Fresh off their biggest win of the season — a 54-13 beatdown of the New York Jets — the New England Patriots will travel to Los Angeles to take on a Chargers team that has played some impressive football so far this year. The team of first-year head coach Brendon Staley has won four of its first six games, and is finding itself very much in the race for playoff positioning.
The Chargers have done that by beating three quality opponents: the Kansas City Chiefs, the Las Vegas Raiders, and the Cleveland Browns. They were blown out by the Baltimore Ravens before heading into their Week 7 bye, but make no mistake: this is a good football team, and one the Patriots will not easily defeat.
In order for them to still do that, however, they need steady performances across the board. That said, these five players in particular project to be critical to New England’s success.
RB Damien Harris
Playing behind an offensive line that finally seems to have found a configuration that works, Damien Harris put up his best performance of the season in Week 7 against the Jets. His 106-yard outing was actually the third game this year that saw him cross the 100-yard mark, and he very much looks like the player he was last season and in training camp.
The Patriots will count on more of the same against the Chargers, and they have reason to be optimistic. Not only has Harris played some strong football recently, the L.A. run defense has also struggled so far this season and is a major weakness on an otherwise solid team. New England appears to be well-equipped to take advantage of it, with Harris as the number one option to attack the Chargers on the ground.
CB Jalen Mills
The Chargers’ passing game is a potent one, with wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams offering quarterback Justin Herbert one of the better one-two punches in the league. Naturally, the Patriots’ defense will have to bring its A-game in order to slow the two down.
The onus will not just be on CB1 J.C. Jackson, who will likely see his fair share of Allen, but especially on Jalen Mills. The first-year Patriot, who is serving as the team’s starting perimeter cornerback opposite Jackson, played some strong football earlier in the season but has struggled after a hamstring injury forced him to miss New England’s Week 5 game in Houston.
Mills has been removed from the injury report now, and the Patriots will need him to return to his earlier levels of play. If he fails to do that, the Herbert-Williams connection could prove to be an issue for New England.
OT Michael Onwenu
While he does move to the other side of the defense on occasion as well, Joey Bosa is aligning primarily over opponents’ right tackles. In New England’s case that means that he will be going up against Michael Onwenu quite a bit on Sunday. Given Bosa’s potential for disruption, the second-year offensive lineman needs a strong performance in order to keep Mac Jones protected from the former third overall draft choice.
If last year’s game between the Patriots and Chargers is an indication, though, Onwenu should be able to stand his ground. During his team’s 45-0 blowout win last December, he was asked to pass-protect on 27 snaps — a significant number of those while lined up against Bosa — but did not give up even a single quarterback pressure.
DT Christian Barmore
The Patriots’ second-round rookie may have yet to register a sack this season, but he has been a valuable member of the Patriots’ defense seven games into his career: Christian Barmore is second on the team with 17 quarterback disruptions, and has seen steady playing time as a rotational defensive tackle all year long.
When it comes to this week’s game against the Chargers, the Patriots will hope for a performance like the one he had last week versus New York.
Barmore registered a career-high four quarterback disruptions, and repeatedly challenged the Jets’ interior offensive line regardless of where he lined up. Him being able to do that against Los Angeles — thus giving Justin Herbert little time or space to move up the pocket — would go a long way towards the New England defense slowing a strong passing offense down.
CB Myles Bryant
With Jonathan Jones now officially out for the remainder of the season, Myles Bryant appears to be the frontrunner to take over as the team’s slot cornerback. The second-year man, who opened the season on the practice squad, already saw some prominent action last week. He did have some ups and downs, though, and did not always appear to be on top of things.
Nonetheless, he will continue to play a significant role again this week — something the Chargers know as well. They will likely try to force Bryant into difficult situations, and he will have to respond accordingly.