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Few surprises with Chargers

Patriots know opponent well

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / September 15, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Bill Belichick wasn’t kidding yesterday when he said that “it feels like we’re back in the division again,’’ as his Patriots prepared to face the Chargers in Sunday’s home opener at Gillette Stadium.

This will be the ninth meeting between the teams since 2001, including playoff matchups after the 2006 and ’07 seasons. The Patriots won both playoff games, including the ’07 AFC Championship game at Gillette, and are 5-3 against the Chargers with Belichick as coach.

Even if the Patriots didn’t have such an intimate knowledge of the Chargers, it wouldn’t be hard to know there are a few keys to beating them.

First and foremost is to take five-time All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates away, and make quarterback Philip Rivers beat you with his other receivers.

The Patriots had a masterful game plan last year against the Chargers, when they held on to win, 23-20, in San Diego.

Unlike the Dolphins on Monday night, New England knows better than to allow a dangerous receiver such as Gates a free release off the line. On almost every route, the Patriots hit Gates, and Rivers immediately looked elsewhere. When the Patriots didn’t hit Gates, they bracketed him with a defender underneath and one lurking over the top.

All four of Gates’s receptions (for 50 yards) came in the final 7:36 after New England already had a 23-6 lead. Linebacker Gary Guyton gave up a touchdown when he failed to get a good jam on Gates, the athletic former college basketball star.

The Patriots also know they have to protect quarterback Tom Brady better than they did last year, when he had to withstand a season-high 17 pressures against the Chargers. Brady barely had time to get his feet set.

While much of the problem was with the offensive line, it was a team protection problem. Tight end Alge Crumpler and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead all struggled at times to hold up against a pass rush that only blitzed Brady 10 times in 36 dropbacks.

Matt Light had a rough go, giving up 1 1/2 sacks and 3 1/2 hurries. Antwan Barnes was the thorn in Light’s side. On just 12 snaps, Barnes had two sacks, two hurries, and one knockdown.

Barnes had almost the same production against the Vikings on Sunday in the same number of snaps: one sack, two pressures, and a knockdown. Expect Light, who played very well against the Dolphins, to be ready this time around.

Dan Connolly, who will be at center after the injury to Dan Koppen, also had one of his worst games against the Chargers. At left guard for then-holdout Logan Mankins, Connolly allowed a half-sack, two hurries and a knockdown.

“It was our fewest production all season when we played them,’’ Brady said yesterday. “We had like 200 yards of offense [179, actually] - didn’t do really well in the red area, didn’t really run it great, certainly didn’t throw it great, didn’t protect as well as we’re capable. We were pretty fortunate last year playing them.’’

It’s no secret the Chargers have started slowly the four previous seasons under coach Norv Turner - 2-3 each year - and they were lucky to avert disaster on Sunday after trailing the Vikings, 17-7. The Chargers have never started 2-0 under Turner.

Expect the Patriots to give the Chargers every opportunity to beat themselves, which they did in last year’s matchup. After starting with a punt and field goal, the Chargers’ next four possessions ended with three fumbles and an interception. Amazingly, the Patriots only converted those miscues into 10 points.

Here’s a closer look at the Chargers:

Quarterback - The rugged Rivers is one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, but he has fallen short of a Super Bowl appearance. Rivers doesn’t seem to have much confidence in or patience with his top two receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Of his 48 passes against the Vikings, 34 went to tight ends or running backs. Expect the Patriots to try to clamp down on the short area of the field and make Rivers beat them deep.

Running backs - The Chargers play all three running backs - Ryan Mathews, Mike Tolbert, and Jacob Hester - about the same amount, and sometimes together. Mathews (6 feet, 218 pounds) is the speediest and is a threat on the ground and receiving. Tolbert (5-9, 243) can play halfback or fullback, and is the predominant red-zone and third-down back. His blitz pickup and recognition is average at best. Hester (5-11, 235) is the more traditional fullback but is not a punishing blocker.

Receivers - Gates is Rivers’s main target, and the Chargers will often use former Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael in the same formations. The Chargers’ most-used personnel package is one back (Tolbert), one tight end (Gates), and three receivers: Jackson, Floyd and slot man Bryan Walters, an undrafted 2010 free agent out of Cornell. Both Jackson (6-5, 230) and Floyd (6-5, 225) are matchup problems because of their size and speed, but both can be muscled.

Offensive line - A veteran group that struggles at times, especially at tackle with Marcus McNeill (left) and Jeromey Clary (right). Left guard Kris Dielman and center Nick Hardwick are battled-tested and should have a spirited match with Patriots tackles Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth. Right guard Louis Vasquez yielded to Tyronne Green for about a dozen snaps against the Vikings.

Defensive line - Last year against the Patriots, the starting line of ends Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire, and nose tackle Antonio Garay, gave the Patriots fits. Castillo underwent surgery Monday to repair a fractured leg and will be out for months. He had already given way to first-round pick Corey Liuget (18th overall, Illinois). Barnes and Vaughn Martin enter in sub packages.

Linebacker - Left outside linebacker Shaun Phillips is the star of this group and is very active. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, in his first season replacing Ron Rivera after four with the 49ers, will move Phillips around the line, and uses him as a primary sub rusher. Right outside linebacker Travis Laboy, who played for Manusky last season in San Francisco, is strong and can play the run and rush the passer. Takeo Spikes, 34, also played for Manusky and the former Bill is still very strong against the run. The other inside linebacker, third-round pick Donald Butler, seems to be the weak link.

Secondary - The Chargers have two solid cornerbacks in Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason. Most teams prefer to target Cason, but he held his own against the Vikings. Dante Hughes is the nickel slot corner. Free safety Eric Weddle received a big contract in the offseason after an outstanding 2010. He’ll come on blitzes. Another new addition is former Colts strong safety Bob Sanders. He was almost used as an extra linebacker against the pass-deprived Vikings. Sanders is still a force when healthy.

Special teams - This unit was one of the league’s worst last season and longtime coordinator Steve Crosby was fired in favor of Rich Bisaccia, who got off to a terrible start when the Vikings’ Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown. The coverage units settled down after that, but the Patriots should be able to exploit an advantage. Nick Novak will attempt his first kick in an NFL game since 2008 after being signed this week to replace the injured Nate Kaeding. Last year in the United Football League, Novak made 15 of 18 field goal attempts. Shayne Graham, who kicked well for the Patriots last season, was among the kickers Novak beat out for the job. Punter Mike Scifres is solid.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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