The New England Patriots are fresh off a dominant 23-7 victory over the defending NFC Champions, the Atlanta Falcons, on Sunday night. The Patriots put together strong showings on both offense and defense, and reminded the league that the road to the Lombardi Trophy still goes through Foxboro, until further notice. In short, the Pats are back.
Despite the current era of good feelings in Patriots Nation, there is no time for the team to rest on their laurels. The Patriots welcome the resurgent Los Angeles Chargers to Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 29. The Bolts will arrive in New England playing their best football of the season. Like the Patriots, they are also basking in the afterglow of their own dominant 21-0 drubbing of their division rival, Denver Broncos.
The Pats will have their hands full in this one. Los Angeles, while sporting a 3-4 record, is much more dangerous than the standings indicate. They employ one of the best pass rushing duos in the NFL, a potent offensive passing attack, and might currently have the most prolific running back in the NFL.
As the Patriots look ahead to Sunday’s matchup, here are some items on which head coach Bill Belichick and company will keep a sharp eye.
These Bolts can Strike
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is quietly compiling another statistical standout season. He heads into Week Eight ranked fifth in passing yards (1,816), fifth in completions (156) and seventh in touchdowns (12). While Rivers has certainly been good, he has had help from his offensive line. Despite some key injuries, the Bolts o-line has only surrendered 10 sacks of Rivers, which is the fifth-fewest of any quarterback with at least 200 pass attempts. This is particularly concerning, as the Patriots defense has had trouble getting consistent pressure on quarterbacks, so far, in 2017.
In addition, Rivers targets are among the most productive in the league. Wide receiver Keenan Allen leads the team with 36 receptions for 487 yards and one touchdown. Allen is particularly potent on third down. He has 16 catches for a first down, which is first in the league. Meanwhile, Hunter Henry has emerged as an elite tight end, hauling in 21 catches for 301 yards and a pair of TDs. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin is fresh off of his best performance of the year against the Broncos, in which he scored two touchdowns; one of which was on a punt return.
However, the team’s biggest scoring threat has been running back Melvin Gordon. The third-year pro has 117 carries for 394 yards and three rushing touchdowns. He also ranks second on the team with 29 catches for 228 yards and four receiving TDs. Gordon has become one of the AFC’s best backfield scorers.
Needless to say, the Patriots defense faces a tall task this Sunday.
Defend the Homeland
While the Chargers present many challenges, the improved Patriots defense is capable of handling them.
Against the Falcons, cornerbacks Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones provided much-needed physicality and tight coverage in the defensive backfield. Safety Devin McCourty continues to show why he has made multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams. The secondary’s field general has been everywhere for the Pats, leading the way with 53 tackles. Finally, former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler has nicely rebounded from a slow start, seizing two of New England’s five picks on the year. The Patriots will need this type of grit if they hope to stop the Bolts offense. Look for them to mix zone and man coverage, in order to help prevent big plays. The Pats have struggled mightily in this department, and will need their improved defensive standouts to take further strides forward against the Chargers.
For the front seven, outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy has been impressive, tallying 49 tackles and tying for the team lead in sacks (3.5) with defensive end Trey Flowers. Rookie defensive end Deatrich Wise, Jr. has cooled a bit from a hot start, but has shown signs of speed and strength in getting to the quarterback. The Pats were able to hold Falcons quarterback, Matt Ryan, in check on Sunday. However, consistent pressure has not been their strong suit. Let’s not forget that this is a defense that, until Sunday, had surrendered 300+ yards passing to each quarterback they have faced. In their first six games, the Patriots defense allowed the following yardage totals to these opposing quarterbacks (per CBSSports.com)
* Week 1: Alex Smith, 368 yards;
* Week 2: Drew Brees, 356 yards;
* Week 3: Deshaun Watson, 301 yards;
* Week 4: Cam Newton, 316 yards;
* Week 5: Jameis Winston, 334 yards;
* Week 6: Josh McCown, 354 yards;
In short, the Patriots cannot afford to regress into this trend against the Chargers. Teams have been able to have success against Rivers and the Bolts by forcing him from the pocket to make hurried throws. The Pats may want to study some game film from the Bolts Week Three loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs front seven induced three interceptions of Rivers with stout quarterback pressure and timely reactions from the secondary. If the Pats D can improve upon their showing against the Falcons on Sunday night, they will more than shoulder their end of the workload.
A Defensive Power Outage
While the Patriots have struggled to consistently apply quarterback pressure, the Bolts have flourished. The Chargers are one of only two teams in the NFL to boast three players with at least five sacks (Melvin Ingram – 8.5, Joey Bosa – 7.5, Chris McCain – 5.0). As a team, they rank fourth with 23 total sacks. They’ve also forced seven takeaways over the past three games, with five different players recording an interception over the course of the season. It can be said that the Chargers defense can be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. (Unless your quarterback is Tom Brady…but, more on that in a minute.)
The Bolts’ defensive Achilles heel has been stopping the run. The Chargers, frankly, have been awful. They rank 31st in the league, allowing an average of 140.6 rushing yards per game. This statistic is alarming to Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, who knows the value of a good runner. He is a former running back, himself, and also a running backs coach. One can bet that the names Lewis, Gillislee, Burkhead and White will be used a lot in the Chargers defensive meetings this week.
Patriots have their own Powerhouses
Quarterback Tom Brady continues to play at an elite level. At the age of 40, Brady leads the league in passing yards (2,208) and completions (174) while ranking second in TDs (17). He has a bevvy of weapons at his disposal as five players have caught at least 28 passes from him this season. Running back James White leads the way with 38 receptions, followed by Danny Amendola (29), Rob Gronkowski (28), Brandin Cooks (28) and Chris Hogan (28). Hogan also leads the team with five receiving touchdowns, followed closely by Gronkowski (four) and Cooks (three). On the ground, newcomer Mike Gillislee leads the team with 87 carries for 321 yards and four TDs while Dion Lewis has 43 carries for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
With weapons like these, why should Pats fans worry?
Well, for starters, the Patriots offensive line has been inconsistent at protecting their star. Brady has been hurried, hit and sacked at a staggering rate. For the past two weeks, the O-line has been much better. However, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram form the most fearsome tandem of defensive ends in the NFL. As their previously stated sack totals show, they can get to the quarterback. It could be a long day, if they regularly get to Brady on Sunday.
Fortunately for the Pats, Brady is among the smartest signal callers in NFL history. He knows that the best way for him to lead the Patriots to an offensively productive day (AND protect himself in the process) is to establish the run game early and often. The Pats have four productive weapons in the backfield and they should be utilized to their fullest extent against a suspect Chargers run defense. Brady and company may have a full plate come Sunday, but rest assured they are bringing their appetite.
In addition to the Chargers, at least one eye of Patriots Nation will be focused on the upcoming NFL trade deadline on October 31.
Will the Patriots be out Trick-or-Treating?
In his weekly interview on WEEI’s Dale & Holley with Keefe, Bill Belichick made it a point to reiterate that the Patriots are not shy about making a deadline deal. For Belichick, it always about doing what is best for his football team. In the past, players such as Aqib Talib, Akeem Ayers, Eric Rowe and Kyle Van Noy were acquired via in-season trades. All went on to make significant contributions the team. On Monday, Belichick made it clear that he will always keep an ear out for an offer he can’t refuse.
“The thing about us, other teams in the league know that we’re open for business. We’re not afraid to make a trade. If they are interested in trading somebody, we are usually a team that gets called because people think and know we’re open on those discussions. If we’re not interested we will tell them we’re not interested. Again, there’s no book on that. Every situation is different. Every trade is different. Every exchange is different, so you just have to take them as they come and if the two sides can agree, great. Sometimes one side wants something and the other side is just not ready to get to the same point.” Belichick said.
Of course, Belichick gave no indication that any players are on the trading block. He also did not rule it out. In New England, it has become the norm to expect the unexpected.
Maybe that’s what makes this ‘Week Ahead’ so fascinating.
-Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor for cover32.com/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots. He is also a National Content Writer and covers the NFL for cover32.com.
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