Happy Saturday, Chargers fans.
To get you in the zone for Sunday’s matchup with the Patriots, we asked Bernd Buchmasser, our colleague at SB Nation’s Patriots site, Pats Pulpit, a handful of question so we can all learn a thing or two about this week’s opponent.
He had some hefty answers, so let’s just dive right in.
1.) This is not your father’s Patriots football team. From last year to now, what are the biggest changes on either side of the ball?
The obvious answer on offense is the departure of Tom Brady. With him gone and Cam Newton under center, the Patriots have moved towards a run-based offensive attack — one that similar to the one the Chargers saw in the 2018 playoffs, but obviously adds the element of a dual-thread quarterback. Newton himself, meanwhile, has had his ups and downs: he did look good at times as both a passer and runner but, like the New England offense as a whole, has had some issues with consistency. Still, he has proven himself capable of playing winning football if not always for a full 60 minutes.
There are other big changes on offense as well, though. Second-year man Damien Harris has taken over as the lead early-down running back; right tackle Marcus Cannon has opted out of the season and has been replaced by impressive sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu; Julian Edelman and left tackle Isaiah Wynn are on IR; and the tight end group is led by Ryan Izzo, who is probably better suited to serve as a role player than a TE1. Oh, and the Patriots lost long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to retirement.
Defensively, meanwhile, the team has been hit hard this by offseason departures. Of the top 11 players in terms of playing time last year, six are gone — including linebackers Kyle Van Noy (free agency), Dont’a Hightower (opt-out) and Jamie Collins (free agency), who were ranked 1-2-3 in quarterback pressures last year. With them gone, New England has struggled at times to run its gap-control based defense that relies on second-level linebackers to attack downhill and make plays. The current group simply does not have the consistency yet to do that properly. As a result, the Patriots have generated inconsistent pressure at times and also struggled versus the run, especially earlier during the year.
2.) What makes Josh McDaniels so good at adapting his offense to the personnel they have? Especially to begin the year, they were getting the job done in the exact opposite way they were used to with Tom Brady. Is this a type of offense that can get better? Be sustained?
One thing I often think about when talking about McDaniels is a statement he made during last year’s training camp: your style should always reflect the talents of your team. That mantra has served New England well throughout the years, be it the spread attack of 2007, the two-tight end offense of the early 2010s, or the run-based approach that led the Patriot to the Super Bowl two years ago. I therefore think that this philosophy and willingness to devise new plans to make it work is the key to the Patriots’ adaptability and sustained success through the years.
Of course, 2020 has been a challenge — from Brady’s departure, to the lack of offseason, to Newton testing positive for Covid-19 ahead of Week 4 — but I do believe that the course the offense is on is reflective once again of that. The Patriots know they are better at running back than at wide receiver, for example, and that Newton is not the same type of quarterback as Brady. With more practice time and experience together, I do think that this attack can get better. If it gets better quickly enough to help spark a late playoff push and postseason run is the big question, though.
3.) The Patriots defense lost some key players from 2019, including LB Kyle Van Noy. What other notable losses did the defense sustain and how is it different from a year ago where they were heavy in man coverage usage?
From a coverage usage, the Patriots are still a man-to-man based team considering that their secondary has remained mostly intact. The only major departures were safeties Patrick Chung (opt-out) and Duron Harmon (trade), but ex-Charger Adrian Phillips and second-round rookie Kyle Dugger have helped filled their roles admirably (and interchangeably). Of course, with more dual-threat quarterbacks such as Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson or Arizona’s Kyler Murray on the schedule, the team decided to go to more zone looks in order to account for the QB as a runner. In its essence, though, the Patriots defense is still a man coverage crew with a heavy usage of Cover 1 and Cover 0.
As for notable personnel losses, Van Noy is one of them but arguably not the biggest. That title would go to Dont’a Hightower, in my opinion. While Van Noy’s job as an outside linebacker has been filled comparatively well by youngsters Chase Winovich and John Uche in their second and first year in the system, respectively, Hightower’s “move” role — he has regularly played both off the ball and on the edge — remains unoccupied. While Ja’Whaun Bentley is the team’s new top off-the-ball option, he lacks Hightower’s versatility, experience and athleticism, and is thus a downgrade bigger the outside linebacker personnel.
Hightower has been more important than his positional usage, though. He has also called the defense on the field, a job that first went to Bentley but is now safety Devin McCourty’s, and has been a team captain and one of the most respected voices in the locker room. Losing that complete a package to the Coronavirus opt-out clause was a huge blow to the defense.
4.) If you were the Chargers OC/DC, how would you attack this Patriots team?
If I were Shane Steichen, I would try to do two things: Attack the Patriots’ run defense with outside zone, something the team has struggled to defend, and go after the aforementioned off-the-ball linebackers in coverage. What would help do that was incorporate misdirection concepts such as play-action in order to challenge the instincts of players such as Bentley and fellow linebackers Terez Hall and Anfernee Jennings. On the other side, I certainly wouldn’t try to test New England’s secondary because that’s where the defense is best and where Belichick will likely try to create challenging matchups for Justin Herbert.
The other side of the ball is more difficult, in my opinion, because the Chargers are primarily a Cover 3 defense. Playing zone against New England may not be the best idea, though: the Patriots’ lack of high-end receiving talent is best attacked with man coverage — at least that’s what I would do. Playing one-on-one one the outside and trying to get as many people as possible in the box versus the run has proven itself as a reliable recipe versus the team’s offense, and L.A. should also try that method of attack.
5.) Give us a short summary of how you believe the game will go and top it off with a final score prediction.
I think the Patriots’ coaching will eventually end up being the difference in this one, with the team’s defense in particular making life hard for Herbert by taking away his main reads and forcing him into difficult decisions through exotic looks and the usage of amoeba fronts — just like Miami did a few weeks back. He has been impressive, no doubt, but he is still a rookie and New England will try to take advantage of his lack of experience by trying to make him feel uncomfortable both in body and mind. On the other side of the ball, I do see the Chargers trying to focus on stopping the run and the Patriots not necessarily being able to consistently move the ball through the air. That said, I do think that some short fields off of good special teams play and potential turnovers might give them an advantage. All in all, Patriots 24, Chargers 17 seems like a reasonable prediction to me.