Chargers at Patriots
Today, 4:15 p.m., Channel 4 (Line: Patriots by 7)
When the Patriots runDanny Woodhead’s ability to slip tackles and move the chains is impressive. The 5-foot-9-inch, 195-pounder (soaking wet) has exceptional vision and instincts. He is agile, has quick feet, and shows good burst. Defenses know he’s getting the ball on third downs and they still miss him. He is the perfect complement to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. A tough, no-nonsense tailback, Green-Ellis prefers to bang between the tackles. He lacks patience but his aggressive nature serves him well. He doesn’t break as many tackles as a 5-11, 215-pounder should, but he rarely gets knocked back and will dish out his share of punishment. Rookie Stevan Ridley runs hard and has a good motor. The backs will be running behind a reworked offensive line as Dan Connolly takes over at center and Bryan Waters (this veteran mauler is tough and smart) takes over at right guard. Nose tackle Cam Thomas anchors San Diego’s run defense. A big (6-4, 335), powerful player with tremendous leg strength, Thomas will give Connolly fits today. Waters and left guard Logan Mankins must shed their initial blocks quickly and get their mitts on rugged linebackers Shaun Phillips and Takeo Spikes. Phillips is exceptionally smart and quick. He has great lateral movement and explodes into ball carriers. Spikes locates the ball in a flash and uses his exceptional quickness and closing speed to smash runners.
When the Patriots passThe Chargers, who held the Vikings and Donovan McNabb to a measly 28 passing yards last week, will have a much tougher task today. Tom Brady was given the time to carve up the defense last week, and if his protection holds up, he’ll do the same today. Shaun Phillips will lead the pass rush. Phillips has an excellent first step and employs a variety of moves to beat blockers and get to the quarterback. With the Chargers expected to bring everybody, Brady will look to get the ball to his tight ends and Wes Welker. New England will use plenty of two-tight-end sets, with Rob Gronkowski helping tackles Matt Light and Nate Solder by chip blocking and Aaron Hernandez finding soft spots right off the line. If Norv Turner decides to turn his attention to the tight ends, Brady will go to wide receivers Deion Branch (he’s slick) and Chad Ochocinco (he’s still finding his way), and Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. The Chargers have an exceptional secondary. Corners Quentin Jammer (he has the strength to jam and the speed to turn and go) and Antoine Cason (he has the quickness and speed to work the slot or the perimeter) are versatile. Safeties Eric Weddle (this smart ballhawk will gamble) and Bob Sanders (mini-linebacker lacks coverage skills) are both big hitters.
When the Chargers runRyan Mathews was supposed to make Chargers fans forget all about LaDainian Tomlinson, but a combination of immaturity, injuries, and fumble-itis has kept the former first-round pick from reaching star status. The 6-foot, 218-pounder has wonderful physical skills, plus a compact, muscular build and excellent vision. He hits holes hard, finds cutback lanes, and will power through defenders. Mathews is deceptively quick but lacks home run speed. Mike Tolbert (5-9, 243) is a load. A north-south runner, Tolbert won’t beat you with jukes and jives, he beats you by powering through you. Tolbert thrives on contact and picks up a ton of yards after the first hit. Jacob Hester (5-11, 235) is a tailback/fullback hybrid. He is solid but not spectacular in both roles. A very competitive player, Hester gives full effort on every snap. He is the Chargers’ best blocker and most reliable receiver out of the backfield. Center Nick Hardwick is the leader of a good offensive line. A smart and quick player, Hardwick plays with a chip on his shoulder. Left guard Kris Dielman is an ornery veteran who never takes a play off. Right guard Louis Vasquez delivers a shocking initial punch. Running inside won’t be easy as Patriot widebodies Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth excel at clogging lanes and redirecting runners into the linebackers’ hands. Instinctive and athletic linebacker Jerod Mayo is a superb run defender who delivers bone-rattling hits.
When the Chargers passFiery Philip Rivers has developed into one of the league’s finest quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5-inch, 228-pounder has great arm strength and nice touch. Rivers is smart, processes information quickly, and will exploit favorable matchups. Rivers is a decent athlete with quick feet but sometimes will bail out of the pocket prematurely. Don’t be fooled by Rivers’s horrible mechanics and ugly throwing motion; the man always gets the ball where he wants it to go. Athletic tight end Antonio Gates is Rivers’s preferred target. The 6-4, 260-pounder has great hands and is too quick for linebackers to cover and too big for defensive backs to handle. Jamming him at the line, even if only for a second, will throw off his timing and force Rivers to look elsewhere. Fellow tight end Randy McMichael has reliable hands and good speed. Vincent Jackson (6-5, 230) is a big target with good speed. He has a tendency to round off his routes and takes too many plays off. Malcom Floyd is quick and agile. He will fight for every ball. Patriot edge rushers Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter will bring pressure on tackles Marcus McNeill and Jeromey Clary (neither will get much help from the tight ends) and force Rivers into quick decisions. Athletic corners Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling will get help over the top from rangy safeties Patrick Chung and Josh Barrett.
Chargers' key playerVincent Jackson
If the Patriots do the expected and key on tight ends Antonio Gates and Randy McMichael, this big receiver could do a lot of damage against single coverage.
How he beats you: With great physical skills. Jackson has good speed and quickness, reliable hands, and his exceptional size makes him a nightmare matchup for most defensive backs and an ideal target in the red zone.
How to shut him down: By playing rough. Like a lot of receivers, Jackson abhors contact. After a few well-timed shots, Jackson stops giving max effort and becomes less of a factor.
Chargers' keys to victory1. Quick strikes: Philip Rivers has to get the ball to his receivers in a flash to keep a shaky defense (remember, Chad Henne put up 400-plus yards) on its heels.
2. Ground forces: Commit to the run. Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert have to keep the clock moving and keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.
3. Pressure situations: It’s imperative to make Brady uncomfortable. The Chargers must hit him early to prevent him from tearing this defense apart.
Patriots' keys to victory1. Coming-out party: Chad Ochocinco may not know the playbook like the back of his hand, but surely he has some knowledge. Run the plays he knows and get him involved early.
2. Special effort: San Diego’s special teams are abysmal. Elusive returner Julian Edelman can put the Patriots in good field position - or better yet take one all the way back.
3. Lower the boom: Hitting Philip Rivers - and getting in his head - is a must. He’s a very emotional player, and when he’s getting pounded, those emotions get the best of him.