Despite a victory in Week 12 that was capped by a game-winning offensive series, the New England Patriots cannot be happy with their recent offensive output: the unit struggled to find consistency and build a rhythm versus the Arizona Cardinals, with the passing game in particular being incapable of challenging the opposing defense on a play-to-play basis.
Heading into this week’s matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers, it is no secret that the unit will need to execute at a higher level to put New England in the best possible position to improve its record to 6-6 on the year. It will have to do so against a defense that is no notable downgrade from the Cardinals’, despite ranking only 25th in scoring this year while allowing 26.5 points per game (Arizona’s defense is currently ranked 14th, for comparison, giving up 22.6 points per contest).
While there is a clear difference in ranking and points-based production between the two units, Los Angeles’ might actually be on par with Arizona’s based on advanced statistics: the Chargers are ranked ninth in success rate (43.3%; Cardinals 22nd), 13th in EPA (0.007; Cardinals 15th) and 23rd in DVOA (7.8%; Arizona 11th). All in all, the two defenses are pretty even from that perspective.
So with all that said, let’s find out how New England can find success versus coordinator Gus Bradley’s crew.
Bring back those Cover 3 beaters
As colleague Mark Schofield pointed out in the latest episode of The Scho Show, Bradley’s defense is — rather unsurprisingly given his time as the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive coordinator between 2009 and 2012 — based around a Cover 3 scheme. In its essence, Cover 3 is a zone coverage with three defenders responsible for the respective deep thirds of the field and four others manning the areas underneath.
While there are some variations regarding the play of cornerbacks and safeties, the Chargers are playing this coverage in all its forms quite a bit: the team using it on 54.2 percent of its defensive snaps so far this season.
As was the case when they went against the Seattle defense earlier this year, and had one of their most productive passing days of the season thus far, the Patriots’ offense can therefore expect to see plenty of zone looks on Sunday. Accordingly, coordinator Josh McDaniels should bring out those old Cover 3 beaters again that he has called repeatedly in the past.
The most prominent of which might be the Hoss concept and its Hoss Y-Juke variation. The play call has been a staple of the Patriots’ offense for quite some time now, not just since it helped the team win Super Bowl 53 versus the Los Angeles Rams. It can be modified in various ways based on coverage and New England’s use of option routes, but in its most basic version looks like this:
As can be seen on the biggest play of the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl appearance, the two outside options are running curl routes with the inside receivers attacking the seams. Those same seams are one of the structural weak-points in the Chargers’ coverage scheme as well, so you shouldn’t be surprised to see the Hoss concept return on Sunday — especially now that both rookie tight ends, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, are at least theoretically eligible to return off the injure reserve list again.
The Patriots also found success against Cover 3 this year by stressing the bubble between the deep defenders and those aligning underneath by running an over route that could be seen as a variation of New England’s Yankee concept. That might work especially well off of play-action or RPO concepts as this play from Damiere Byrd against the Buffalo Bills in Week 8 shows:
The fake hand-off from Cam Newton (#1) to running back Damien Harris (#37) froze the underneath linebacker and caused robber Jordan Poyer (#21) to move up the field to create an opening for Byrd’s (#10) over route. With the protection holding up well and Buffalo’s defenders out-leveraged, Newton and his target were able to move the ball on a chunk gain of 22 yards (the Patriots also ran a similar concept against the Seahawks’ Cover 3 to Julian Edelman, gaining 26 in the process).
While the Patriots have not been overly successful against Cover 3-based defenses this year in terms of consistently generating big plays through the air, they do have the tools to attack this type of coverage and exploit its weaknesses. This is especially true in the intermediate game and with a concept like the Post/Wheel combination:
Stressing the integrity of the coverage on one side of the field by running it off and attacking the space underneath, this concept is meant to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly in case L.A. decides to bring pressure from what could very well be a stacked box to account for the run.
Here, the patterns run by the Z-receiver and the wheel (W) will occupy the perimeter cornerback plus the underneath defender on the curl. As a result, the out-route from the Y should be open versus this side of the field. The Patriots could use multiple players in this role, but Jakobi Meyers has probably proven himself the most reliable intermediate option on the team.
Whether it is Post/Wheel, Hoss or Yankee, though, Josh McDaniels’ playbook is a deep one versus Cover 3. New England, whenever it finds itself going against that look needs to be ready to execute whatever is called.
Contain Joey Bosa
The Chargers are just 16th in the NFL when it comes to pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but they do have one of the best edge rushers in the entire league at their disposal: former top-five draft pick Joey Bosa, who is leading the team with 7.5 sacks this season and has again been tremendous against the run but especially the pass. He is a bona fide disruptor, and possibly among the best defenders New England will face all year.
“He’s a one-man wrecking crew. I think he does everything well, really,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about the 25-year-old during a media conference call earlier this week. “If you just look at the Buffalo game, he made plays against the run, he made plays on short yardage, he rushed the passer in passing situations, he sacked the quarterback on play-action situations where he converted a run-read into a play-action rush.
“So, he’s very instinctive. He’s got a tremendous motor and he plays hard. So, he never gives up on play. He makes a lot of plays on effort and hustle. But, he’s got strong hands, he can control blockers and he’s instinctive, he can find the ball and recognize things quickly. I would say it’s a combination of his quickness, his explosiveness and his instincts.”
For New England, containing Bosa will be key in order to give Cam Newton as much time as possible in the pocket. While he does switch sides every now and then, he lines up primarily on the defensive left end of the line. As a result, he will go up against sixth-round tackle Michael Onwenu frequently.
Onwenu has been impressive so far and quite possibly the best offensive lineman to come out of the draft at this early a stage, but going against Bosa will undoubtably be a challenge. The Patriots could leave him on an island for most of the time like they also did with J.J. Watt two weeks ago, but if that does not work out they need to be ready to give him some help either in the form of guard Shaq Mason, tight end Ryan Izzo, or the occasional chip from a running back, tight end or wide receiver releasing into a route.
Either way, New England cannot afford Bosa to take over the game — something he has proven himself very much capable of.
Get to the perimeter in the run game
The Patriots’ run game has been comparatively quiet the last two weeks and it is scheduled to face another solid albeit somewhat inconsistent run defense on Sunday. While Los Angeles is ranked ninth in EPA per run play (-0.128) and 17th in success rate (41.1%) it is also just 30th in opposing yards per attempt (4.8) and 31st in DVOA (3.8%).
From the defense’s perspective, it has been a tale of two areas: despite having Joey Bosa at their disposal, the Chargers are better versus the run in the middle of the field than on the perimeter — even though that is not saying a lot considering that they are still giving up 4.7 yards per attempt between the tackles. That number climbs to 5.5 yards a carry on the outside, though.
The following graphic illustrates this distribution quite well:
The Patriots have also found regular success when being able to get to the edge against opposing defenses: the team has attempted 145 runs behind the tackles or wider out so far this season, and gained a total of 801 yards for an average of 5.5 per carry. Los Angeles’ defense and New England’s offense are therefore polar opposites in terms of production in this area.
It is certainly one Josh McDaniels should try to attack as well, even with left tackle Isaiah Wynn on injured reserve.
There are multiple ways to do this but one that could also work well together in combination with the play-action games versus Cover 3 is the one-back power run with a guard — either Joe Thuney or Shaq Mason — serving as the lead pull blocker around the formation. The Denver Broncos executed this very well during their Week 8 win over the Chargers:
Denver’s offense is aligning in a shotgun formation with running back Phillip Lindsay (#30) offset to the left of quarterback Drew Lock (#3). At the snap, the offensive line is man blocking with left guard Dalton Risner (#66) pulling behind to secure the edge against defensive end Isaac Rochell (#98). The play is very well executed by the offense, with the pull-guard carrying out his assignment and tight end Noah Fant (#87) getting to the second level to clear a path.
The Patriots are no strangers to using pulls as a feature of their run-blocking up front, either with the tight end setting the edge or the guard as in the play shown above. The goal, however, remains the same — getting to the edge and the second level. In order to achieve that, New England could also turn to its outside zone blocking with Damien Harris and Sony Michel both having shown an ability to work in such a set-up.
Whatever the Patriots aim to do, attacking wide rather than up the middle should be a goal in the running game versus this Los Angeles defense.