Each week, PatriotsLife will be posting a scouting report of the
Patriots upcoming opponent, going over their playmakers, tendencies, and
how the Pats might match up. This week, the Pats have stayed out on the West Coast in preparation for a primetime Sunday Night matchup with the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers have rebounded from a three game losing streak and an embarrasing 37-0 shutout at the hands of the Dolphins to win their last three games, including a comeback thriller on the road in Baltimore last week. That winning streak has the Chargers at 8-4, firmly in the hunt for a Wild Card spot and still only a game back of 9-3 Denver in the AFC West. Needless to say, the stakes are high for both teams in this one, as a New England loss and Denver win over Buffalo would have Denver leapfrogging the Pats for the AFC's best record and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Lets get right to the matchups that will likely determine Sunday's outcome.
San Diego offense
Statistically, the Chargers offense has been around the middle of the pack in 2014. They rank 16th out of all 32 teams in both yardage gained and first downs, and their scoring average of 23.2 points per game ranks 14th in the league.
However, stats can be deceiving, and the Chargers clearly have enough weapons in the passing game to test even the league's best defenses. Led by quarterback Philip Rivers, the Chargers have the ability to make big plays in the air and put points on the board in a hurry. They proved their resiliency last week, scoring 21 fourth quarter points on the road against Baltimore to come out with a much-needed victory.
The first thing that sticks out about the Chargers passing game is size. In Keenan Allen (6'2"), Malcom Floyd (6'5") and tight end Antonio Gates (6'4"), Rivers' top three options in the passing game all enjoy a considerable size advantage over almost anyone who attempts to cover them. This has proved beneficial both when throwing downfield (their 7.1 net yards per attempt ranks 6th in the league) and in the red zone, as Rivers is seventh in the league with 25 touchdown passes.
Gates has been a TD machine this year
The Pats are better equipped to handle big receivers than just about any team in the league, but even Matt Patricia's secondary faces some interesting challenges in matching up with these giants. I'd expect Darrelle Revis to spend most of his time lined up on Allen, who has emerged as Rivers' go-to guy and leads the team in targets, receptions and yards. However, that leaves the question of what to do with Brandon Browner. Is he better utilized on Floyd, the team's biggest receiver and best downfield threat (17.7 yards per catch)? Or should Browner spend more time tracking Gates, who already has 9 touchdowns in a resurgent season?
The Pats loss to Green Bay opened up some questions about their depth at corner behind Browner and Revis, and that depth will be tested no matter who Browner winds up covering. If Browner winds up on Gates, Logan Ryan will likely get a chance to redeem himself by covering Floyd on the outside. There's also the question of what to do with Eddie Royal, a shifty 5'10" dynamo who has been productive out of the slot this year for Rivers. Royal is typically the type of player slot corner Kyle Arrington matches up with, but Arrington is questionable with an ankle injury that limited his playing time in Green Bay last week. If Arrington can't go, either the struggling Alfonzo Dennard or little-used Malcolm Butler will likely see a larger role.
With a top-flight quarterback and an impressive group of weapons, how have the Chargers merely been a middle-of-the-pack offense statistically? The blame lies largely on the shoulders of an offensive line that has struggled this season. They've allowed Rivers to be pressured on 34% of his dropbacks, a dangerously high number for a quarterback not known for his mobility, and also shoulder the majority of the blame for a team-wide 3.4 yards per carry on the ground, a figure that ranks 30th in the league.
Rivers has excelled despite protection issues
Can the Patriots pass rush rebound from a poor showing (much of which was scheme-related) last week in Green Bay to take advantage of San Diego's weakness up front? It's certainly possible, especially if Chandler Jones does in fact return to the field. Even if Jones doesn't go, Rob Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers should be able to win their share of matchups against the struggling tackle duo of King Dunlap and DJ Fluker. The interior of the line is also very weak, with guard Johnnie Troutman having a particularly tough year and starting center Chris Watt questionable with a calf injury, so Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch and co should be able to get some push up the middle.
Being able to pressure Rivers without blitzing could be key to this one. Like all quarterbacks, Rivers' statistical performance drops when pressured, but the veteran has been deadly against the blitz this season. Overall, Rivers has completed 75.4% of his passes when blitzed, with a sizzling 10 touchdowns against just one interception and 9.6 yards per attempt. The Pats also might be forced to blitz less due to their personnel if Dont'a Hightower, whose ability to crash through the A gaps on blitzes has been a defensive staple this season, is unable to go with an injured shoulder. Linebacker Jonathan Casillas will likely be the next man up if Hightower is inactive, but Casillas is more of a coverage backer than a downhill blitzer. Jamie Collins is also a capable blitzer, but has been sent far less than Hightower, likely due to his ability in coverage.
The Patriots have impressed recently with their ability to shutdown the run despite playing mostly nickel defense, but that success has come with the 270 pound Hightower filling a lot of the gaps up front. The Chargers have not been a particularly good team on the ground, but starting halfback Ryan Matthews is finally healthy and certainly has the talent to take advantage of poor play if the undersized Casillas (6'1", 227) isn't up to the task of plugging gaps up front. Matthews has been limited to five games this year due to injuries, but his 4.4 yards per carry indicate that he's been by far the team's most productive back.
Diminutive back Brandon Oliver provided a spark earlier in the season, filling in the third down/pass catching back role normally held by the injured Danny Woodhead, but Oliver has seen his role dramatically reduced in recent weeks as Matthews has returned to the mix. His seven snaps last week were his lowest since his Week 3 NFL debut. Curiously, he's also lost snaps to former Colts first round pick Donald Brown, who is a capable pass catcher but far less dynamic than Oliver. Brown has particularly struggled running the ball this year, averaging a paltry 2.4 yards per carry.
San Diego defense
The Chargers 3-4 defense lacks the star power of their offense, but have proven to be a deceptively effective unit. Despite failing to stand-out in any particular statistical category, the Chargers have held opponents to merely 20.8 points per game while ranking eighth in the league in yards allowed.
The San Diego front seven is better suited to rush the passer than stuff the run, even with outside linebacker Melvin Ingram injured. Of their starters, only linebacker Jarrett Johnson and Manti Te'o have managed positive grades against the run from Profootballfocus, with DE Kendall Reyes, nose tackle Sean Lissemore and linebacker Donald Butler all struggling. As a unit, they've allowed opponents to rush for 4.3 yards per carry.
Freeney is still a dangerous pass rusher
However, former Colts star Dwight Freeney has made a successful transition to 3-4 outside linebacker. Don't let his low sack total fool you, as Freeney still has a deadly spin move and leads the team with 32 hurries. Defensive end Corey Luiget has also had a nice year as a pass rusher, with 32 combined hits, hurries and sacks despite spending most of his time rushing from the exterior.
The Pats coaching staff faced some questions about their lack of dedication to the running game after last week's loss to Green Bay, and it wouldn't surprise me if they responded with a power-based approach early on in this one. The Pats should be able to run effectively on this San Diego front, and doing so early would allow them to establish control and get into a chain-moving offensive rhythm. Expect LeGarrette Blount to get his heaviest workload of the season in this one, with Jonas Gray also available as an effective rotational back (if the coaching staff puts him on the field).
However, the Pats are clearly an offense built around their passing game, and they could matchup well against an undersized San Diego secondary that is better suited to zone coverage than man-to-man. None of the Chargers top three corners stand over 5'11", meaning that both Brandon LeFell and Tim Wright will have size mismatches no matter who lines up across from them. The Chargers have gotten good play out of Brandon Flowers, but it'll be a tall task to ask him to give up four inches if they match him up with LeFell. Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall have played the majority of the snaps with Flowers since the team lost first round pick Jason Verrett to injury, and both have been inconsistent in coverage this season.
The Chargers might not know who their corners will be matching up with until game day. Julian Edelman is listed as questionable with a thigh injury that clearly was giving him trouble last week at Lambeau. If he can't go, expect Danny Amendola to capably fill his role in the slot, a role that is a much better fit for Amendola's skillset. Running back Shane Vereen is also listed as questionable with an ankle injury. I'd expect him to play (he played through the same injury last week), and he could find some mismatches in coverage with the Chargers slower-than-average linebackers.
Weddle is a dangerous playmaker in the secondary
The Chargers best defensive player is clearly safety Eric Weddle, and you can be sure that Tom Brady will be aware of where Weddle is at all times. Like Ed Reed, Weddle has excellent instincts in coverage, and is adept at tricking quarterbacks into mistakes with his disguised coverages. However, as good as Weddle is, he's no match physically for Rob Gronkowski, who has been playing like a man possessed recently. Whether it's Weddle or fellow starter Marcus Gilchrist (an in-the-box safety who struggles in coverage), Gronk will have mismatches all game. Gronk has also gone two games without a touchdown, and hasn't gone three straight without seeing the end zone since 2011, so expect a Gronk spike at some point Sunday night.
Special teams have been an underrated strength of this Patriots team all season, and they should have the edge Sunday night against an average San Diego unit. Punter Mike Scifres has been solid for the Chargers and Nick Novak has been one of the league's most accurate kickers, but the return game and coverage units have been decidedly average most of the year.
The Pats could have the opportunity to do some damage in the return game this week. While Novak has been accurate on field goals, he's struggled on kickoffs, with only 10 touchbacks in his 63 kickoffs despite playing his home games in sunny San Diego. Likewise, the Chargers coverage unit has let down Scifres, allowing an average of 10.3 yards per punt return. This should have Danny Amendola licking his chops, as the Pats receiver has brought a spark to the kick return game and will likely handle punt return duties even if Edelman is able to go on Sunday.
The Chargers themselves haven't been awful in the return game, but they haven't broken many big returns. Eddie Royal and Keenan Allen have split punt return duty, with Allen (11.1 yards per return) proving far more effective than Royal (only 4.1 yards per return). Chris Davis has averaged 25.8 yards per return as the primary kick returner, but has a long return of only 35 yards for the season. If the Pats coverage units play like they have most of the year, they should be able to win the field position game on Sunday.
Other factors to watch
The Pats have traditionally excelled at taking the ball away and avoiding turnovers themselves, and this year has been no exception. This week, they face a Chargers team that has done an excellent job of avoiding turnovers themselves, with only 14 giveaways all year. However, the Chargers defense has only forced 13 turnovers themselves, a figure that ranks 28th in the league. The secondary has been a primary culprit in that department, with only 6 interceptions all year. Barring an uncharacteristic sloppy game from Brady, I'd expect the offense to take care of the ball. If the defense can force Rivers into a mistake or two, it could swing the odds decidedly in New England's favors.
How are things on the West Coast?
Coast to coast travel is typically an omen of bad things to come in the NFL. While West Coast teams historically have more trouble traveling to the East coast than vice versa (likely due to the time zone differential), a trip from New England to San Diego is no picnic. For that reason, the Pats never made that trip, instead opting to head directly from Green Bay to San Diego, where they've spent the week practicing at local college facilities.
This certainly makes logical sense, as the players have had a full week now to get acclimated to the change in time zones. However, spending that much time away from home is never comfortable, especially when preparing to face a Chargers team that is 5-1 at home. The Pats themselves have something to prove as a road team, as they are only 3-3 on the road (6-0 at home), and winning this one would be a nice statement for a Pats team that is still relatively young overall.
The Pats are still in very good shape as far as the playoff race goes, but lets not pretend that the stakes aren't high every week at this point of the season. Last week's loss to Green Bay dropped the Pats into a tie with Denver for the AFC's best record, with New England holding onto the hypothetical #1 seed and homefield advantage courtesy of their head-to-head win over the Broncos. With Denver expected to beat Buffalo at home, it will be imperative for the Pats to win and maintain that lead. Homefield advantage could mean a great deal if the Pats and Broncos meet in January with a Super Bowl berth on the line, especially considering Peyton Manning's career struggles in Foxborough.
Furthermore, a loss could narrow the gap between the Pats and their competition in the division. Both Miami and Buffalo stand at a respectable 7-5, and a win by either coupled with a Pats loss would narrow the division lead to one game. Given that Miami currently holds the head-to-head tiebreaker courtesy of their week one win, maintaining a comfortable gap over them in the standings is certainly a priority. If the Pats take care of business over the final month, they should be able to hold on to both the division and the conference's number one seed. However, a loss on Sunday night could make the season's final three weeks much more interesting.