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2019 NFL playoffs: Beating the Chargers defense has to start up front for the Patriots

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Los Angeles has a premier set of pass rushers in its ranks.

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NFL: AFC Wild Card-Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are no strangers when it comes to playing against excellent defensive linemen. Whether it is the Jacksonville JaguarsCalais Campbell, the Chicago BearsKhalil Mack, the Pittsburgh SteelersT.J. Watt, or the New York JetsLeonard Williams, New England had to go up against all of them during their 2018 regular season — and the list does not stop there. In fact it continues to grow.

The Patriots also had to face one of the NFL’s best pass rushing duos in week one in the Houston TexansJ.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Four months later, they will now have to go up against a pair that is similarly impressive: the Los Angeles ChargersMelvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. And even though the two are not quite as disruptive as the Texans’ edge defenders, they are still one of the best one-two punches out there.

“Both guys are very disruptive, not only in pressuring or sacking the quarterback but also strip-sacking and knocking the ball off the quarterback. They have great awareness to get the ball off,” Bill Belichick said about Ingram and Bosa. The two former first-round draft picks will certainly be a challenge for the Patriots in this regard, and a look at the numbers they both have posted so far this year further strengthens this belief.

Ingram, who was voted to his second straight Pro Bowl this year, is leading the Chargers with 9.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hits so far this season. He also forced two fumbles and recovered three, and registered an interception. Bosa’s numbers are similarly impressive: while he only played in eight games so far compared to Ingram’s 17, the 23-year old still registered 6.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits and also recovered a fumble.

On Sunday, the Patriots will likely see both of them for more than 80% of the defensive snaps — and in various alignments as Belichick noted on Monday. “Ingram lines up inside on passing situations a pretty decent amount of the time so he’s not always on the edge, so really anybody could get him. Bosa’s in there some too, but Bosa’s more outside than inside,” the Patriots’ head coach said about the duo.

“In third-down situations, Ingram shows up inside quite a bit. He’s had very good production in there against a number of teams. Obviously, Baltimore [on Sunday] but Oakland and throughout the year” Belichick continued before pointing out that the correct identification of the defensive alignments will be a key against Los Angeles. “It’s not blocking those guys — it’s finding them and trying to get things set as much as you can to deal with those two players.”

New England has done a solid job at that all year and as a result surrendered just 21 sacks this season; the team’s 3.7% sack rate per pass attempt is the third best in the NFL. On Sunday, however, the group will face one of its toughest challenges of the season — and that is because the Chargers defense goes beyond what Ingram and Bosa have to offer when it comes to putting pressure on the pocket.

“They have a lot of other good pass-rushers too,” said Belichick about a front seven group that collectively has been ranked as the 15th best in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. “They have strong, physical players and they have other edge players. Obviously, [Uchenna] Nwosu made a big play there at the end of the Ravens so they’ve been able to mix in other guys on the edge to move Ingram or move him around, play some odd fronts, play some even fronts.”

“They’re very well-coached out there,” Belichick continued. “Coach [Giff] Smith does a great job with that group. They have good fundamentals, good techniques, they’re explosive and it’s a very talented defensive front.” But of course, the two biggest talents of the group remain Ingram and Bosa, two players that the Patriots need to find a way to slow down if they want to generate and maintain an offensive rhythm on Sunday.

The last time New England faced the Chargers, in week eight of the 2017 season, the team did an okay job at that. While Tom Brady was sacked three times, the Patriots actually moved the football well between the 20s before going 1-of-4 in the red zone. A similar performance on Sunday — outside of the red area, obviously — would go a long way to helping New England to a win, and it all starts up front.