The Patriots are heading west to face the Chargers Sunday in what will be a tough road trip to come away with a victory in. The Chargers’ 2-4 record is not indicative of the capabilities. They are owners of the #1 total offense and #1 total defense in the NFL, but have lost games mostly due to costly mistakes at critical moments. This also has the potential to be a trap game for the Pats. It’s hard to think of a team as talented as the Chargers being considered as a trap opponent. However, the game features a long road trip and is sandwiched in between last week’s emotional win over the Baltimore Ravens and next week’s return of Randy Moss to Gillette Stadium in a Vikings uniform. That being said, it is certainly a winnable game for the red hot New England Patriots. Here are 5 keys to victory Sunday over the San Diego Chargers:
1. Big plays on special teams. Poor special teams play has killed the Chargers this year, and the Pats have one of the best special teams units in the NFL. The Pats have returned kicks for scores and have blocked a punt and a field goal already this season. Look for the Pats to get some big special teams plays Sunday. If the Pats can get a big block or return a kick for a score, they will likely win the game.
2. Use draws, screens, and play-action to combat the Chargers’ defensive speed. The Chargers are probably the fastest defense the Pats have played yet this season. They can get after the passer, and have 21 sacks so far, good for second in the NFL. Draw plays and screens can take advantage of the defense getting up-field fast and catch them out of position. Play-action can make the defense hesitate before coming up or can also catch them out of position. These plays are already a part of the Pats’ offensive package, but I expect them to be used a little more heavily against the Chargers.
3. Feature the tight ends on the passing game. While the Chargers have a difference maker at tight end, they also allow other team’s tight ends to become difference makers. Opposing tight ends have success against the Chargers’ defense, and the Patriots have arguably the best trio at the position in the league. Aaron Hernandez in particular should be able to get open against the defense while Rob Gronkowski should also be able to out-muscle the Chargers’ defenders for receptions. Alge Crumpler could also be an effective pass catcher as he is generally considered to be just a blocking TE. He could be able to sneak out to make some key receptions for first downs or at tyhe goal line for a score.
4. Mix up blitzes and zone coverages. The Chargers own the top passing attack in the NFL, which they can use to exploit the young secondary of the Patriots. The Pats will have to combat that with use a mix and a combination of blitzes and zone coverages to throw Philip Rivers off his game and keep him guessing. An effective pass rush will also help and is now a realistic possibility with rookie OLB Jermaine Cunningham starting to dial up pressure. Confusing Philip Rivers by mixing up the blitzes and the zone coverages, showing blitz but dropping back and vice versa, should throw his read off and could force a turnover or allow the pass rush to get to him.
5. Bracket Antonio Gates (if he plays). Antonio Gates is listed as “Questionable” on the Chargers’ injury report, so there is a 50-50 chance he will play Sunday. Injury or not, if he plays he will be the most dangerous receiver on the field for the Chargers, especially with Malcolm Floyd not likely to play. The Patriots likely will bracket Gates with someone covering underneath and over-the-top. The underneath man will likely be a linebacker while the over-the-top man will likely be a safety, probably Patrick Chung. The Patriots used similar coverages in the past to cover Gates and other tight ends. This will test the corners to hold up one-on-one on the outside, but bracketing Gates is essential because he has made plays against the Pats before.