Even though they were coming off a 54-13 blowout win over the New York Jets, the New England Patriots had plenty to prove heading into Week 8. After all, they had not yet beaten an opponent that could have been considered a “contender” this season. While they hung with teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Dallas Cowboys, the Patriots had failed to make enough plays in the end to come away victoriously.
Its matchup versus the 4-2 Los Angeles Chargers was therefore a big one for the team. Not only did it face yet another club with serious playoff aspirations, it also did so on the road while trying to keep up with the other top clubs in the AFC.
The game may not have been classified as a “must win” just yet, but anything other than a victory would still have been yet another disappointment. Luckily for New England, that did not happen: the Patriots beat the Chargers 27-24 in a hard-fought contest — one that was decided in large part due to the defense being able to successfully slow Justin Herbert and a potent L.A. passing game down.
The Patriots allowed Herbert to complete only 18 of 35 pass attempts for 223 yards as well as 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Both of those picks came courtesy of ex-Chargers safety Adrian Phillips, who is now in his second season since joining New England in free agency last year.
The second of those interceptions proved to be the game’s turning point. Let’s take a closer look at it.
3-10-LAC 22 (10:20) (Shotgun) J.Herbert pass short right intended for J.Cook INTERCEPTED by A.Phillips at LAC 26. A.Phillips for 26 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Entering the fourth quarter down 17-16, the Patriots were forced to punt the ball after a three-and-out series. In turn, the pressure was on the defense to make a stand and to give Mac Jones and company another opportunity to drive for the lead.
It seemed as if the unit was successful just two plays into the Chargers’ subsequent possession, but an apparent hold in the end zone on linebacker Kyle Van Noy was not called as such — even after Patriots head coach Bill Belichick decided to throw the red challenge flag. Instead, Los Angeles retained the ball and converted a 3rd-and-9 on a 15-yard pass from Herbert to Keenan Allen.
While no longer backed up against their own goal line, L.A. was unable to keep the momentum going. After a run for no gain and an incomplete pass, the team faced another third down.
Ahead of that play, the two teams aligned as follows:
Lining up in a 3x1 shotgun look, the Chargers found themselves in an obvious passing situation. The Patriots, accordingly, had their sub rush personnel on the field: down-linemen in Christian Barmore (#90) and Daniel Ekuale (#95) were joined by three stand-up linebackers — Matthew Judon (#9), Kyle Van Noy, Josh Uche (#55) — as well as a six-man secondary.
The coverage at first appeared to be a two-high shell like the ones New England effectively played on multiple occasions during the game. When the ball was snapped, however, Myles Bryant (#41) dropped back deep with Devin McCourty (#32) staying underneath in a robber role: the Patriots were in a Cover 1 man-to-man defense rather than the zone look they initially showed.
The coverage was designed to take away the middle of the field, with McCourty hovering over any potential crossing routes underneath. One of those was run by Keenan Allen (#13), matched up against Jalen Mills (#2) out of the offensive right-side slot. However, McCourty’s presence forced Herbert to go elsewhere with the football and away from his first read.
He found his intended target in tight end Jared Cook (#87), who had aligned on the three-receiver side of the formation as well. Needless to say that checking down to Cook did not work out:
After getting bumped by Matthew Judon, Cook released into the right flat with safety Adrian Phillips (#21) following him. Phillips remained square throughout Cook’s release into his route, which allowed him to mirror any potential cuts while also keeping an eye on the quarterback — a crucial aspect of what followed.
Phillips, after all, was ready for the football to arrive. Cook, on the other hand, was not.
Whether or not the tight end turned around too late or Herbert threw the pass too early, the result was the same: Phillips picked it off and was not touched until he had reached the end zone 26 yards later.
The defensive back positioned himself well to make a play on the inaccurate pass, and he also reacted perfectly when he was not touched after his catch. Phillips is not the only player worth mentioning, though.
Let’s start with his fellow defensive backs. We already mentioned Myles Bryant, Devin McCourty and Jalen Mills; perimeter cornerbacks Joejuan Williams (#33) and J.C. Jackson (#27) also did a good job on the play: the two left their assignments — Jalen Guyton (#15) on Williams and Mike Williams (#81) on Jackson — no space to operate. In turn, Herbert would have had a hard time making a play even if he had not thrown the ill-advised pass to Cook.
Also worth mentioning are the men up front, particularly defensive tackles Barmore and Ekuale. The two, after all, pushed the pocket into Herbert’s face, possibly forcing him to speed up his process:
Barmore showcased his impressive abilities on the play. The second-round rookie was quick off the snap and immediately started pushing the double team in front of him back. He also reacted quickly to Herbert’s throwing motion, getting his left arm up in the air and nearly tipping the pass.
Ekuale, meanwhile, was slower out of his three-point stance but he still was able to move the pocket up the middle. Working one-on-one against center Corey Linsley (#63), he pushed the veteran blocker back to further close in on Herbert and leave him no space or time to step up or to further survey the field.
The play was therefore not just the result of Herbert and/or Cook making a major mistake in a critical situation: the Patriots’ coverage and pass rush worked in perfect unison to make life hard on the Chargers — just like they did all game long.