…In a rare move for them, the Patriots blitzed Chargers QB Philip Rivers when he dropped back to pass on the first play of the game. He wound up completing a 15-yard pass on the play, but it was perhaps an indication that New England is starting to get a little more confident in its risk-taking on defense.
…Another example is the increased run blitzing we saw from the Patriots against L.A. In particular, LB Elandon Roberts did so a number of times in this game, one of which early on led to a two-yard loss by RB Melvin Gordon. This proved pivotal, as on the very next play, TE Antonio Gates' 16-yard reception came just shy of the 1st-down marker, forcing the Chargers to try a 51-yard field goal rather than extend their drive.
…On that field goal, for the second straight week, it appeared as if the Patriots' rush team got a hand on the football. Last week versus Atlanta, Cassius Marsh clearly got the block, but this week, it looked like Lawrence Guy should get the credit.
At the snap, Guy, playing a tackle spot just to the right of the long snapper, drives his right shoulder into LS Mike Windt, knocking Windt onto his back. This placed Guy directly in front of the holder from about five yards away. Guy raised his right hand as he lunged forward toward kicker Nick Novak and appeared to get his fingertips on the ball as it sailed over the line of scrimmage.
The ball wobbled in an unorthodox fashion and its trajectory seems to have been affected, as it sailed wide right of the goal posts. Guy was not credited with a block on the official "game book" stat sheet, but he probably should have.
…The Chargers struck first on the scoreboard, thanks to an 87-yard TD run by Gordon on the second play of the next L.A. possession. When the play started, it looked like New England had read it well and had Gordon stuffed for a loss. Rookie DL Adam Butler, DT Alan Branch, and Marsh, at left DE, got good penetration to the right side of the Charger' formation, where Gordon was heading. He bounced around the logjam of bodies, and as he did, Marsh was thrown backward by a Charger lineman. This gave Gordon a lane through which to shoot, and Marsh's flailing attempt to shoe-string tackle Gordon proved in vain. Gordon now had a free pass down the right (Patriots) sideline.
It should be noted here that Gordon dealt all last week with an ankle injury that limited his practice time, and that was clear as he limped down the sideline at nearly full speed. Clearly, he wasn't fully healed from the injury. Nevertheless, the most impressive aspect of this play came from CB Malcolm Butler. He started out the play about 10 yards behind Gordon on that same side of the field. Safety Patrick Chung was also in the vicinity, a few steps ahead of Butler, but Butler eventually passed Chung and caught Gordon at the 5-yard line.
There, Butler tried to punch the ball out from behind, but Gordon held on, kept his feet, and made it over the goal line for the score. Butler, though, deserves plaudits for his effort and for an extra-gear speed that many of us didn't know he had.
… On the very next play from scrimmage, a perfect pass by QB Tom Brady down the right seam, over the head of a Charger defender, went right through TE/co-captain Rob Gronkowski's hands. Normally, he makes that catch, but it was an uncharacteristic day for Gronk, who ended up dropping three passes versus L.A. Gronk would atone later in the same drive with a TD catch, but as he admitted afterward, he was off his game for most of the afternoon. This was a prime example thereof.
…Offensively, the stars of the game for New England were its running backs, who contributed most effectively in the passing game. Rex Burkhead led the way in receptions, catching all seven balls thrown to him for 68 yards, while James White led in yardage with 85 receiving on five of the six passes targeted to him. Dion Lewis chipped in with a couple of receptions, too, but he finished as the team's top rusher (15 carries, 44 yards) and had a big special teams play in the second half.
Granted, the Chargers didn't do a great job covering New England's backs, but those three men also made it difficult on L.A. to bring them down in the open field when they caught the ball. White's nifty juke of a Charger defender on a 27-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 perhaps illustrated this best.
…The aforementioned Gronk TD came in a goal-line formation featuring all three tight ends, plus FB James Develin in an I-formation behind Brady and in front of RB Mike Gillislee. All indications pointed to a run play to the right of formation, as rookie TE Jacob Hollister motioned from the left side, where fellow TE Dwayne Allen was in a three-point stance next to LT Nate Solder, over to the right, where Gronk was also in a three-point stance beside RT Marcus Cannon.
Brady, in fact, play-faked to Gillislee to that side, and Develin fired out to block a Charger on that right side as well. Allen ran a slant to the right side, while Hollister ran forward, tripping over the goal line and into a Chargers defender. Gronk, meantime, ran a shallow cross to the left along the goal line as the rest of the Chargers D bought the play-fake. By then, it was too late, as Gronkowski found himself alone in the shallow part of the end zone and Brady just lofted a soft pass to him for the tying score (following Stephen Gostkowski's extra point, of course).
Well-designed, well-executed play.
…Roberts made another big play in the running game when, from the middle linebacker position, he nicely read a Wildcat sweep to the right on 3rd-and-2 deep in Charger territory. He patiently followed the play and shot through an opening when it appeared. Roberts dropped the runner, Branden Oliver, a yard short of the sticks, forcing an L.A. punt.
…I wasn't thrilled with how the Patriots' o-line pass protected versus the Chargers. All afternoon, Brady was under duress from L.A.'s pass rush. His first sack of the afternoon came when DE Joey Bosa used a great speed rush to evade Cannon, who has been dealing with a left ankle injury periodically this season. That injury was aggravated later in this quarter, and Cannon couldn't continue. Once again, though, it seemed that a lost individual battle led directly to Brady being hauled down by a defender. That's been a troublesome theme in 2017, and it was a problem for much of the day versus L.A.
…Special teams were crucial factors for New England versus L.A. After Guy's apparent field goal block earlier, punter Ryan Allen uncorked a great punt that caused the Charger return man, Travis Benjamin, to muff the ball along his sideline. Benjamin then made a poor decision after collecting the ball behind him to try to outrun the Patriots' coverage by heading backward into his own end zone. New England players converged on him and brought him down for the two-point safety. None of it would have been possible, though, without Allen's tremendous punt.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…Lewis' 71-yard kickoff return to start the second half was a result of two factors: the Chargers' offside penalty on the original kick, which pushed the ball back five yards and allowed Lewis to field the ball in the field of play, and a series of superb blocks by his teammates: Develin, Guy, co-captain Matthew Slater, Hollister, Brandon King, Trevor Reilly, and Brandon Bolden. Excellent work by the return team as a unit.
…Gostkowski missed a pair of 43-yard kicks in this game (while also making one from that same distance). The first miss was pulled wide left, from the right hash mark. The snap and hold were precise. It just looked like Ghost hit the ball with too much follow-through.
…A truly unnecessary block in the back by Solder on a Burkhead catch-and-run for a 1st down wiped out a great play. The Charger that Solder shoved from behind was not going to make a play on Burkhead. Solder's exuberance got the better of him on this play.
…Gostkowski's second 43-yard misfire came from the left hash, and this time, he pushed it wide right. Apparently overcompensating for his earlier miss, Ghost used too much instep and not enough follow-through on this occasion.
…CB Johnson Bademosi has done a serviceable job filling in for concussed starter Stephon Gilmore, but the Charger game was perhaps his least successful outing. He gave up several big completions and incurred a deserved pass interference penalty in the middle of the 4th quarter.
…Rivers' only TD pass of the game came on what looked like his first target of Butler all afternoon. And it appeared as if communication – a buzzword in the New England secondary all season – was an issue in Butler's giving up the score. Butler was 1-on-1 with Benjamin on the Chargers' right side and Devin McCourty was the lone safety in that area.
At the snap, Butler didn't get a good jam on Benjamin, who ran virtually free past Butler, who seemed to think he had McCourty's help deep. However, McCourty chose to stay more toward the hash marks, where two other L.A. receivers were running deep patterns.
Butler immediately motioned toward McCourty after the play, but it's unclear who was more at fault here.
…WR Chris Hogan, a durable guy who often plays hurt, took a wicked shot to the right arm/shoulder after making a catch late in the 4th. He was seen in the locker room later with a black sling on that arm, after having left the game and been diagnosed with a shoulder problem. The bye week is coming at an opportune time for him, Cannon, and some other Patriots who could use a week off from football to recuperate.
…On non-touchback kickoffs, New England's coverage unit should be recognized for the overall job it's done stopping opponents, including L.A., short of the 25-yard line on a consistent basis.
…Aside from the 87-yard Gordon TD, the Patriots held the Chargers to just 70 yards rushing all afternoon. New England has now put two consecutive solid defensive performances together and is poised to do some self-scouting over the next week to see if it can continue to improve.