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Chargers vs. Patriots: 5 Questions with the Enemy

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Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit took the time to answer a few questions for us about the New England Patriots.

NFL: New England Patriots at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Patriots have the second-worst defense on the season (per DVOA) but they looked pretty good against the Falcons. Have they turned the corner or was that just a bad game by the Atlanta offense?

Well, whatever corner they might have turned is now in serious question with LB Dont’a Hightower out for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Hightower was the heart in the defensive front seven, so it remains to be seen which player will step up in his place and whether the difference in quality will be substantial.

But prior to the injury, yes, it looked like the defense turned a corner over the past three weeks. They stopped the Falcons on third down, which they had been incapable of accomplishing against other teams over the first four weeks of the season. They stopped the run on first down, which they had failed to do early in the year. The defense was finally accomplishing all of the little things that set up favorable third down scenarios.

Alan Branch returned to the run defense after being atrocious and benched over the first five weeks. Hightower had returned from his injury. The secondary finally started to communicate well. We’ll see if losing Hightower represents three steps backwards, but the Falcons game was a culmination of a lot of good performances on defense.

2. Tom Brady leads the league in Passing DYAR at 40 years of age. Does he show any signs of slowing down at all?

No.

2. Tom Brady leads the league in Passing DYAR at 40 years of age. Does he show any signs of slowing down at all?

Okay, seriously, Brady has continued to improve his game with each passing year since his 2013 struggles. He’s become more mobile. He’s improved his pre-snap command. He’s more accurate on deep passes. He’s better under pressure. He’s honestly better than ever before.

And because of his improvements across the board, his errors are all the more glaring. His focus on the deep ball has made his presence in the pocket more inconsistent at times. He seems prone to roughly two head-scratching deep throws per game into double coverage that are at risk of being intercepted. He was probably doing that before, too, but now that those are his only errors you’re left yelling at the television screen.

The Chargers best bet would be to play tight coverage and have Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram try and meet at Brady on every snap. It’s the best way to disrupt the offense.

3. With the ever revolving carousel at running back for the Patriots, which back do you believe has the best chance to exploit the Chargers on defense?

With Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram tearing around the edge, I would expect Dion Lewis to continue to get the carries up the middle early in the game. He’ll test the quickness of the Chargers larger interior linemen and try to reach the second level to face the linebackers. He’s also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, so look for him to get favorable match-ups against the linebackers.

Mike Gillislee has been running well, but he’s a physical thumper that might be better utilized later in the game if the Patriots are able to get the Chargers defense off-balance. Rex Burkhead seems to be working his way back into the rotation after dealing with injuries. James White will always be the third down back and hurry-up option, but he’s not going to be an early down player.

4. The Chargers pass rush has been nearly unstoppable in recent weeks. How do you think the Patriots offense will handle them?

Not great, Bob. While I think the Patriots interior line will be more than fine, with sophomore Joe Thuney finally settling in after a tough start and center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason among two of the best in the NFL at their respective positions, the tackles have been an issue. Left tackle Nate Solder has been hit with 18 negative plays in pass protection (sacks, hits, pressures, penalties) at left tackle, or roughly 2.6 per game. Right tackle Marcus Cannon has 12.5 negative plays in 6 games, or 2.1 per game. While they’ve both settled down over the past two weeks against the Jets and Falcons, we can all appreciate that Bosa and Ingram are different beasts.

The Patriots won’t be able to win these match-ups one-on-one, so look for a lot of tight end help and running back assistance in blocking the pass rushers. Also look for the Patriots to try and establish the run to try and take the heat off the pass rush- that’s why I think a healthy dose of Dion Lewis early on will pay dividends later in the game.

5. Who do you think will win this week and why?

I think the Patriots will win, but it will be another tight contest. I’m thinking something in the range of 27-24 or 24-21. I do think the Patriots are the superior team and they’ll be playing at home, but the loss of Hightower could really affect the dynamic of the Patriots defense. With the Chargers running a Gus Bradley defense, the Patriots will try to control the clock and lead extended 10+ play drives, which is why this probably won’t be a high-scoring affair.