SAN JOSE, Calif. – Their record belies their play. At 2-3, the San Diego Chargers are still playing very good football, as their opponent this week, the New England Patriots, have asserted all week.
The past two seasons, these two teams have faced each other three times, with New England coming out on top each time. On two occasions, the Pats knocked San Diego out of the playoffs.
In order for that streak to continue, here are some of the most important areas in which New England will have to succeed this Sunday night in San Diego.
OFFENSE: PROTECT THEIR CASSEL
In just four games, Patriots QB Matt Casselhas been sacked 15 times. At this time a year ago, Tom Bradyhad been sacked only three times. Brady also had 13 touchdowns after four games last year; Cassel has just three at this point.
With basically the same personnel protecting Cassel (minus starting right guard Stephen Neal, who's on the PUP list) as did Brady, there are several factors that are causing the increased number of sacks, according to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
"Yes. I think there are different reasons for that. It's not all one thing or the other. Obviously we don't want sacks and we really don't want hem in the red area where we had them last week. It's a combination of blocking them long enough, reading it quick and getting it out to the people who can catch and run. You definitely don't want to have four or five sacks in a game and we would like to cut down on that."
If the Pats are successful at that, Cassel will have that many more opportunities to make plays, particularly on crucial third-downs to keep his offense on the field. Winning the time-of-possession battle will likely be imperative for New England, because if the Chargers' many offensive weapons have fewer chances to get on the field, their chances of winning the game decrease significantly.
DEFENSE: STEM THE RAGING RIVERS
Philip Riversis having a great start to the 2008 season. So far, the Chargers QB has thrown 11 touchdowns, versus only 4 interceptions, and for nearly 1,200 yards.
But it was his gritty performance in the AFC Championship Game this past January, hobbling around Gillette Stadium on one good leg, that earned him considerable respect from his Patriots opponents.
"When you have a young player in the NFL, you see how they progress and how they react to adversity," linebacker Tedy Bruschisaid. "I think he had a lot of adversity [last year]. He toughed it out and showed a lot of mental toughness. I think it really established him as a leader of that team."
"I had a lot of respect for Rivers anyway," head coach Bill Belichickdeclared, "and then last year in our game in January I thought that he really stepped up and played very courageously after the injury and threw the ball well on not a great day to throw it. He played with a lot of toughness and courage and certainly gave us all we [could handle] in that game.
"So, I have a lot of respect for Rivers. He's certainly chucking it down the field this year. I think they're second in the league in big plays in the passing game. [Chris] Chambers and [Vincent] Jackson and [Antonio] Gates and [Darren] Sproles and [LaDainian] Tomlinson, there are a lot of guys to defend there."
SPECIAL TEAMS: KNOW THEIR (SP)ROLES
Kicker Stephen Gostkowskiis in a heck of a groove these days. He hasn't missed on field goal attempts or extra points, and he's crushing his kickoffs deep into the end zone almost every time. He just needs to keep doing what he's doing.
Punter Chris Hanson, on the other hand, could be more consistent, particularly when he's trying to pooch punts inside the 20.
The coverage units will have their work cut out for them trying to stop Sproles, a dangerous return man, from giving the Chargers excellent field position.
Safety Rodney Harrisonlaughed admiringly while describing Sproles.
"Every time he touches the ball, he's a threat. He can take it to the house. His ability to make plays in the kicking game, kick returns, punt returns. We just have to make sure we know where he is at all times."
As the Patriots wrap up their week-long business trip to the West Coast, the team appears to be in good overall health and spirits. The temporary move to California gave the Pats more of an opportunity to get rest, treatment, and access to film study and classroom work to prepare for the Chargers. Expect New England to be sharp and focused in the hostile environment of Qualcomm Stadium Sunday night. They'll need to be to leave the Golden State with a win over a San Diego squad that's better than it's 2-3 record.
Friday Practice Notes
LB Eric Alexander, RB LaMont Jordan, and WR Kelley Washingtonwere the only Patriots who weren't on the practice field Friday during the media portion of the session.
The team wore uppers (helmets and shoulder pads) on a brisk, wind, almost New England-like autumn day in Silicon Valley.