Patriots at Chargers
Today, 4:15 p.m., Channel 4. (Line: Chargers by 3)
When the Patriots runDespite lacking a true No. 1 running back, the Patriots continue to move the ball effectively on the ground. Danny Woodhead has shown excellent quickness and vision in his limited carries. He reads blocks well, avoids big hits thanks to a low running style, and has a nose for the sticks. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is more a traditional downhill runner who won’t shy away from contact and always falls forward. Tailback/fullback Sammy Morris has become the forgotten man in New England’s offense. The Patriots complement their traditional rushing attack by mixing in reverses. Brandon Tate is a good candidate because of his speed and open-field shiftiness. Aaron Hernandez is effective as well because he has excellent vision and speed. New England’s interior linemen have been unsung heroes. Center Dan Koppen and guards Stephen Neal and Dan Connolly shed their initial blocks quickly and get their mitts on linebackers and hard-charging safeties. For San Diego, ends Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire are effective run stuffers but will also redirect runners inside. Versatile linebackers Stephen Cooper and Kevin Burnett man the inside. Cooper is smart and deceptively quick. He’s not flashy but he rarely misses a tackle. Burnett has excellent lateral movement and speed. He can shed blocks and will make explosive hits.
When the Patriots passIt is imperative for Tom Brady to make quick reads and get rid of the ball fast today because the Chargers can really get after the quarterback. Shaun Phillips brings the heat from the outside. A smart and athletic linebacker, Phillips blasts off the edge and gets on defenders in a hurry, often leaving them flat-footed or flat on their backs. If that happens, Brady will get flattened, too. Kevin Burnett attacks from the inside by shooting gaps and overpowering overmatched running backs. Tackles Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer are solid but will need help from the tight ends and backs to keep Brady upright. Brady is blessed with a receiving corps that excels at getting open quickly. At the top of the list is Wes Welker. A tough little hombre, Welker uses quick feet and strong hands to move the chains and keep the clock running. Deion Branch gets off the line quickly, has myriad jukes and dekes, and runs precise routes. Aaron Hernandez has rare speed and separation skills for a tight end. He’s a monster after the catch. Rob Gronkowski uses his size and strength to get into his routes quickly. San Diego starting corners Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason are above average. Safeties Paul Oliver and Eric Weddle cover a lot of ground.
When the Chargers runRookie Ryan Mathews is the Chargers’ feature back. A 6-foot, 218-pounder, Mathews is solidly built with excellent vision. He has a compact running style and changes speeds and directions fluidly. Mathews has above-average strength and uses it to break tackles and gain extra yards after initial contact. He reads blocks well and is very shifty at the second level. Mathews is very physical and delivers a blow by driving his shoulder into defenders. This style has led to nagging injuries, the latest of which is a balky right ankle. He lacks the speed to be a true home run hitter but will occasionally bounce off tackle and turn the corner. Mike Tolbert is a halfback/fullback hybrid. A 5-9, 243-pounder, Tolbert has a bruising running style and will fight for extra yardage after being hit. Tolbert is not fast but moves the chains by keeping his thick legs churning and deflecting hits with his broad shoulders. Diminutive Darren Sproles (5-6, 190) is explosive and shifty. He lacks the bulk to be a workhorse but can wear down defenses when used as a change-of-pace back. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork continues to be New England’s top run stuffer. Wilfork has the lateral quickness to plug holes and the strength to occupy blockers, allowing linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Gary Guyton to seek and destroy ball carriers.
When the Chargers passPhilip Rivers is a supremely confident and productive quarterback. The 6-foot-5-inch, 228-pounder has a strong arm, a quick release, and deadly accuracy — particularly on short and medium throws. Rivers has high football intelligence and reads and reacts to coverages quickly. He has good pocket awareness and avoids sacks by getting rid of the ball in a hurry, particularly when he feels a blitz coming. Rivers is successful despite having one of the ugliest deliveries in the game. He always looks like he’s short-arming his throws, but invariably the ball gets where it needs to go. The Chargers have the top passing attack in the league, but they will be handicapped with tight end Antonio Gates hobbled and wide receiver Malcom Floyd out. Gates (6-4, 260) is a nightmare for defenders; he is big and lightning-quick off the line. Patrick Crayton will be targeted often. More of a possession receiver, Crayton lacks the speed and route-running ability to make big gains. He won’t drop many balls but doesn’t gain separation on a consistent basis. Legedu Naanee is explosive but inconsistent. New England corners Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington make plenty of mistakes early but gain confidence and make more plays as the game goes on.
Chargers' key playerPhilip Rivers
Smart and physically gifted, Philip Rivers is one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. He is also a very emotional player, and when things aren’t going his way, nobody puts on a sour puss quicker.
How he beats you: With awareness and a strong arm. Rivers diagnoses defenses quickly and uses his rapid release to make teams pay when they bring the blitz.
How to shut him down: With multiple looks. You can’t go vanilla against this guy. It’s imperative to continually change the defense and run multiple sets out of similar looks.
Chargers' keys to victory1. Outside influence: Linebacker Shaun Phillips must be San Diego’s best player. He needs to use his strength and speed to collapse the pocket.
2. Deep thoughts: Philip Rivers will have time; he needs to go long and take advantage of the young and vulnerable Patriot cornerbacks.
3. Special effort: New England’s returners have been exceptional. The Chargers need to match the intensity to keep the visitors from winning the field-position battle.
Patriots' keys to victory1. Stay humble: New England received rave reviews for beating the Ravens. Don’t get caught up thinking you’re better than you are.
2. Status quo: This whole balanced offense thing is working out well. Don’t mess with success. Keep pounding the ball and use the pass to knock ’em out.
3. Lane closures: The front seven (or six?) must clog the openings and stuff the run to keep the Charger offense one-dimensional.