The New England Patriots have completed 17 weeks of the 2018 NFL season and have been rewarded with a home game on Sunday afternoon in the AFC Divisional Playoff round. They will face the Los Angeles Chargers who traveled to Baltimore last week and held on to defeat the Ravens 23-17.
From a off-season retirement rumors, a suspension of four games for wide receiver Julian Edelman, to a 1-2 start including a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars (in an “AFC Championship Game Rematch”) and a loss to former defensive coordinator, it did not look like the Patriots–after losing Super Bowl 52 to the Eagles and Seth Wickersham stories about the professional marriage of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick eroding–would be in this position.
However, a six-game winning streak (including outlasting the then undefeated Kansas City Chiefs) seemed to quell those fears. However, the Patriots then lost three of five–including an ugly performance on the road against Tennessee and back-to-back in December on the road. That included the “Miami Miracle” on a multi-lateral touchdown to the Dolphins and an ugly performance including an atrocious Tom Brady interception.
The season ended on an upswing by outlasting an impotent Buffalo Bills offense 24-12 in Tom Brady’s ugliest game of the season and a good old-fashioned stomping of the Jets 38-3 to make everyone believe everything was all good heading into the playoffs. As the number two seed, the Patriots need to root for the six seed Indianapolis Colts to upset the top seed Kansas City Chiefs to host an AFC Championship Game–if they can get past the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Patriots finished first in the AFC East for the tenth consecutive season and the 16th of 18 seasons since Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback in 2001. This was also the 16th consecutive season with double-digit wins for the Patriots–tying the 49ers who were from the pre-free agency and salary cap era.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feely will work from the sidelines.
Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and local talk radio personality Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three ended the season ranked fourth in scoring offense with 27.3 points per game and 436 points. They were fifth in yards with 6,295 and averaged 5.9 yards per play (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
The balanced offensive attack showed in the final stats. The offense was eighth in passing yards with 4,258 yards and sixth in net yards gained per attempt at 7.2 (passing yards minus sack yards per pass attempts and total sacks). On the ground, the Patriots rushed for 2,037 yards (fifth in the NFL) their highest total since 2013. However, the effectiveness of their dedication to the ground game was just 20th in the league at 4.3 yards per attempt.
Coming out of week three, the New England offense ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs. The Patriots finished 13th in the NFL converting 40.8% of third downs for the season. Their Red Zone scoring percentage was a problem all season and finished 15th in the league at 59.6% (34 of 57 drives).
How does New England get past a Los Angeles Chargers team with a strong pass rush led by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and a secondary packed with stars like rookie Derwin James, Adrian Phillips, Desmond King and Casey Hayward?.
RUN, RUN, RUN:
Here’s an easy stat to define the 2018 New England Patriots: When they rush for 100 yards or more they are 9-0. Less than 100 yards on the ground and they are 2-5 (and in one of those wins against the Colts they rushed for 97 yards).
The Chargers come into Foxboro a confident group with an offense full of play-makers and a defense with the deepest secondary in the NFL and two premier pass-rushers. To combat that smothering pass coverage and relentless pass rush, New England needs to use all of their weapons in the running game.
The New England Patriots offensive coaching staff knows full well what they are going to see against the San Diego Chargers when they try to throw the football: a ton of Cover-3, some Cover-1 mixed in, and the occasional man-to-man coverage. The Chargers prefer to pressure with their front four and flood the zones with their extra defensive backs and athletic linebacker/safety hybrids.
The Chargers have had their linebacker unit blown up by injuries. Denzel Perryman, Kyzir White and Jatavis Brown were the top three linebackers on the depth chart and all are on injured reserve. That leaves Kyle Wilson (who is questionable with a concussion), Hayes Pullard, and Kyle Emanuel at linebacker.
With those options, the Chargers have gone light and fast. The Chargers flood the field with Uchenna Nwosu and multiple safeties with Adrian Phillips joining safeties Derwin James and Jahleel Addae and cornerbacks Casey Hayward, Michael Davis and Desmond King. That light back seven puts pressure on the front four to hold up versus the run.
Where the Patriots have struggled in the past against these types of defenses is when they have not been able to establish a ground game. Early season struggles against Detroit and Jacksonville (a Cover-3 team) were highlighted by the offense being unable to run the ball effectively with Jeremy Hill out and Sony Michel not up to speed.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots’ offense was at its best when Michel was clicking. When Michel hit 98 or more yards rushing the team was 5-0 and scored 38, 38, 43, 27, and 24 points. Michel finished with 209 carries for 931 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) as a rookie despite injuries slowing him in training camp and holding him out at the start of the season. He missed a few games in the middle of the season as well.
Of course, the Patriots will also mix in Rex Burkhead. Burkhead opened the season as the lead back with Sony Michel injured, but a neck/concussion landed him on injured reserve. He returned for the last quarter of the season but struggled running the ball although he was effective as a receiver in the passing game as he got up to speed in the offense.
James White stands out as the biggest weapon in the passing game, With an extra week to scout their own tendencies, the Patriots may switch up White’s role a bit. Look for a few more passes to Sony Michel and some early down carries to James White. This Los Angeles defense is a fast and attacking unit, and catching them on their heels and expecting run and getting a pass and vice-versa.
White has been effective when pressed into service as a runner with 94 carries for 425 yards in 2018. Prior to this season, his highs for carries in a season were 43 and yards were 171. White has shown the ability to carry more of the load on the ground this season and will likely see more work in that role in the playoffs.
The Patriots have evolved into a running offense. Establishing a solid ground game is a must to help the passing offense take advantage out of the focus on the backfield. Look for the Patriots to try and take advantage of the weakness at linebacker for Los Angeles and run the ball out of heavy looks early in the game.
That is only part of the offensive game plan–the Patriots also must get the ball actually into the end zone:
PASS OUTSIDE THE BOX:
The New England Patriots have had intermittent problems with the passing game. Early in the season, quarterback Tom Brady struggled against the Jacksonville Jaguars’ aggressive secondary and former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s schemes. After the arrival of Josh Gordon the passing offense became less of a concern with only a hiccup against Mike Vrabel and the Tennessee Titans.
After the week 15 loss to Pittsburgh, the New England offense lost Gordon for the rest of the season as he was suspended indefinitely after lapsing back into his substance abuse issues. That led New England leaning on Julian Edelman and no idea what they would get from Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, and the criminally under-utilized Phillip Dorsett. With Rob Gronkowski struggling to stay healthy, the passing offense was once again an issue.
This week the Patriots have had two weeks to get Gronkowski and Brady rested and hopefully healthy heading into this match-up versus the Chargers. Patterson had a knee injury at the end of the regular season but should be healthy enough to play on Sunday. Even Edelman, now 32 years old, likely was nursing some nagging bumps and bruises after his usual season of exposing himself to hits across the middle of the field.
The Patriots are facing the Seattle Cover-3 defense that they see from all the Pete Carroll disciples around the league. The scheme plays off the athleticism and quick-twitch quickness of the Los Angeles secondary. Rookie Derwin James is a game-changer with over 100 tackles, three interceptions and 3.5 sacks.
The rest of the secondary are no slouches with two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward, slot cornerback Desmond King and the underrated second-year undrafted free agent cornerback Michael Davis who has blossomed this season. They also feature Pro Bowl safety Adrian Phillips and Jahleel Addae. It is a deep group who plays well together and make it tough on passing offenses.
They are helped by the dynamic pass rush duo of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Ingram has been a force this season with Joey Bosa missing more than half the season. Bosa is back and up and to full speed and give the Chargers two premier pass rushers. Rookie Uchenna Nwosu has been moved around on defense but is best rushing the quarterback.
The Patriots can find a hole in the Chargers’ defense attacking the linebackers in the passing game. Nwosu can be undisciplined and Kyle Emanuel and Hayes Pullard are special teams players, not defensive contributors. If the Patriots can get any of their three running backs in match-ups with these three linebackers, it is a match-up that will favor New England.
With the safeties locking in on Rob Gronkowski and the cornerbacks occupied with Edelman, Hogan, Patterson, and Dorsett, being able to get yards through the air via their running backs is a must for the New England offense.
If the offense can continue to get production on the ground and grind out long drives the New England Patriots should be able to limit the Chargers’ production and wear down their defense. If they can get any kind of rhythm in the passing game with Rob Gronkowski and the running backs, they should crack the Cover-3 defense and be able to put up enough points to beat L.A..
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01