The Patriots return to Gillette Stadium for the first time in almost a month to face the Los Angeles Chargers in a meeting of two teams both fighting multi-game losing streaks. Quarterback Justin Herbert, despite an 0-2 career record against New England, should pose a significant challenge for a Patriots defense that has held their last two opponents to just 10 points each. The pressure will be on the Patriots offense to put points on the board to keep pace with Herbert and the NFL's eighth-best scoring offense.
Early indications during the week were that the Patriots could be altering their plan at quarterback in search of a spark, but will it make enough of a difference against one of the best young QBs in the game? Here are the things to watch!
After spending last week without naming a starting quarterback, the Patriots played both Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe against the Giants and got similar results from both. Neither was able to get the offense on track, as New England scored just seven points, held under 10 for the fourth time this season. The Pats have slipped to 31st in points and now, based on early practice reports, it seems that the team is ready to give Zappe his first start of the season. This adds a new layer to the matchup, as the second-year quarterback will hope to provide a meaningful boost for the stagnant offense. A full week's worth of starter's reps should help him prepare.
Run to Victory?
Of course, the easy answer for the Patriots offense is to just keep running the ball. The Patriots are second in rush EPA on offense since Week 6, yet that production has not translated to the scoreboard. Last week against the Giants, the game plan called for a heavy dose of Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott while also making the screen game the focus for the passing attack. After spending the bye week coming up with this plan, it was as ineffective as everything else they've tried this season, resulting in the second-lowest passing yardage output of the year, despite their third-highest rushing yardage output. The Chargers have allowed major rushing yardage in two of their last three losses, 200 to the Lions and 197 to the Ravens, with some big chunk runs mixed into those totals. Explosive scoring plays on the ground might be New England's formula for getting a win.
Defensive Scores Needed
And if they can't move the ball on the ground for big gains and points it might just be up to the defense and special teams to come through. The lack of any points from either the defense or the special teams has been a factor in the team's nine losses, especially those to back-up quarterbacks like the last two contests, where past Patriots teams would've figured out how to translate takeaways into points. The takeaways have been surging for New England over the last five games, but their offense's giveaways and the lack of direct points from the takeaways have limited their total impact on the games and certainly on the season win total. Adrian Phillips got a pick-six in 2021 to help lead the Patriots to a comeback victory over the Chargers. They could need the same kind of play this week.
How to cause more of those turnovers? Continued pressure from the defensive front, led by Christian Barmore who has been balling out in recent weeks and is reminding everyone of the high-end potential he flashed as a rookie. Barmore hasn't been alone, as rising opportunities for players like Anfernee Jennings and Keion White saw them make improved strides that were most recently on display against the Giants. Despite the absence of Matthew Judon, Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo have found creative ways to disrupt opposing quarterbacks even with reduced blitz rates over the last month. Herbert has already taken 25 sacks this season, including 10 in his last four games, in which the Chargers are 1-3. Pass protection is an issue for the Chargers, most recently coming in at 25th in PFF's league rankings, just one spot ahead of the Patriots. The Pats should be able to bring the pressure but they have to make sure they finish Herbert off when they get their chance, otherwise...
Beware the Herbert Cannon
Herbert can light any team up downfield and with the Patriots recent struggles in the secondary, this is the biggest concern heading into this game. The Chargers have the eighth-most plays of 20 or more yards in the league, and while not all those have been through the air (more on that below), that's been the Patriots defensive kryptonite. The last two games have shown some improvement as far as the results, with just three big passing plays in losses to the Colts and Giants. That's better than the five they gave up to the Commanders alone, which included a 33-yard touchdown strike. Nothing will get the Patriots beat faster than if their defense gives up big scoring plays. They just don't have the offensive ability to stay in a game that unfolds like that. "Herbert can do everything you need a quarterback to do," summed up Bill Belichick this week.
Focused on Keenan Allen
It's not hard to guess where Herbert will be looking when he launches those downfield rockets. As much as the team likely had high hopes that rookie Quentin Johnston could provide some deep-threat ability after Mike Williams was lost for the year, the offense continues to operate first and foremost through receiver Keenan Allen. Allen already has 97 catches on 129 targets, while the second-most targetted player, Austin Ekeler, has just 44 targets, about a third of what Allen gets. Usually, the Patriots have had good sound plans for teams that are this heavily dependant on one player and they should be spending plenty of time this week on coming up with one for Allen that will likely include a heavy amount of Jonathan Jones. Jones has been the Pats most consistent corner this year despite battling injuries all year. Taking Allen out of the game has to be a key point of emphasis and the team could get a boost with Allen missing practice time this week due to injury. "Keenan [Allen], as good as he's been, which has been great, he's having his best year, which is pretty scary," said coach Belichick on Wednesday. "He's a very difficult player to cover, very strong, great hands, instincts, hard guy to tackle. Obviously, Herbert's got a lot of confidence in him."
Plan for Ekeler
As mentioned earlier, the Patriots run defense has been coming on in recent weeks, however, Austin Ekeler is a uniquely balanced threat that can carve up defenses in a variety of ways with his hard-charging runs. Ekeler's speed and ability to get away in space will make him a challenge for a Patriots defense that has a stable of safeties to deploy but could be caught off guard at times. That could result in big plays that aren't just Herbert uncorking one down the field, especially if the Chargers can get Ekeler matched up against a linebacker.
Mack off the Edge, Fox up the Middle
While Joey Bosa is on IR, outside linebacker Khalil Mack and his 13 sacks are something to be reckoned with. Last week the Pats returned to their preferred offensive line personnel with Trent Brown at left tackle after missing two games. Brown's size and Michael Onwenu's continued solid play are promising when game planning around Mack, but it's defensive tackle Morgan Fox who might cause the biggest issues for the inside of the line. Fox has had some of the best production of his seven-year career during his two years with the Chargers, he'll be a handful for guards Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu. Zappe showed some decent pocket awareness in limited action last week, that will be put further to the test this week.
James is one of the best safeties in the league and one that would fit pretty well into what the Patriots defense does. This year he's the team's second-leading tackler and, as Bill Belichick put it, is a guy who can "ruin" games. The 2018 first-round pick plays just about everywhere, with last week's game against the Ravens serving as a perfect example, in which he played 27 snaps at free safety, 20 snaps in the slot and 20 snaps in the box, as well as two snaps along the defensive line. No other Chargers defender is more involved than James and the Patriots will have to be careful of him on every snap.
It shouldn't have been surprising to see the Patriots take a look at a bunch of specialists earlier this week, as Chad Ryland's recent struggles have contributed to the team's losses. But the special teams have had bigger struggles than just the kicker, as they've not only failed to deliver any positive game-changing plays since blocking a Miami kick in Week 2, but they've been hurting the team when it comes to field position. The Patriots are 31st in special teams DVOA and 30th in average starting field position for the offense and 24th in average starting field position for the defense. They need positive contributions from their special teams which could finally make a difference on the scoreboard this weekend.