The 2020 season thus far has been a constant up and down for the New England Patriots defense, with the last four weeks a perfect encapsulation of that struggle with consistency: the unit was incapable of stopping the proverbial nosebleed in Weeks 9 and 11 against the New York Jets and Houston Texans, respectively, but played some very good football in Weeks 10 and 12 versus the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals.
So, which unit will show up on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers?
It would be the bad Patriots defense’s turn again based on the recent progression, but that is obviously not how anything works — despite going against a Chargers offense that has looked impressive at times this season even though it is relying on a rookie at the quarterback position to get the job done. With Justin Herbert at the helm, the team may not have won a lot of games, but it was repeatedly competitive as the first-round draft pick is growing into his own.
Los Angeles’ offense is ranked 14th in the NFL by averaging 23.9 points a game and 17th with 5.5 yards per play. The unit coordinated by Shane Steichen in his first full year at the job is also ranked 17th in expected points added per play (0.042) and 12th in DVOA (4.5%). It is ranked comparatively low in success rate — the Chargers are just 25th in this category (43.9%) — but overall has looked surprisingly good so far this year.
This has also not gone unnoticed in New England.
“The quarterback’s been outstanding. He’s thrown the ball well, made a lot of good decisions,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about this week’s opponent. “They’ve got great skill players — [Keenan] Allen, obviously, a leading receiver. He’s got a lot of a lot of targets, a lot of production. The Chargers are very good on third-and-long which I think says something about their ability to throw the ball when everybody knows they have to throw it.
“They’ve got some explosive players at receiver — [Tyron] Johnson, [Jalen] Guyton. Those guys are big threats. They do a good job for them. Running backs – [Austin] Ekeler’s back, so he’s a dynamic player, very good in the passing game, good in space, he has really good vision as a runner, hard guy to tackle. And then [Hunter] Henry continues to be a complete and very, very good football player for them.”
So with all that said, what do the Patriots have to do to slow this unit down? Let’s find out.
Make the Chargers one-dimensional
New England’s interior defensive line has not always been up to the task this season, with the unit struggling especially early on during the year to fill gaps and defend the run. There was some encouraging development over the last few games, though, and the Patriots will need more of this against the Chargers in order to play their preferred style of defense: being in a nickel or dime look, running amoeba fronts and multi-faceted coverages.
We will get to the role that L.A. quarterback Justin Herbert plays in all of this in a second, but before that let’s take a look at the players who will be of utmost important this week not just for their possible role versus the Chargers’ passing game but in run defense as well: interior defensive linemen Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise Jr, with Byron Cowart and Isaiah Mack as rotational options alongside them (plus Akeem Spence on the practice squad)
Even with Cowart unavailable last week, the group looked solid versus the Cardinals and held the team below its rush average of 157.7 entering the game. While Arizona still gained 138 yards on 34 carries and found the end zone twice, the Patriots looked much improved compared to the earlier portions of the season — a trend that could very well continue on Sunday.
Los Angeles, after all, is averaging “only” 117.2 yards per game heading into this week’s contest. While that is still good enough for 12th in the NFL, the output is clearly not in the same stratosphere as the Cardinals’ — especially considering the Chargers’ inconsistency: they have failed to crack 100 rushing yards in four of their 11 games so far this year, including the last three in a row.
The advanced statistics reflect this as well. Los Angeles is ranked just 28th in EPA per run play (-0.157), success rate on the ground (36.7%) and rush DVOA (-24.4%). It also does not matter where the team is attacking, it has been rather mediocre regardless:
While the return of Austin Ekeler, who missed six games because of hamstring and knee injuries and had his comeback last week versus the Buffalo Bills, should help, it is clear that the Chargers are much better at moving the football through the air than on the ground.
Accordingly, the Patriots defense will need to be able to control the line of scrimmage whenever L.A. tries to challenge it by running the football: with New England likely playing a comparatively light defense to make life hard for Herbert and his receiving corps, the defensive linemen that do see the field have to make sure to not allow any breakdowns and in turn to make the offense as one-dimensional as possible.
Force Justin Herbert out of his comfort zone
As noted above, Justin Herbert has been impressive so far this season. While not starting until a freak medical accident knocked Tyrod Taylor out of Week 2’s contest versus the Kansas City Chiefs, he has quickly adapted to life in the NFL and has proven himself a serious contender for the Offensive Rookie of the Year title (one that could also very well go to Patriots right tackle Michael Onwenu if voting was not slanted towards the quarterback position).
All in all, Herbert has completed 269 of 402 passing attempts (66.9%) for 3,015 yards as well as 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Along the way, he has led a passing attack that is ranked seventh in passing game DVOA (30.8%), 12th in EPA per dropback (0.165) and 23rd in success rate (48.4%). Needless to say that Herbert is the key not just to the Chargers’ aerial attack but the team’s offense as a whole.
This makes it pretty obvious from New England’s perspective: throw him off his game on Sunday and you have a pretty good chance of coming away victoriously.
Of course, that is easier said than done. In order to accomplish that, however, the Patriots might take a look at one of their old friends: Brian Flores and the Miami Dolphins were able to slow Herbert down better than probably any other team so far this season. How did New England’s former defensive signal caller accomplish that? By consistently forcing the rookie quarterback out of his comfort zone.
Two plays in particular stand out because they illustrate how each play call can build off a previous one in order to put a unit — in this case the Dolphins’ defense — in the best possible position to succeed. Let’s start with this incomplete pass from the late first quarter:
As can be seen, Miami was showing a Cover 0 pressure package with seven players in the box all showing blitz. Flores and company presented such a look on seven of Herbert’s 36 dropbacks that day in an attempt to make the young passer question his progressions and possibly force him into bad decisions or inaccurate throws. In this here case, the second happened as Herbert (#10) rushed through his motions and eventually fired wide on an attempt to Keenan Allen (#13) after not properly setting his feet.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter and another Cover 0 blitz — at least from the looks of it:
Miami again had seven players at or near the line of scrimmage but this time did not bring any additional rushers to attack the pocket. Instead, the defense dropped back to play a Cover 3 zone defense. With expectation and reality not the same on the play, Herbert attempted to connect with Mike Williams (#81) on an out route to his right. However, cornerback Xavien Howard (#25) took advantage of his leverage and jumped the route for an easy interception.
Those are just two examples of how teams can successfully mess with Herbert and his limited experience: show him something, make him expect something, and then turn the whole thing upside down. That also might work in the opposite direction — a double-move by Williams against Howard might have led to a touchdown, for example — but given the fact that Herbert will only start his 11th game on Sunday, the Patriots still have a possible advantage in this regard.
What could also help the team is its coverage personnel. Stephon Gilmore has played some fantastic football recently, and should be more than capable of taking on Keenan Allen one-on-one to lock down Herberts’ most productive pass catcher. With J.C. Jackson on Mike Williams and either Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Joejuan Williams on Hunter Henry, the Chargers QB’s favorite targets would all be accounted for.
Adding this to some challenging and exotic pressure and coverage looks could create an environment of discomfort for Herbert.
Leave the field on third down
Obviously, getting off the field on third down is important every week regardless of opponent, but the Chargers in particular might feel the impact of an inability to extend drives. Heading into this week, after all, the team is ranked sixth in plays per drive (6.5) and 13th in time of possession per series (2:49) — all thanks in part to a third down success rate of 43.8 percent (70 of 160) that has the L.A. offense ranked ninth in the league in that category.
A lot of Los Angeles’ success this season is tied directly to the team’s ability to methodically drive the ball down the field and get Justin Herbert into a rhythm. If the Patriots can disrupt that by repeatedly getting the Chargers in unsuccessful third down situations, it would be a win for the defense en route to a potential victory in the game as a whole.