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Matchup Preview: The Patriots' offense vs. the Chargers' defense

Kyle breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the Pats on Offense and the Chargers on Defense ahead of the game this Sunday night.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After watching their last few games, I came away thinking that the Patriots' offense is a lot like the Chargers' offense. Just...better. During this 3-game winning streak, the Chargers have faced the offenses that, quite frankly, don't have the weapons that scare you like this New England offense. We'll get into the weapons in a little bit, but it's the efficiency that might be the most impressive thing about the Pats.

Football Outsiders tracks how a team performs on every down and distance per DVOA. From 1st and 10, to 2nd and short, to 3rd and long and everything in between. The Patriots rank 2nd on 1st and 10. That tells you they get ahead of the chains and are able to get into short yardage situations giving themselves a chance to convert. The Patriots are 11th in 3rd down conversion rate, but the in the last month they are 25-52, converting 48% of the time. That would be good for 2nd in the NFL. This offense is rolling, and it starts with the changes they made up front.

In the trenches

New England hasn't suffered the same awful injury luck as the Chargers, but they have started/played 9 offensive lineman this year. Like San Diego, once they inserted their rookie center, the offense started to take off. The Patriots are 4th in the NFL in adjusted line yards. I was at the Colts game where Jonas Gray ran for 200 yards and it was a clinic. Huge running lanes and RBs breaking tackles. In the last four games, the Patriots are averaging 4 yards a carry. The Chargers have been okay, at best, when it comes to stopping the run. Here are some front 7 numbers from a week ago:

Player Tackles aDOT Missed Wins Stops QB Hits Sacks
Reyes 1.5 11 1 0.5 1
Lissemore 4.5 6.3 2 1.5
Palepoi 2 1.5 2
Mathews 1 2 1 1
Liuget 6 -0.08 7 6
Johnson 2 3 2 1
Butler 1
Conner 5 4.2 2 1
Te'o 2 5.5
Walker 1 7
Freeney 1 1 3.5 1 1
Ingram 2 2.5 2.5 1 1

To add context, Corey Liuget was a 1-man wrecking ball. He was everywhere. Kendall Reyes was surprisingly active (though it doesn't show in his tackle numbers), but wasn't routinely washed out of the play. Sean Lissemore was forced to play the most snaps he has all season and that showed in the 2nd half. That's why you see his aDOT farther down the field. Limiting his role could go a long way to stopping the Patriots rushing attack. The one advantage I feel like the Chargers have is on the interior line of scrimmage, specifically, Liuget. He was blowing up plays in the backfield a week ago and his match up this week is arguably easier, though he'll likely see less zone blocking.

The fact that the two defensive ends played as well as they did, and the inside linebackers weren't able to rack up tackles, tells you all you need to know about them. It's one thing or the other; they're either over aggressive or too tentative. It's rare that they read the play correctly. I wonder if we see an uptick in run defense snaps with Manti Te'o. Every linebacker not named Jarret Johnson will have to do better against the run. I'm a little worried about Melvin Ingram and how he runs himself out of the play. The Ravens ran right where he was supposed to be a few times last Sunday. Two ways the Chargers can stop the Patriots run: get out to a big lead and force them to pass or be so disruptive up front that they abandon the run. Both are long shots, but it'll be interesting to see what John Pagano feels like he needs to take away.

Stopping the Pass

The Patriots are 3rd in adjusted sacked rate. Tom Brady does a great job of getting the ball out of his hands quickly. 70% of his throws come when he gets rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds. For comparison, Philip Rivers is at 57%. Everything is quick: screen to Julian Edelman, quick out to Rob Gronkowski, play-action slant to Brandon LaFell, seam pass to Gronkowski, Shane Vereen on a wheel route. There's nothing overly complicated about the offense, they just stress you on every level. It feels like there's a receiver open every play. The only time there's an incomplete pass is when Brady misfires or a receiver drops it. How the Chargers plan on attacking a top-3 passing attack will be interesting. It's just not a very good match up pretty much anywhere you go.

The Weapons

Edelman is a very nuanced route runner that adds in head fakes and does a great job of changing tempo in his routes. He's mainly their slot WR, but who guards him? Marcus Gilchrist couldn't guard a stiff 6'4 WR last week, so how is he going to stop the shifty Edelman who is so tough to bring down? Brandon Flowers has been awesome this year but I don't think this is a good match up for him. LaFell has come to life in recent weeks as the intermediate threat over the middle or outside the numbers. I can see Shareece Wright being the match up here. Not that there is such thing as "favorable" and "Wright" but LaFell isn't a flashy receiver. He seems to be the beneficiary of a timing-based offense. Tim Wright has been catching wide open touchdowns and if I were Pagano I would match athlete with athlete and put Darrell Stuckey on him. Stuckey doesn't seem to have the football acumen to excel in complex coverages, but if you tell him to guard someone or blitz, he's fine. I believe Stuckey can run with Wright and be able to change directions with him as well. As for Gronkowski? Pray. On one hand you can put your best player on him and if he can't stop him, then you adjust. That's how I would start out and see how it goes from there. I understand the size disparity between Gronk and Weddle. It's more about beating the receiver to the spot, both horizontally and vertically than actual height.

Pressure and confusion

Most quarterbacks are faulty under pressure, but Brady seems to be extremely skittish when there's immediate pressure in his face. He's good at maneuvering around the pocket, but when rushers are running at him, he's not hanging in there like Rivers is. He's retreating, throwing it off his back foot, and making an errant throw. Of course, getting pressure is the key. I can't wrap my head around why we didn't see the Attaochu-Liuget-Ingram-Freeney pass-rush last week. My only guess is that the Ravens were a run-heavy/play-action team that didn't really spread you out. That's not the case for New England. Pagano needs to get his best 4 on the field and, as Jeff pointed out, get more creative with his blitzes. Weddle came on a nice delayed blitz last week, but other than that we saw the same ineffective blitzes. Also, don't be afraid to blitz. Opposing QBs are completing a league-low 40.9% of their passes when San Diego blitzes. The team has to find a way to make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket or the Patriots will hang a 40 burger on this defense.

This is definitely the week to stay away from soft zones. If you do that, Brady will pick you apart. I like the idea of press man coverages with one of the safeties playing a "robber" to take away short, crossing routes. As well as some straight Cover 2 or even "Trap Cover 2", the coverage where Flowers got his interception a few weeks ago. This isn't a vertical passing team by any means. Over the last month they average 5 attempts per game over 20 yards. Brady has the 3rd worst accuracy percentage on throws over 20 yards. The object should be to force him to throw deep and outside the numbers. He just doesn't seem to have the timing down with these receivers to connect on deep passes.

It won't get any tougher than this for the Chargers. The Patriots move the ball at will, and when they get in the red zone, they punch it in for 6. They have the 4th-best red zone offense in the league. It's an area San Diego excelled at last week, and it's something that they'll have to continue this week if they want to stay in this game.