For this week’s cross-site preview, we reached out to Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit to answer this week’s questions. Bernd does one heck of a job covering the Patriots for our sister site and if you want even more of an inside look at the this week’s opponent, go ahead and check out the site for yourself.
I love our colleagues here at SB Nation because they’re always incredibly passionate about the teams they’re covering and it shows in the sheer amount of stellar information they give us when we hand out these questions each week.
I hope you have some time to kill on this Friday because Bernd let no stone unturned.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
1.) The Patriots drafted a rookie quarterback this year and so far it looks like they got a good one in Mac Jones, despite what their record currently says. How has the fan base reacted to his play thus far and do you believe he’s the franchise quarterback of the future?
The initial expectation when the Patriots drafted Mac Jones 15th overall in April was that he would get a year to sit and learn behind Cam Newton. However, he already looked pretty promising in training camp – to a point where New England opted to release Newton and name Jones its starter for the season. All through this process, fans have reacted well to the rookie and there is some optimism that he might fill the void created by Tom Brady’s departure.
Obviously, Mac Jones is no Tom Brady. Frankly, nobody is. However, at this early point in his career he has shown a lot of the skills that made Brady a Super Bowl-winning quarterback early in his own career: Jones is making mostly good decisions with the ball, and is working well within the structure of the Patriots offense. He may never become GOAT 2.0, but it seems that New England at least has found a quarterback worth working with long-term (something Cam Newton never was). Does that make him a potential franchise quarterback of the future? The emphasis is on “potential” but I would say so.
2.) Last year, the Patriots came into SoFi Stadium and beat the brakes off of the Chargers. Prior to the Ravens game this year, that was the last time Justin Herbert truly looked like a rookie/young quarterback. Do you expect anything close to a similar result this year? Why or why not?
A lot has changed for both L.A. and New England over the last 11 months, so it will be hard to make any comparisons between the teams that met last December and the ones who will square off on Sunday. That said, I do not expect the Patriots to dominate this year’s game quite like that 45-0 blowout in 2020.
There are a few reasons why I feel fairly confident saying that. For one, it is unlikely the Chargers will give up two special teams touchdowns again this year. The coaching matchup, I think, is also not as lopsided. Furthermore, while New England’s defense is much better than last year’s unit, so is Justin Herbert. Comparing their developments alongside one another cannot be properly done, but it is not hard to see that Herbert’s jump, while halted a bit against Baltimore, has been a big one.
Will he therefore lead his team to a win on Sunday? That I cannot say. However, it would surprise me if the team would not at least look much more competitive than it did in 2020.
3.) If you were Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill, how would you go about planning for this Patriots offense? Are there any players you specifically believe could have a big game? How do you believe the Chargers could best prepare for them?
While the Patriots passing game has gotten better in recent weeks, New England appears at its most confident if it can also incorporate a heavy dose of running the football. We saw it last week against the New York Jets: the ground game worked well and put Mac Jones in a much more comfortable position to not just play a complementary game but also work off of play-action concepts. Sure, the Jets are not nearly as good as the Chargers, but the gist remains the same: slowing down the run will be key.
Given that the Chargers have not been able to properly do that this season, however, it seems there could be two possible outcomes: either they will over-invest in stopping the run, which in turn will give New England opportunities in the passing game, or they will give up their fair share of yards on the ground (with a bigger focus instead lying on putting New England in unfavorable down-and-distance situations). In turn, I would see either running back Damien Harris or indeed quarterback Mac Jones as players who could have big games.
So, how to best prepare for this? I think L.A. will have to do its homework on third downs and in the red zone. If stopping the run proves itself too tall a task, those plays need to be won in order for the defense to consistently slow down the Patriots’ attack.
4.) Same question as above but flip sides of the ball. If you’re offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, how are you going about protecting Justin Herbert against this aggressive defense? Are there any players you would attempt to exploit? What about players the Chargers should avoid?
The Patriots were cautious using the blitz last year, which would suggest that they will do something similar on Sunday. In turn, Herbert and Joe Lombardi need to be smart to diagnose pass rush patterns or any other pre-snap keys; they cannot afford to be fooled by seven- or eight-man coverage looks. Herbert in particular also needs to be smart with the football against a defense that – as mentioned – has been aggressive not just up front but in the backend as well.
As far as players that can be exploited are concerned, there are a few that come to mind. First is slot cornerback Myles Bryant, who was just elevated from the practice squad last week in light of the season-ending shoulder injury suffered by Jonathan Jones. Jones is one of the better slot corners in football, while Bryant is a relatively inexperienced second-year player who has had some up-and-down plays in his first full-time game against the Jets last week. Another player that comes to mind is fellow cornerback Jalen Mills, who has had some man-to-man coverage issues as of late. Also: isolating linebackers in one-on-one coverage is also always a good way to find success.
As for players to avoid, J.C. Jackson appears to be at the top of the list. A natural ballhawk, who also notched an interception last year, Jackson is New England’s CB1 after the Stephon Gilmore trade. While not on the same level as 2017-2020 Gilmore (we haven’t seen 2021 Gilmore yet), he is an opportunistic and physical cornerback.
5.) Go ahead and give us a final score prediction followed by a quick summary of how you think this game is going to go.
Before giving a score prediction I want to say that I do think the Chargers have a very talented team, and that I’ve been wrong many, many times before. So you can take my score prediction of 31-24 in New England’s favor with a big grain of salt.
However, I actually think that the Patriots match up relatively well with Los Angeles. They will try to force Herbert into mistakes with the football, which will not be easy but we know Bill Belichick has a few tricks up his cut-off sleeves. Meanwhile, they will try to exploit a weak run defense which will allow the offense to a) shorten the game, and b) give Jones some play-action opportunities.
The biggest question mark from New England’s perspective is whether or not the team can keep playing mistake-free football on offense. The Patriots have turned the ball over in five of their seven games so far this season, and at times it cost them dearly. Self-inflicted wounds like these could very well tip the scales in the Chargers’ favor.