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Game Observations: Defense continues momentum

The banged-up Patriots will hit their much-needed bye week on a high note after winning their fourth straight game, coming away from rainy Foxborough with a hard-fought 21-13 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.

It wasn’t always pretty and at times it was downright ugly, but in the end the Patriots hit the break at 6-2 and sit atop the AFC East, one half-game better than the Buffalo Bills.

Here are some random thoughts from the Week 8 win.

-The key to the offensive game plan for the Patriots was the role of the running backs in the passing game. James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis all made huge plays as receivers and that was a big reason for the offensive success. White in particular was dangerous, catching five passes for 85 yards including a 27-yarder down the right sideline. Burkhead added seven catches for 68 yards while Lewis chipped in two catches for 10 yards. In all the backs racked up 120 receiving yards in the first half as New England jumped to a 15-7 lead at the break. It seemed like a sound game plan put together by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, who looked at the Chargers ferocious pass rush with Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Chris McCain and decided to get the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands as quickly as possible. Brady was sacked three times and was under constant duress in the second half but overall the offense did enough to move the ball consistently and the backs were a big part of that.

-The defense opened with a traditional 3-4 look early on with David Harris joining Elandon Roberts at inside linebacker. The Patriots didn’t stay in that alignment long as newcomer Trevor Reilly came on as an outside linebacker at times as well. The run defense, playing without Malcom Brown (ankle) and Don’t’a Hightower (torn pec) did a nice job containing Chargers running back Melvin Gordon for most of the day, with one glaring exception. Gordon got loose off right tackle and raced 87 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter to open the scoring. But Gordon finished with 14 carries for 132 yards, which means he picked up only 45 yards on his other 13 carries, which translates to just 3.4 yards per rush, which is exactly what Gordon averaged entering the game. Harris and Roberts executed several run blitzes in the game, especially early, and while they weren’t all successful they seemed to play a physical style and set a tone on the front seven.

-Los Angeles’ special teams were anything but special, especially in the first half. The Chargers made numerous gaffes in the kicking game and all of them contributed to the Patriots taking a 15-7 lead into the break. First, kicker Nick Novak misfired on a 51-yard field goal that would have opened the scoring after a promising drive to start the game. Lawrence Guy may have gotten a piece of it but it wound up getting pushed to the right and the Chargers came away empty. Then kick returner Michael Davis and Austin Ekeler decided to take a pair of Stephen Gostkowski boots that went high and into the end zone, only to get buried at the 15 and 12, respectively, and resulted in poor field position The biggest mistake came in between when Travis Benjamin decided retreated several yards into his end zone after mishandling Ryan Allen’s punt near the sideline. Instead of cutting his losses, Benjamin wound up getting tackled by Brandon King for a safety that snapped a 7-7 tie. The Patriots tacked on a field goal on the ensuing possession and that allowed New England to take control. The Chargers actually were fortunate that was the extent of the damage as vise guy Rayshawn Jenkins was hit by an earlier Allen punt but managed to recover to avoid a turnover. The Chargers continued the ineptitude to open the second half when they went offside on the kickoff and then watched Dion Lewis race 71 yards on the rekick. LA was fortunate to get out of that possession with no points when Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal.

-Speaking of Gostkowski, it wasn’t the best game for the kicker. He misfired on a pair of 43-yard field goals and those lost points allowed the Chargers to stay in the game. Gostkowski appears to be battling some consistency issues in terms of his accuracy as the ball is moving sharply in one direction or another. His misses went to left and right and he had a short make late in the game that looked to be moving to the right but made it inside the upright. With the offense struggling to put up big points over the last month, having a kicker that is suddenly no longer automatic is a concern.

-A week after Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn made headlines by going for a pair of fourth-and-longs from around midfield, Chargers first-year boss Anthony Lynn went the opposite route. On the opening drive of the game Los Angeles moved the ball effectively and faced a fourth-and-inches from the Patriots 33, but rather than try to pick up the first down Lynn called for a field goal. Novak came on a missed from 51 yards out but the decision to pass up an opportunity to extend the drive was a curious one, and was only exacerbated by Novak’s miss.

-The Chargers were the first team to target backup corner Johnson Bademosi, who was once again the starter in place of Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle), with any regularity. Malcolm Butler stayed in the left side throughout the game but didn’t get many balls thrown in his direction. Bademosi was not as fortunate as he was victimized on a number of occasions when Philip Rivers and the Chargers finally decided to throw the ball in the second half. LA attempted just five passes in the first half and completed four for 62 yards, but Rivers began to look for Bademosi after the break. Keenan Allen caught four passes for 61 yards and Benjamin added five for 64 and a touchdown, most of that coming with Bademosi in coverage. The touchdown came against Butler on a play where the corner immediately looked at safety Devin McCourty, evidently expecting help from the inside. While Butler had a quiet day, he deserves a lot of credit for showing incredible competitiveness on Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run when he caught the back from behind as he crossed the goal line. Ultimately he couldn’t prevent the touchdown but he showed quite a bit of toughness on the play.

-LaAdrian Waddle had to replace Marcus Cannon late in the first half and finished the game at right tackle. Cannon injured his ankle at practice on Friday and was listed as questionable, then was limping badly in the second quarter and was forced to the sideline. He was evaluated in the medical tent before limping to the locker room and did not return. Waddle had his struggles with the Chargers pass rush but ultimately competed well against a pair of talented edge rushers.

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