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TONY’S TAKE: FIVE THINGS TO KNOW FOR CHARGERS-PATRIOTS

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SAN DIEGO, CA- DECEMBER 7: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots calls a play at the line of scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers during an NFL game at Qualcomm Stadium on December 7, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Welcome to Divisional Weekend of the 2018 NFL season. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

The third divisional round game of the 2018 NFL playoffs will take place at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts as the Los Angeles Chargers face the New England Patriots. Here’s what to watch for:

BOLTS’ OFFENSE HUMMING ALONG NICELY

During their time as assistant coaches with the Buffalo Bills, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn and offensive line coach Pat Meyer preferred a running game predicated on man-blocking schemes and gap/power principles, with guards and tackles pulling around the edge. Those two, along with offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, have brought that approach to Los Angeles and it has worked well, with running back Melvin Gordon having been on pace for nearly 1,200 rushing yards before missing the last four regular season games.

Despite losing budding young tight end Hunter Henry for most of the season, quarterback Philip Rivers – who is still playing at a high level – has a plethora of options as his disposal. Veteran Antonio Gates, while having lost a step or two, is still savvy enough to know how to get open over the middle and in the end zone. Keenan Allen is one of the league’s best route runners when healthy, and Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin are all solid downfield threats.

CHARGERS’ DEFENSE A SHUTDOWN UNIT

Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley likes to operate his unit with a Seattle-style Cover Three zone, with one deep safety – typically rookie Derwin James – and cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett, one of the best duos in the league, playing deep zone coverage while dividing the field in thirds. Verrett, however, has missed his second straight season due to injury and his replacement is Desmond King – who hasn’t been too shabby himself.

Up front, the Bolts are anchored by three stalwarts on their defensive line. Brandon Mebane, a former Seahawk who knows Bradley’s system well, is an excellent gap-shooter and a good run stuffer at tackle, and Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram make up one of the NFL’s best pass-rusher combinations.

Against the Patriots this week, the Bolts’ defensive braintrust likely has the right idea in order to try and stop Tom Brady and company. More often than not, the general blueprint league-wide has been to employ an effective four-man pass rush and play stifling coverage behind it – especially in press-man, in order to not allow New England’s wide receivers to use their leverage against them in their vaunted option routes. The best examples of this came in three Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants (2007, ’11) and Philadelphia Eagles (2017), and in the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos.

PATRIOTS TO ATTACK THE BILLS IN A MYRIAD OF WAYS

Brady has played in a bunch of different types of offenses in his career. From a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, to an offense revolving around tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.

While their passing game is built around concepts and using formations and motioning to create favorable matchups for their inside weapons – check out Chris B. Brown’s excellent piece about it here (http://grantland.com/features/how-terminology-erhardt-perkins-system-helped-maintain-dominance-tom-brady-patriots/) – recently it has become one that has had a good mix of vertical and horizontal plays. New England’s premier pass-catchers are slot receiver extraordinaire Julian Edelman, who is still as quick and shifty as ever, and running back James White, who also excels in the screen game.

Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Hogan are good in the intermediate and deep parts of the passing game. Josh Gordon, one of the NFL’s most talented players, has been suspended for the fifth time in his career and his playing days are likely over. Running back Sony Michel has also provided a shot in the arm on the ground, giving the Patriots 931 yards and six scores.

Gronkowski – by all accounts the league’s best at his position – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can run almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. However, the wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries (notably a back issue that has dogged him throughout his career) has slowed him down this year.

Watch for the Patriots to attack the Chargers’ Cover Three with play-action and wheel routes in order to impact L.A.’s linebackers and create passing windows against their zone coverage.

NEW ENGLAND’S DEFENSE NO LONGER MULTIFACETED

Early in Belichick’s tenure in New England, his defenses were versatile and unpredictable, with intelligent veterans carrying out his voluminous schemes. But it has done a complete about-face over the past decade.

According to the MMQB’s Andy Benoit, “(Belichick’s) Patriots were known for being a certain defense one week and a totally different defense the next. They could run any coverage, play out of any structure – be it 4-3, 3-4 or a blend – and disguise pressures and post-snap rotations like none other.

“Belichick’s defense is, and has been for roughly 10 years, a simple bend-but-don’t-break unit….. They play a lot of straight man coverage, often with one safety deep and the other robbing over the middle. They blitz rarely….. Their defensive line does little stunting and slanting after the snap, and even presnap disguises can be few and far between. When the Patriots do get aggressive is usually when the offense approaches scoring range. That’s the ‘don’t break’ part.”

Heady veterans Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Devin and Jason McCourty and Stephon Gilmore hold down the fort on the back end, while Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are their starting linebackers. Trey Flowers is New England’s only proven pass rusher, and Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise make up the rest of their front four.

With such an inept pass rush, the Patriots counter this weakness by using six and seven defensive backs on the field more than any other team in the NFL. According to Football Outsiders, last season New England dropped at least eight men into coverage a league-high 23.7 percent of the time.

THIS AND THAT

  • Rivers is 0-7 in his career against Brady.
  • Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly and wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea were colleagues in Minnesota from 2006-08 until they joined the Patriots. Daly also coached with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with the Rams in 2011.
  • Belichick and Lynn were each assistant coaches for Bills Parcells – Lynn from 2005-06 in Dallas and Belichick worked with Parcells from 1979-90 and 1996-99.
  • Whisenhunt also worked for Parcells when he was the tight ends coach for the 2000 New York Jets and Parcells was general manager.
  • Chargers assistant special teams coach Keith Burns worked for McDaniels in Denver from 2009-10.
  • Chargers linebackers coach Richard Smith was the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator in 2016 when the Patriots defeated his Falcons to win Super Bowl LI. He was also the Broncos’ linebackers coach when they downed the Patriots in the 2013 AFC title game.
  • Chargers special teams coach George Stewart worked with both Daly and O’Shea in Minnesota when he was their wide receivers coach.
  • L.A.’s defensive line coach, Giff Smith, was a colleague of Whisenhunt’s in Tennessee when the latter was head coach of the Titans from 2014-15.
  • Lynn and Meyer were on Rex Ryan’s staff in Buffalo from 2015-16.
  • Stewart and Smith both were on Steve Mariucci’s staff with the 49ers in the late 90’s.
  • Whisenhunt and Chargers strength and conditioning coach John Lott were not only coworkers with the New York Jets in 2000, but also with the Arizona Cardinals from 2007-12.
  • Richard Smith was Lynn’s special teams coach in 1993 in Denver.

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