets 25.
These type of plays to the flat/short middle will be open ALL DAY. Even if L.A. only rush the standard four, this is a mismatch that should be utilized early and often.
Burkhead for a 1st down on 2nd and 9. The Chargers don't blitz this time and they still struggle to tackle in the open field against four verts pic.twitter.com/RqvBg7m42v— Tian (@tianrossidraft) January 11, 2019
While we will likely see mostly running backs take advantage of this, the Patriots can also scheme their slot receivers open in the flat with slant/flat route combos and bubble screens. The Patriots must force the Chargers to cover in space and force their secondary players to make tough open field tackles in the bitter cold.
Hammering home the flat routes early and often is crucial to the success of the other Cover 3 beater, the seam route. If you noticed the previous two plays, the outside linebackers/slot cornerbacks would carry the seams up the field in their zone, since they are the more dangerous route. Essentially, they are willing to give up the underneath in order to take away the big play. But if New England features flat routes and bubble screens early in the game, you’ll start to see those players overplay the flats, leading to big plays in their vacated zones.
Both Develin and Dion Lewis hit the flats out of 21 formation. Both Chargers outside linebackers fail to get depth in their zones and Gronk is wide open up the seam. pic.twitter.com/OcnonJfhPQ— Tian (@tianrossidraft) January 11, 2019
Against Todd Wash's identical Cover 3, Chris Hogan is left wide open up the seam after Cordarrelle Patterson is given all the attention on a fake bubble screen to the flat. The Patriots made this play work by running several true routes to the flat earlier in the game. pic.twitter.com/hzJUwh1GTl— Tian (@tianrossidraft) January 11, 2019
By alternating and giving their opponent a steady mix of flat and seam routes against the Cover 3, the Patriots should be able to move up the field on high leverage plays.
Force the Chargers into a linebacker vs safety quandary
The Chargers got a lot of press, and rightly so, for their brilliant strategy to roll with quarters defense against the Baltimore Ravens in the wild card round: the Chargers used seven defensive backs on all but one snap against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ potent rushing attack. Essentially, they were faced with the issue of replacing one of their every down linebackers, Jatavis Brown, who went on injured reserve with an ankle injury following their regular season finale against the Broncos.
Rather than replace Brown in the lineup with a backup off the ball linebacker — either Kyle Emanuel or Hayes Pullard — they moved starting strong safety Addae to Mike linebacker, moved free safety Derwin James to strong safety, and inserted backup Rayshawn Jenkins into the game as the starting free safety. Jenkins ended up playing 60 out of 61 defensive snaps after playing just 9% of snaps during the regular season.
The rationale against the Ravens was that the Chargers were sacrificing bulk for speed against Jackson, a mobile quarterback that was on pace for top-5 in rushing attempts had he started the entire season. But will that remain the plan against the Patriots? Kyle Emanuel, the next man up on the inside linebacker depth chart, saw his snaps fall from 29% of defensive snaps in 2017 to 21% of snaps in 2018. And that decline occurred even with Denzel Perryman being lost for the season after week 10 with a knee injury.
So this is where the Jenkins vs Emanuel debate is at. Will the Chargers continue to sacrifice bulk for speed against a Patriots team that incorporates a rushing attack that focuses more on power runs than stretch or read option runs? If the Chargers continue to move forward with Jenkins in the starting lineup, the Patriots should...
Keep the Chargers in base D and incorporate power running
A theme from late in the regular season was that the Patriots returned to a power running offense. Against the Bufflao Bills in week 16, they ran the ball up their throats, rushing for 273 yards while James Develin was on the field for 48% of offensive snaps. While Tom Brady had equal success passing the ball against the New York Jets in the regular season finale, the Patriots still found the time to rush for 130 on the ground as Develin saw the field on 38% of offensive snaps. Both games represented an increase over Develin’s 35% of total offensive snaps played on the year.
I expect Develin to play a huge role on Sunday, regardless of whether the Chargers go with Emanuel or Jenkins. Develin’s presence on the field will push the Chargers’ budding star slot corner, Desmond King, off the field, and that always represents an advantage for the Patriots offense. King was Pro Football Focus’ second highest-rated cornerback behind New England’s own Stephon Gilmore despite leaving the field in the Chargers’ base defense. While King is a superior talent to Michael Davis, the Chargers are much more comfortable with Davis’ 6’2 frame on the boundary in 2CB formations. Since Trevor Williams hit injured reserve and Davis became a full-time starter in week 8, he has played a total of 580 out of 583 defensive snaps (99.5%) compared to King’s 457 out of 583 (78.4%).
When the Patriots played the Chargers in 2017, Desmond King played 58 out of 86 snaps, for a total of 28 snaps on the bench. On the other side of the ball, James Develin played 29 offensive snaps.
The formula is out there: the more the Patriots trot Develin onto the field, the more Los Angeles will trot Desmond King to the bench.
Whether or not the Patriots can actually run the ball against the Chargers front four with Develin is another story. The Chargers are expecting big nose tackle Brandon Mebane — in all seriousness, pray for him and his family — back for the game and when he’s in the middle, the Chargers’ run defense changes for the better. A staple of Pete Carroll’s defensive coaching tree on defense is to have a huge nose tackle, in this case Mebane, two-gap in the middle, while the rest of the four-man line one-gaps. On a line that includes elite players in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, running the ball against a system that only requires them to focus on a single gap is tricky.
But the Patriots should certainly at least try. Any formation that pulls off Desmond King or Adrian Phillips off and forces Emanuel and Pullard onto the field is a win.
Figure out the Bosa and Ingram situation
Speaking of the two-headed monster the Chargers feature at defensive end, the Patriots need to figure out who the hell is gonna stop Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on Sunday. You can’t double team them both as New England found out last year. Every position on the offensive line gave up at least four pressures (with a high of eight by both tackle positions) other than future Hall of Famer David Andrews , who gave up only a single hurry.
Fellow Pulpit writer Brian Phillips has been tracking formations, as well as EPA for players out of two running back formations:
39 plays-8.66 expected points added — -.22 per play
41% success rate Passing to running backs: 14 of 23 (60.9%) for 112 yards (4.9 per att), one touchdown and two interceptions — 51.36 QB rating.
Passing to wide receivers and tight ends: 3 of 10 (30%) for 44 yards (4.4 per att) — 45.42 QB rating”
There’s no way to sugar coat it, these are terrible numbers. The Patriots have ramped up the frequency of this formation since Rex Burkhead returned from short-term injured reserve, to no avail.
Brian made the argument that the Patriots should scrap this formation for the playoffs, but I’m going to present the argument that the Patriots should at least consider sticking with it for another week, at least against this specific defensive scheme. Against a Cover 3, I’ve already extolled the positives of running flat route with running backs, and having both White and Burkhead running these routes would further suck the linebackers out of the seams. And having both Burkhead and White on the field would allow the Patriots to effectively chip both Ingram and Bosa on crucial third downs, giving Brady enough time to find an open target.
Keys to Patriots victory on defense
Pay attention to which tight end is on the field
The Chargers activated Hunter Henry to the active roster this week (shout-out to Stephen A. Smith), adding another layer to a suddenly crowded tight end positional group. Henry, who should not be in even close to acceptable game shape, will likely be on an extremely abbreviated snap count, while Virgil Green and Antonio Gates get most of the snaps. While both Gates and Green are talented players, they didn’t see the field together all that often, it was a timeshare for most of the season.
So for roughly 77% of snaps on Sunday, the Patriots can expect only one of tight ends to be on the field. The key is to identify which tight end is on the field.
Antonio Gates is 38, and his body mildly resembles the shape of a gummy bear at this point of his career. But he remains a crucial trusted target of Philip Rivers on third downs and high leverage plays. Rivers found him for several important 3rd down conversions against the Ravens. Even last year, when a healthy Hunter Henry was in the midst of his breakout season, the Chargers took him off the field in favor of Gates during an important 4th quarter two-point conversion try.
Even at the very end of his amazing career, Antonio Gates is the target of many of Phil Rivers' crucial conversions. In this case, Rivers locks in on Gates and his throw really never has a chance. pic.twitter.com/8jSWCHOgkg— Tian (@tianrossidraft) January 11, 2019
So even though Antonio Gates only played 37% of offensive snaps, the Patriots should be aware that there is a good chance that he’s the primary read on the plays where he sees the field. Virgil Green, who only caught 19 passes this season and is more known for his blocking, is not close to as big of a threat. In fact, his fumble in the Wild Card round almost enabled a furious comeback by the Ravens.
Oh and the Patriots also need to watch out for Hunter Henry in the red zone. Out of game shape and eight months removed for a torn ACL be damned, he’s still a huge and dangerous target at 6’5, 250.
Figure out who has Keenan Allen and Mike Williams
This is where things get tricky or downright controversial. The Chargers have a unique group of wide receivers that can present a problem for the Patriots on any down. Keenan Allen, a sixth-year player out of California, is one of the best route runners in the game. Mike Williams, the former seventh overall pick out of Clemson is a huge target at 6’4 and he’s really come into his own after a preseason injury stunted some of his development during his rookie season. Tyrell Williams may be a third option on paper, but he’s another 6’4 pass catcher that has never averaged less than 15 yards per reception. This receiver group is tough.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has taken different approaches towards his matchups over the years. In 2018, the Patriots once again led the league in man coverage played, using it for just under 57% of defensive snaps. In my opinion, I would cover Mike Williams with Stephon Gilmore, cover Keenan Allen with J.C. Jackson and a safety over top, and put Jason McCourty on Tyrell Williams.
This alignment falls into the theme of having the number two wide receiver shadowed by the number one cornerback with no help, while the number two cornerback takes the number one wide receiver with a safety (usually Duron Harmon) over the top. I was torn in this decision because Keenan Allen’s route running could potentially torch an inexperienced undrafted rookie in J.C. Jackson in an instant, but the emergence of Mike Williams changes the equation for me.
Mike Williams has turned into one of the best jump-ball wide receivers in the game in his second season, and where Jackson struggles and gets grabby is when he faces the deep ball. Rivers has an insane amount of trust in Williams to catch such passes, even dating back to last season:
You have to be a goddamn lunatic to even attempt this throw. This is how much Phil Rivers trusts Mike Williams (6'4) with jump balls. pic.twitter.com/hIts06a0wh— Tian (@tianrossidraft) January 11, 2019
Rivers is an insane person for even attempting this throw. You better believe he’s going to be looking deep this weekend if he ever sees J.C. Jackson across from Mike Williams in man coverage. And at this point in his career, Jackson — with a pair of defensive pass interference penalties and three illegal contact/holding calls on his 2018 résumé, according to Jeff Howe — is not ready for the task.
Keys to Patriots victory on special teams
Try to neutralize Desmond King
The Chargers made a really smart move this week when they added kickoff specialist Nick Rose to the active roster, putting a damper on any significant advantage the Patriots could get in the return game this weekend. Former Miami kicker Michael Badgley has been a godsend this year for the Chargers after about 10 years of mediocre at best kicking, but he still struggles to generate touchbacks (at just 28%, dead last in the league by over 12%) and he’s never kicked in a game, college or pros, where the temperature has been less than 50 degrees.
While the addition of Rose aims to neuter Cordarrelle Patterson, the Patriots should do the same with Desmond King, a fantastic All-Pro punt returner that flipped field position many times in the regular season and last week against the Ravens. The Patriots have much more experience kicking and punting in the elements (currently projected weather is a high of 28 with gust up to 15 mph) and should use that to their advantage.
Overall, this re-charged Chargers team has a realistic chance of ending New England’s seven-year streak of at least making it to the conference championship. But between the weather and the home-field advantage, while also considering the familiarity the Patriots have with Cover 3 defenses, I think that the Patriots will see that streak continue. For all the betting men out there, I don’t think that New England will cover the 4 point spread and I’m on the over 48 as Gostkowski kicks the game winning field goal as time expires.
Divisional Round prediction: Patriots 27 Chargers 24