When the Los Angeles Chargers defense took the field for its wild card matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, the unit used an unusual alignment against a team that has its strengths primarily in the running game. The Chargers and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley employed a 3-1-7 defense on the first offensive play of the day: three down-linemen, one linebacker, and seven defensive backs — a look the Ravens would see a lot.
In fact, the visitors from L.A. used the alignment on nearly every defensive play as the team had seven players in its secondary on 60 of 61 snaps. The reason for that is a simple one: speed. Going against the Ravens’ dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Chargers knew they needed to be quick to the football in order to limit the big play threat Baltimore’s offense poses particularly on the ground. Their unconventional personnel group did the trick.
“We need speed against that offense,” rookie defender Derwin James — one of four defensive backs to not leave the field all day — said after the game about his team’s plan to slow down a potent running attack by using quickness and speed over strength. The plan worked well, especially in the first half: Baltimore gained just 69 yards through quarters one and two and turned the football over twice. Los Angeles, meanwhile, built a 12-0 lead.
But despite the package’s success on Sunday, the New England Patriots will likely not have to worry about it this week. It all starts with the quarterback: while Tom Brady is far superior as a passer than the aforementioned Lamar Jackson, he is virtually no threat as a ball carrier. Using seven defensive back looks to bring speed onto the field to counter the 2018 Patriots’ style of offense would end up a disaster for the Chargers.
After all, New England would just do what it did against the Buffalo Bills in week 16: play smash mouth football. The moment Los Angeles would bring a seven defensive back package onto the field, the Patriots would just let running back Sony Michel, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, as well as fullback James Develin go to work. Together with the offensive line, they would go into ground-and-pound mode to attack their opponent.
While Baltimore failed to establish an approach like this due to the team’s reliance on Jackson breaking the pocket to gain yards on the ground, the Patriots would likely find success versus such a light defense. New England has proven itself capable of establishing a presence on the ground and sticking to it if the defense allows it — and one like yesterday’s would very well do just that.
Instead, the Chargers will likely play the Patriots like they did in week eight last year: using a more traditional nickel defense aligned in a 4-2-5 look. The plan worked relatively well against New England’s high-powered offense, as Los Angeles kept it to just 19 points while limiting the group to only one touchdown on four red zone trips. The Patriots still won the game, yes, but the Chargers were within striking distance all day long.
In order for them to do that again and put themselves in the best position to come away with a victory, expect head coach Anthony Lynn and company to go back to basics and ditch the rather exotic seven defensive backs look it used on Sunday. The Patriots need to be prepared for it either way, but shouldn’t expect it to be a staple of the game plan like it was against the Ravens.