To be honest, I had a tough time writing this column.
Normally in this space, I look for either game-specific wrinkles or, perhaps, a trend that will affect the Patriots moving forward. Whether it's breaking down the schematic reasons for the Patriots' struggles against mobile quarterbacks, the offense starting to rely on deceptive plays beginning against Green Bay or the emergence of the amoeba pressure package against the Jets, we try to give you a glimpse inside the game and/or something that will be applicable moving forward.
After watching the Patriots' 41-28 domination of the Chargers, I'm struggling to come up with anything that's applicable to this week's game against the Chiefs (plus the coaches film for the first half — the important part of the film — is still all screwed up over at NFL GamePass — sigh).
The Patriots did a bunch of good, if not great (not even the biggest Patriots fans saw that blowout coming), things against the Chargers. But that doesn't mean much in the context of Kansas City.
- Tom Brady had, outside the first Chiefs game, his best game of the season. But the Chargers run a soft Cover 3 defense with gaping holes all over the place. Kansas City runs more of a 3-4 defense from the Rex Ryan tree with mostly man coverage and some zone.
- The Patriots' offensive line barely allowed Brady to be hurried against the strict-four man rush of the Chargers. The Chiefs will change up their pressure looks pre- and post-snap, and aren't afraid of being a variety of blitzes. I'm not saying they're good at them, but they do mix it up.
- Against L.A., the run blocking was great as well, including the work done by Rob Gronkowski. But it was against seven and six defensive backs. A high school team should be able to beat you on the ground with that size advantage.
- On defense, the Patriots' pass rush was able to dominate against a weak Chargers offensive line with a stationary pocket quarterback. They used a ton of stunts, but that's not unusual for them. And having Philip Rivers like a statue back there (and the score out of whack early) allowed the freedom to do that. The Chiefs are much better up front, and they have one of the best athletes at the position under center in Patrick Mahomes.
- The Patriots will have to account for tight end Travis Kelce on Sunday. Antonio Gates of the Chargers likely played the last game of his career.
- New England might have blanketed the Chargers' receivers — and that was a great accomplishment against a good group — but it doesn't really apply this week, because everyone on the field will have eyes on Tyreek Hill and he'll draw a lot of manpower in his direction every time he sprints downfield.
But there does appear to be one small bit of carryover from the Chargers game that could help the Patriots pull off the "upset" on the road Sunday. The Patriots used some nifty techniques to exploit it against Los Angeles, and it could be helpful to disrupt Mahomes.
Let's go to the tape:
The shared weakness: left guard.
The Chargers had a lot of issues along the offensive line — basically everyone except an aging Russell Okung was below average — but Dan Feeney was definitely the weakest link, and the Patriots tried to exploit his limitations, as you saw above.
Those were just a couple of the techniques. Basically, Feeney wasn't very good at reacting to things on the fly and was aggressive in his pass sets, and the Patriots used that against him. They bluffed him at times with Kyle Van Noy, changing the levels on the offensive line — which is always dangerous. They also twisted between Feeney and center Mike Pouncey and out-quicked both.
Cam Erving is better than Feeney, but if the Patriots go after Mahomes — and they will at times — I could see them sending a picker across his face (from his left to right), and then bringing a rusher from the second level to bust through the hole. I would also expect the Patriots to have a player rushing around the right tackle, waiting for Mahomes to flee.
Do I expect the Patriots to bring a lot of pressure like they did against the Chargers? No, you're playing with fire that way. But they will do it at key points to fluster and rush Mahomes. Look for the Patriots to use left guard as an entry point.
Here are the positional ratings against the Chargers:
Quarterback (5 out of 5)
Was it Tom Brady's most challenging game? Certainly not. But he played basically flawless for the first time all season, which was a vast improvement. (And yes, some of it had to do with the opponent.) I only had two quibbles on decisions — he threw late and incomplete on the first drive to Julian Edelman when he had James White open for a possible touchdown (they scored anyway). Brady was also slightly bothered by pressure on another throw and forced a pass to White when Edelman was wide open. That was it -- the extent of my critique of Brady in this game. He had a handful of high-level throws in this one, including two to Edelman and one to Phillip Dorsett. Like we've been talking about for weeks, this team needs Brady to be great. He was just that against the Chargers
Running backs (4 out of 5)
Sony Michel got off to a slow start in this with two run stuffs allowed on the first series where the blocking wasn't great, but he could have been a bit more decisive. From then on out, he was good. There was a huge hole on his 6-yard touchdown run, but his quickness through the hole made the difference on the play. His vision has improved with each week and he's anticipating holes better. The 40-yard run was not all blocking, although you'd like to see him finish. ... White (drop) was largely his playoff self. ... James Develin did well, but wasn't a huge factor.
Receivers (5 out of 5)
Edelman did just about everything in this one, from making tough catches in traffic, breaking tackles, drawing penalties, moving the chains. Just outstanding, outside his blatant and unnecessary run hold. ... Gronkowski had only one catch, but it was the kind that could earn him a more prominent role in the passing game against the Chiefs. Now that was Gronk, at least for one play. Good blocking, huge drawn pass interference penalty that was legit (the one on Edelman was not). Brady didn't like one of Gronkowski's routes and let him know.
Offensive line (4.5 out of 5)
[table id=228 /]
I wouldn't say this was a flawless performance from this group, especially in the second half. But I had 15 plus-plays for the group in this game, which is abnormally high. Normally it's around five. In order of effectiveness: Trent Brown (one pressure allowed), Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Marcus Cannon. ... Probably their finest screen game of the season. That's how you really punish a team for playing so many defensive backs -- get them to tap out early.
[table id=229 /]
Defensive line (5 out of 5)
This group did what they were supposed to do: they manhandled an inferior set of opponents. Everyone did something well in this game, although the interior trio of Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton were quiet with the score so lopsided. ... Trey Flowers was the playmaker (seven plus-plays) up front again
Linebackers (4 out of 5)
Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower each allowed touchdowns in garbage time, but they were dominating for nearly all of the game. They just love to screw with offensive lines. ... Elandon Roberts was impactful again in limited duty.
Secondary (4 out of 5)
Everybody had some leakage in this game, but that's going to happen when you're defending 58 passes in a game, I don't care what the score is. ... Stephon Gilmore basically made Keenan Allen a non-factor, which is impressive. ... J.C. Jackson had some issues with Mike Williams, but Jackson always gives as good as he gets. Kid is just always around the ball. ... Jason McCourty had some issues in this game and is a worry going forward. I think they trust his smarts over Jonathan Jones.
Julian Edelman: He's the engine that drives this passing game. With no Danny Amendola this season, you wonder where they would be without him this time of year.
Trent Brown: Almost a flawless game from the big fella. Somebody really needed that bye week. Better hope he can do it back-to-back weeks.
Tom Brady: I originally had Trey Flowers in this spot, but I think QB1 deserves a little luck since everyone thinks he and the Patriots suck.
Dwayne Allen: He had a couple nice blocks, but he also had some stinkers. One his one pass block, he got Brady hit.
Jason McCourty: Allowed four receptions on his five targets. Was a step behind most of the game.
Cordarrelle Patterson: I assume this was injury-related, but he didn't have much burst and wasn't very productive.