One of the dominating storylines heading into today’s divisional round playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers is quarterback Philip Rivers’ record against his opponent: a Rivers-led team has never beaten the Patriots when they had Tom Brady under center, losing all seven meetings dating back to 2006. However, past performance has little impact on today’s matchup between the two clubs.
Rivers, after all, is having a tremendous season by all standards. The Pro Bowl selection completed 347 of his 508 regular season pass attempts (68.3%) for 4,308 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions before also playing a key role his team’s victory over the Baltimore Ravens and their outstanding defense in the wild card round last week. All in all, the 37-year old is in the middle of one of his best seasons to date.
In order to find out more about Rivers and the unit around him, we spoke to Jamie Sewell who works as an assistant editor for our sister site Bolts From the Blue. And for him, Rivers’ excellence so far this season has one primary reason. “I think there’s a lot of little factors that come into play, but I think the biggest thing for Rivers this year is that he finally trusts in his team enough to not try and play what Chargers fans refer to as ‘Hero Ball,’” said Jamie about the quarterback.
Jamie then went on to explain what exactly he meant by this description of the NFL’s 2013 comeback player of the year. “In the past, Rivers has had a tendency to make some incredibly ill-advised throws, and that usually came down to him trying to put the team on his back and drag them to victory himself,” he said. “In reality, he’d usually end up throwing a terrible pass into double coverage and costing the Chargers any chance of a comeback.”
“This year, be it because of the talent around him, the coaching staff in place or because of Philip himself, he’s been far more comfortable in playing smart football and putting the ball in the hands of other players, and it’s been rewarded with one of his finest seasons yet,” Jamie continued. “He’s still got an errant decision in him when he thinks he sees something that isn’t there, but I’d distrust any list that doesn’t have him in the top three quarterbacks this year.”
As Jamie mentioned, the talent around Rivers is also a factor in the quarterback’s performance this season. “He’s got a legitimate, healthy number one wide receiver for the first time in a while in Keenan Allen, excellent #2 and #3 targets in Mike and Tyrell Williams, his old buddy (and I do mean old, because that dude is SLOW) Antonio Gates, and the best running game the Chargers have had since LaDainian Tomlinson was in town,” he said.
“Obviously, an offense having that many weapons is always going to be dangerous, but I think that it’s really helped Rivers decision making this year,” Jamie continued. One part of this is the veteran’s ability to correctly read and react to defensive alignments, and play the mental game on as high a level as any other passer in the league: Rivers has seen it all over the course of his 15-year career, and it shows.
“One thing that I don’t think gets spoken enough about with Rivers is his football IQ,” said Jamie about Rivers. “Outside of your own Tom Brady, I don’t think there’s another quarterback in the league who comes close to mastering Philip’s command of the offense and the way he dictates things at the line of scrimmage — again, that factors into the whole ‘putting the team on his back when the chips are down’ thing.”
“That can be a weakness in itself, however, as the playcalls from offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt take a while to arrive, and by the time Rivers has assessed the defense, sorted out the protections upfront and possibly checked into a different look or a new play, there’s usually only a couple of seconds on the play clock left,” the Chargers writer continued about the operations within Los Angeles’ offense.
As Jamie points out, the flow of communication has been a problem for the Chargers this year. “That allows defensive players to time their snap, and really puts added pressure on a Chargers offensive line that has struggled at times to keep Rivers clean this season,” he said before focusing on the position group that he sees as one of the few weaknesses Los Angles’ otherwise outstanding passing offense has.
The offensive line’s pass protection is not bad per se, but rather relatively mediocre when compared to the high quality of the other position groups — or its own run blocking. All in all, the unit surrendered 34 sacks this season, which makes for the 14th best takedown percentage per pass play in the NFL at 6.64%. So why can the unit be considered a weakness? Part of it has to do with the passer it is blocking for.
“Obviously, Rivers isn’t the most mobile quarterback there is (I think the 8-yard run he had against Baltimore last week doubled his rushing yards on the season) — he’s excellent in the face of pressure, and has one of the quickest releases in the league, but his inability to get outside the pocket also means he’s a quarterback that opposing defenses can really get after,” Jamie said about the Chargers’ quarterback.
“The offensive line is shaky — center Mike Pouncey has been a gem since coming over from Miami, and left tackle Russell Okung is having an okay season, but the other three positions — left and right guard especially — are real question marks,” he continued. “The Chargers might have a lot of weapons in the passing game, but if the Patriots can bring some pressure and collapse the pocket, the Chargers offense might struggle.”
The ability to get after the quarterback, something the Patriots have been good at despite their comparatively low sack total of just 30 all regular season long, will be an obvious key for New England. One way to counter this, of course, is getting the football out of the quarterback’s hands quickly — a plan the Patriots’ own offense might also use to counter talented pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.
“Rivers loves to hit Melvin Gordon or Austin Ekeler as a safety valve if pressure is coming, and those are both players that can hurt you in open space,” Jamie said about the Chargers’ talented offensive backfield. In general, the duo has been productive: the two youngsters combined to touch the football 370 times during the regular season, gaining 2,333 yards and scoring 20 of the Chargers’ 48 offensive touchdowns.
For the Patriots, stopping the two of them will be a key — and not be easy. “Both Gordon and Ekeler have been dealing with some injuries recently, and I’m not sure how close to 100% either man is,” Jamie said about the two backs. “With that said, I think that the Chargers running game has definitely tailed off near the end of the season regardless of injuries, and I mainly attribute that to the playcalling.”
“Early in the season, the Chargers were coming up with some excellently designed plays, stretching opposing defenses horizontally and letting Mike Pouncey (who is insanely athletic for a center) and other linemen pull, and get to the second level to open up running lanes. Lately — and especially when Gordon has been out — we’ve seen a lot of runs go up the middle instead, and the two weakest points on the Chargers line are left guard Dan Feeney and the right guard Michael Schofield.”
The guards have been an issue for L.A. but the unit has some other solid blocking options — both on the offensive line and the tight end position. “Sean Culkin missed some time with a back injury, and he’s the best blocking tight end on the Chargers roster (presuming Hunter Henry isn’t at full speed on Sunday),” said Jamie. “I’d be surprised if a single Patriots fan has ever heard of him (I think he has one catch in his two year career thus far), but he helps to create some lanes for the running back when he’s on the field.”
Jamie, however, knows that tight end blocking can only help so much with a struggling interior offensive line. “While the Chargers definitely have two talented running backs, if the Patriots can win their matchups against the interior of the Chargers line, I could see it being a frustrating day on the ground for the Chargers,” he said — and that’s not the only problem. “I suspect that Gordon is probably going to be playing at less than 100%, which should be a big help for the Patriots.”
Being able to make the L.A. offense one-dimensional would be a big win for the Patriots defense that has its strengths in secondary — and will face one of its most challenging assignments so far this season today. “I think the real test for the Patriots will come in the secondary,” agreed Jamie. “With Keenan Allen spending most of his time in the slot I don’t anticipate Stephon Gilmore shadowing him for the entire game (I could be wrong, obviously!), which is a big plus for the Chargers.”
New England has plenty of options to counter Allen and the rest of the Chargers’ talented passing offense: boundary cornerback J.C. Jackson and slot/third option Jason McCourty will also both play integral roles alongside wherever Gilmore lines up. First-year Patriot McCourty in particular might be a player worth keeping an eye on today, as he has had his fair share of issues when having to play Allen in the past.
“When Jason McCourty matched up against Allen last year for the Browns, Allen had 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown, and looked in control the entire game,” said Jamie about the potential matchup. “Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams can cause more than their fair share of problems, too, and Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler usually figure to see a lot of passes thrown their way, too.”
“A lot of the Chargers success on offense has come because teams simply can’t cover all those weapons, but the Patriots have one of the more talented secondaries in the NFL, and it’s going to be a real test for the Chargers offense,” he continued. “If they can find a way to limit the Chargers through the air — especially on crossing routes, which are the Chargers bread and butter — that’ll certainly cause some real issues for the Bolts.”
Despite New England’s secondary playing some very good football so far this year, however, Jamie still thinks that the visiting team’s offense should be favored entering today’s game against a Patriots defense that ranked eleventh in NFL in points surrendered per contest (factoring in scores surrendered on offense and special teams, New England as a whole ranks seventh) — at least when it comes to passing the football.
“I’d probably give the slight upper hand to the Chargers passing game in that matchup, but it only takes one mistake for that to all change.”