It was a hard-fought game throughout the night, but in the end your Patriots were too much for the now 8-5 Chargers. The Patriots offense struggled for much of the game, including a tough-to-watch stretch of four consecutive 3-and-outs during the third quarter, but awoke late in the game to score 10 in the fourth quarter and escape with the win. The team was able to survive a difficult night offense thanks largely to a dominant defense that held a dangerous San Diego offense to merely 7 points all night, as well as strong situational football from their special teams.
Those observations were obvious to the naked eye, but at PatriotsLife we make sure to check the tape. Without further ado, here are some observations from Sunday night's game, aided by the game film provided by NFL GameRewind.
Return of Siliga strengthens defensive interior
It was overshadowed by the absence of Dont'a Hightower and the supposed "curse of Beiber", but Sunday night also marked the return of big defensive tackle Sealver Siliga to the field. Siliga began the season as a productive starter, particularly against the run, but hadn't played since suffering a foot injury that landed him on the injured reserve/designated to return list.
Siliga was immediately thrown back into the rotation at defensive tackle, where he played fairly well. Thanks to the Chargers lack of commitment to the running game (only 17 attempts despite Ryan Matthews finding some success), only 6 of his 24 snaps came against the run, but he showed well on those snaps. He also showed some good push as an interior pass rusher, included a fourth quarter sack of Rivers on which he simply overpowered guard Johnnie Troutman.
In the long-term, getting Siliga back is a nice boost for a Patriots interior rotation that looked like a potential weakness just a month ago. The team now goes four deep at the position, with Chris Jones (26 snaps) and Alan Branch (17 snaps) also seeing significant snaps. That depth allows the team to keep it's big guys fresh, something shown by Vince Wilfork only needing to play 31 snaps on Sunday. It also allowed the team to cut back on Dominique Easley's workload, which is probably needed due to his inexperience and injuries. Easley's role was reduced to 10 snaps, where he was utilized as an interior rusher on obvious passing downs. Perhaps such a reduction in workload will help Easley gain fresher legs, which could help him show more of his explosiveness as a pass rusher in the coming weeks.
Special teams make a major difference
The Pats being major contenders come December is nothing new, but the play of their special teams is one of many reasons this appears to be the most complete Patriots team we've seen in quite some time. Their special teams have consistently outplayed the opposition during this recent 8-1 stretch, and Sunday night was certainly no exception.
This became abundantly clear on Brandon Bolden's blocked punt in the second quarter. At the time, San Diego had momentum in the game, having scored back-to-back touchdowns and forcing the Pats to settle for a field goal from the red zone. The Patriots defense had gotten a stop to give the offense the ball back, but the Pats had already played almost a full half of football without getting the ball into the end zone.
The short field provided by the blocked punt turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. The offense, seemingly roused back to life by Bolden's play, took only four plays to find paydirt, with Rob Gronkowski's touchdown pulling the team to within one. The sequence (defensive stop, special-teams play, offense capitalizes) was a perfect example of the complementary football that Bill Belichick always stresses to his team.
Bolden's block also had ramifications throughout the rest of the game, as punter Mike Scrifes was injured on the play, forcing placekicker Nick Novak into emergency punting duties. The Patriots responded with an unusual two returner alignment, sending Julian Edelman back in his traditional deep spot with Danny Amendola up in case of a shorter punt from Novak.
While neither Amendola or Edelman broke any big returns, their ability to field the ball created a strong field position advantage for the Pats throughout the rest of the game. For example, Novak's first punt traveled only 27 yards before being fair-caught by Amendola, setting the Pats up with excellent field position at their own 39 yard line. This would have resulted in a go-ahead score before the half if not for Tom Brady's uncharacteristically careless interception to Manti Te'o.
The offense continued to struggle throughout the third quarter, but their field position advantage helped negate the damage. After returning the second half kickoff only to the 19, Ryan Allen changed the field position battle with a 60 yard punt, pinning the Chargers back to the 13 on their first possession of the half. Complementary football continued from there, as a defensive stop coupled with a 33 yard Novak punt helped the Pats get the ball back at the 48. The offense promptly went three-and-out, but Allen maintained the field position edge with a masterful pooch punt that was fair caught by Keenan Allen at the 10. This field position edge continued throughout the rest of the quarter, with New England starting it's next two drives from the 44 and 30 (after Akeem Ayers interception) and San Diego starting it's next two from the 33 (they would have been backed up again if not for a careless after the whistle penalty on Brian Tyms) and the 10 after a 56 yarder from Allen.
With the Patriots defense playing as well as they were, moving the ball was going to be hard enough for San Diego. The ability of the Pats special teams to consistently pin them deep in their own end stacked the deck even more against the Chargers, helping the defense hold off Rivers and co until the Pats struggling offense could get back on track. The mere mention of special teams generally will get an eye roll from the casual fan, but last night was a clear example of how special teams can dramatically impact a game.
Where did Pats gain an edge over Chargers last night?
Pats net punting average: 44
Chargers net punting average: 29.6
— Ned Brady (@therealnedbrady) December 9, 2014
Offensive line struggles again
The Pats offense hasn't looked like it's dominant self in back-to-back weeks, and struggles from the offensive line remain a major culprit. ProfootballFocus's stat sheet says that Brady was only sacked once, hit three more times, and hurried six times, but those numbers don't account for how many times Chargers defenders got close enough to disrupt Brady's rhythm.
Most concerning was how Nate Solder, a former first round pick and the protector of Brady's blindside, was consistently one of the culprits. Solder rebounded with adequate play later in the game, but his inability to control Melvin Ingram played a huge role in the offense struggling for most of the game. This started early, as the Pats first possession got all the way to the 2 yard line before San Diego's Melvin Ingram simply overpowered Solder for a third down sack to force a field goal. Technique seemed to be the problem for the left tackle on this play, as Ingram was able to get leverage underneath the big left tackle and drive him back into Brady.
The Patriots third drive ended similarly. The Pats marched down the field all the way down to the four yard line on a 11 play drive, but stalled out on third and goal when Dwight Freeney completely turned Solder around with his famous spin move, forcing Brady to throw a desperate incomplete heave towards Shane Vereen's general direction.
The coaching staff praised Solder and fellow starting tackle Sebastien Vollmer for making adjustments and improving the team's pass protection as the game went on, but Solder's struggles are concerning for an offense built largely around it's 37 year old pocket passer. Simply put, the Pats can afford to have protection problems, especially against an AFC playoff field loaded with dangerous pass rushers. With the exception of the Colts, every team in the playoff mix has at least one star edge rusher, and most of them have two. Denver has Von Miller and Demarcus Ware. Kansas City has Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Cincinnati has Carlos Dunlap. Baltimore? Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs. Simply put, New England's pass protection will have to be better come January and (hopefully) February, and that can only start with Solder doing a better job in his one-on-one matchups.
Disguise aids Pats defensive dominance
Much of the credit for the Patriots improved defense this year has deservedly gone to offseason additions Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia deserves a lot of credit for how he's adjusted the team's scheme to fit it's personnel following the midseason losses of Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones.The loss of Jones left the team without it's best pass rusher and one player counted on to consistently win one-on-one matchups on the edge, while losing Mayo left the team with only two experienced options at linebacker.
Patricia adjusted by going to an unusual 4-2-5 "base" nickel defense. Doing so enabled the team to keep it's best personel on the field, keeping an extra defensive back (normally Kyle Arrington) on the field instead of a backup linebacker like Deontae Skinner. Such an allignment naturally leaves the defense a little lighter against the run, but the excellent downhill play of Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins has allowed the team to stop the run out of the nickel.
However, the question remained how this defense would manage to generate pressure. Rob Ninkovich is an excellent run defender who hustles his way into the occasional sack from his left defensive end stop, but statistically is one of the least productive starting ends in the league as a pass rusher, with quarterback disruptions on just 8% of his pass rushing snaps. Vince Wilfork contributes to the pass rush by occupying extra blockers, but has never been particularly productive as a pass rusher himself, and Dominique Easley has been fairly disappointing in an injury-slowed rookie season. Midseason trade acquisition Akeem Ayers stepped into Jones role at RDE and has been productive himself, but asking him to single-handedly carry the pass rush would have been a tall order.
The situation called for scheme-created pressure, and Patricia has managed to do so very effectively thanks to the blitzing prowess of his linebackers. By the technical definition of blitz (sending five or more rushers), the Pats haven't been a blitz-heavy team, a trend that continued on Sunday with the Pats sending five rushers on only 8 of their 39 snaps in pass defense. However, the Pats have created confusion and disruption by disguising where those four rushers are coming from. Hightower and Collins (and in Sunday's game, Jonathan Casillas) have shown blitz at the snap on plenty of snaps, often with one actually coming and the other dropping out of coverage.
The Pats have also had success occasionally dropping one of their versatile defensive ends into coverage, replacing his edge role with either a stunting lineman or a blitzing linebacker or defensive back. This worked to perfection on Sunday on Akeem Ayers third quarter interception. Ayers has 209 pass rushing snaps against only 39 in coverage since joining the Patriots, so his dropping into a shallow zone was naturally a surprise to Philip Rivers. Chris Jones started the play alligned in an outside shade of the left guard (over the "B" gap between the guard and tackle), but slants his rush to the outside and replaces Ayers vacated role on the edge, with a blitzing Collins taking his place as an interior rusher. Just like Peyton Manning's Week 9 interception to Rob Ninkovich, Rivers never even saw Ayers until the defensive end had already intercepted his pass.
Another great example of the scheme creating some pressure was Jamie Collins' first quarter sack. On the play, both Collins and Casillas are up on the line of scrimmage on each side of center Chris Watt, showing blitz through both "A" gaps. Watt is forced to pick one to block and takes an initial step right towards Casillas, but Casillas merely takes a step inside before backing up into a shallow middle zone in coverage. By the time Watt realizes what has happened, it's already too late, as Collins has barreled through the other "A" gap and sacked Rivers to force a punt.
A final example comes on Rob Ninkovich's sack with 9:05 remaining in the third quarter. The defense starts with both linebackers showing blitz, along with four defensive lineman.
This time, the Patriots do blitz, with Casillas backing out into coverage but Collins coming up the middle. With both Vince Wilfork and Akeem Ayers firing up field, the right tackle gives Ninkovich a free release off the edge to help the guard and center handle Wilfork. Guard Johnnie Troutman (#63) recognizes what has happened and peels outside to chip Ninkovich, but is too late, and the Pats defensive end gets the sack to force a San Diego punt. Just another example of scheme creating pressure for the Patriots defense.
Can't knock the hustle
This Patriots team has played with a lot of energy since their effort was questioned in Week 4's lackluster showing against the Chiefs, and two plays in particular highlighted this on Sunday. One was Devin McCourty's called back interception return touchdown. Note the effort by both Patrick Chung, who lays down a crushing blindside block on Keenan Allen, and Vince Wilfork, who chugs his way all the way down to the end zone trying to get a block down to help escort McCourty to the end zone. Simply put, there's no excuse for laziness when the 325 nose tackle is hustling down the field like that.
The second play was Julian Edelman's 69 yard catch and run touchdown that broke the game open. Edelman did an excellent job of breaking the first tackle, but it's questionable whether he would have scored without the hustle of Brandon LeFell and LeGarrette Blount, both of whom ran down the field and got in Shareece Wright's way just enough to prevent him from stopping Edelman from scoring.
Midseason additions continue to contribute
I've covered this in the past, but I continue to be amazed by how much production the Pats have gotten out of midseason additions this season. As a skill position player and fan favorite from just last year, LeGarrette Blount has received the most attention, and his power and tackle-breaking ability has brought a new dimension to the offense.
However, newcomers were contributing all over the field last night. Akeem Ayers, acquired for merely a sixth round pick back in October, continued to hold down the fort at Chandler Jones' right defensive end spot. Ayers played 55 of the team's 57 defensive snaps and showed impressive versatility, making an impact both as a pass rusher and edge setter while also notching that critical interception in coverage. The Chargers gained a grand total of zero yards on their four rushes off of left tackle, where Ayers was responsible for setting the edge. Furthermore, he managed a hit and five hurries in his 34 pass rushing snaps, and now has the sixth most pressures for all 3-4 outside linebackers since his Week 8 arrival in New England.
While Blount and Ayers had the most impact, they were far from the only contributors last night who weren't on the roster in September. The absence of Dont'a Hightower pushed linebacker Jonathan Casillas into the starting lineup next to Jamie Collins, where he performed adequately as part of a dominant defensive effort. Casillas managed two defensive stops amongst his four tackles and also notched a hurry in only 10 pass rushing snaps, and while Rivers completed 4 of his 5 passes targetting the linebacker, he only allowed of 7.8 yards. Far from the impact a healthy Hightower makes, but more than good enough for the defense to get by.
Finally, big Alan Branch contributed to a solid defensive line rotation, notching a defensive stop amongst his strong play against the run. Branch is far from the impact player he was expected to be when he was a high second round pick back in 2007, but his ability to eat up snaps and take up space in the middle on early downs has helped the team improve what appeared to be a shaky run defense.
Pats win in spite of sloppy performance
It's very fair to say Sunday wasn't the Patriots best performance. They had:
A fumble returned for a touchdown
A 1/4 performance in the red zone, which included
a terrible red zone interception that took points off the board
two failures to score a touchdown from within the 10 yard line
An interception return for a touchdown called back on a bad call
Only 3.1 yards per carry on the ground
A mediocre 7/16 performance on third down
An ugly third quarter stretch of four consecutive 3 and outs, several of which started with excellent field position
In spite of all this, your Patriots still found a way to win, on the road, against what was an 8-4 team and a playoff contender. The list of teams that could manage to win with all of the above going wrong is a short one, and that's before even taking into account the quality opponent the Pats were facing. The Pats will clearly need to play better than they did Sunday night to beat the league's elite teams in January, but their ability to gut out a win despite an off-performance from the offense should inspire confidence in this team as a true championship contender.