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Inside the matchup: Chargers at Patriots

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  September 17, 2011 12:43 AM

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In an effort to get a little bit more inside the game, Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, will give us his insight on the intricacies of the game. Look for his analysis before each game from here on out.

After an eventful week one of the season which featured record breaking performances, a lot of points scored, poor conditioning and injuries, we look to Week 2 of the season. The Patriots started off pretty hot this season by defeating division rival Miami Dolphins and now come back on a short week to face a tough San Diego Chargers team. There will be a lot of interesting match-ups in this game and few areas that the Patriots can expose the Chargers, despite them being a very talented team.

For starters, the Chargers offense is called by their head coach, Norv Turner. Turner is a Don Coryell disciple and the influence of Coryell is evident on Sunday’s. The Chargers like to use a lot of two tight end sets (one flexed and one inline) or two back sets (split backs and I form) accompanied by Twin sets (two receiving threats on same side of formation) of receiving threats.

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The running game features a two headed backfield of Mike Tolbert and second-year back Ryan Mathews. Tolbert is the bigger and more physical back of the two, as he goes about 245 pounds and breaks a lot of tackles. With his larger frame, he also has a low center of gravity, which means he runs low to the ground, thus having low pad level. This allows him to break a lot of arm tackles, as evidenced the last two seasons. Along with Tolbert, Ryan Mathews is a hard runner that likes to bounce it more outside than Tolbert. Mathews is capable of running through the interior, like his teammate, but his speed on the edge can be a problem for defenses as witnessed in week one against the Vikings. The Chargers like to use both in different aspects of the game, such as Tolbert in the running game and Mathews in the passing game. They will also use both in the backfield at times and will use them in protection, with delayed handoffs or in the passing game.

Speaking of the passing game, it’s important to start off with the offensive line. The Chargers utilize five, six and seven man protection, as every other team does, and have a built in check-release option for their non-OL pass protectors. The backs and tight ends who protect in six and seven man are to block any pass rushers (or blitzers) that are presented. However, if there are not any, they are free to release into the open field as a check down option for quarterback Philip Rivers.

Furthermore, the Chargers like to motion their tight ends out to a flex position or in the backfield and utilize them as over the middle of the field. Norv Turner likes to use Antonio Gates and Randy McMichael on crossing routes and sit down routes over the center of the formation to give them the opportunity to do damage after the catch as well as exploit any linebackers who are not able to cover them. Their receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd, are tall targets that can get down the field and come up with the big catch. Jackson is a receiver that can run all the routes on the tree effectively while Floyd is best utilized as a downfield threat as he is not always quick enough out of his breaks on shorter routes. Finally, the aforementioned running backs are threats out of the backfield because of their ability to do damage. The Chargers like to use screens and swing passes to their backs to get their shoulders squared and going downhill.

The strength of the Chargers offense is their multiple weapons in their passing game. They feature weapons that can threat the defense at all three levels of the field - short, intermediate and deep - and Philip Rivers does a great job of spreading the ball around. In week one, the Chargers were patient with the ball for the most part and spread it all around because of the way the Vikings played them. The Vikings played a lot of Tampa 2, which is a zone based coverage, and made sure that the Chargers couldn’t get behind them vertically. This will be something to watch for against the Patriots because it is likely that the Patriots will utilize quite a bit of zone coverage to slow down the deep passing game of the Chargers. Norv Turner likes to often dial up deep plays and will sometimes get impatient, so there are opportunities for the Patriots to capitalize on the Chargers aggressive play calling. The key for the Patriots defense is to get San Diego in 3rd and 6 or more and keep everything in front of them.

San Diego does not have a lot of weaknesses on the team but if there was one area that could do better, it is the interior offensive line. Led by center Nick Hardwick, the offensive line had some problems against the Vikings front in week one. The running backs were unable to find room to run on the interior because of the lack of push from the interior. Hardwick and the guards were not strong enough at the point of attack at all times, which led to issues for the backs. This is something the Chargers must improve to help Philip Rivers in the passing game. Also, the line had issues with the Vikings zone and man blitzes as well as stunts. Hardwick in particular had issues at times, and this is something that the Patriots could exploit. Also of note is right tackle Jeromey Clary who does not always get his hands up quick enough, which gives pass rushers the opportunity to gain leverage on him and speed rush around the corner.

Moreover, the Chargers defense is the strength of the team. They are a very aggressive group that has the talent to apply pressure with multiple players and still hold up in the defensive backfield. The Chargers slid in and out of multiple fronts against the Vikings, such as the Under, Over and Okie. The Okie front, which is the covering of the center and tackles with defensive lineman, was the most common of the fronts utilized by the defense. The covering of the center and tackles can be either a head up or shaded technique. The Chargers like to utilize these various fronts and show the illusion of blitzers before retreating at the snap.

In the fronts, they will mix in one and two gap principles. Nose tackle Antonio Garay will two gap quite a bit and does a pretty good job of holding up. Gary also does a good job of applying pressure on passing downs from the nose tackle spot.

In general, the defense features a lot of five man rushers, with the three down lineman and two outside linebackers doing a lot of the rushing from their 3-4 front. They also often turn to a four man line on third down with it occasionally showing up on second down. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky likes to call a lot of man blitzes and does it with success because of the ability of their cornerbacks to hold up in man coverage. Cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer are both good athletes that do well against the run and the pass, which is beneficial to Manusky.

One of the coverages that Manusky will call with his blitzes is man-free, which is also known as Cover 1. Man-Free (Cover 1) is the most popular coverage in the NFL and is used by every team. It is used because it provides eight defenders in the box along with the ability to match man for man in coverage. The cornerbacks are to defend the receiver they are aligned across of in man while the linebackers have the responsibility of covering the backs out of the backfield. The strong safety will walk down into the box and has the responsibility covering the tight end or slot receiver as well as playing in run support. Last, the free safety is in the middle of the field and is a zone defender. The free safety is to backpedal at the snap of the ball and keep his shoulders squared simultaneously so he does not lose leverage. If the safety turns in one direction, the quarterback is able throw in the opposite direction and possibly have an advantage with his target against the cornerback in man coverage. However, if the safety keeps his shoulders squared and declares his intentions as the pass is being thrown, he is able to play over the top of any route and get a hand on the pass.

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(Image from smartfootball.com)

I expect the Chargers to roll into Man-Free against the Patriots to help stop the running game and to apply pressure with secondary players. One of the issues for the Chargers is that they are going to be going up against Tom Brady who is very good at finding his players in the soft spots of zone coverage, so they may be relying more on man coverage than zone in this game. We may also see a combination of man and zone coverage, with the linebackers and safeties in zone coverage while the cornerbacks play man.

Moving on to the strength of the Chargers defense, the ability to apply pressure. The Chargers got to Donovan McNabb twice in week one and applied pressure numerous times. Pass rush specialist Antwan Barnes and teammate Shaun Phillips are very good at getting to the quarterback and the two will be a tough match-up for the Patriots bookends. Matt Light had some struggles in week one and Sebastian Vollmer is not always technically sound. He does not always get his hands off his hips and onto the pass rusher to redirect. Dan Koppen’s replacement, Dan Connolly, will have his hands full against Garay in pass protection, but it will be interesting to see how he fares in run blocking.

The are two weaknesses of the Chargers defense and they are the inability to stop the run up the middle as well as ILB Takeo Spikes.

Nose tackle Antonio Garay did well against the pass in week one but he and teammate Cam Thomas had some issues holding their own against the run. Both were unable to hold up blocks to stop the Vikings running game on the interior. Although Adrian Peterson did an excellent job setting up blocks using his eyes, the Chargers performance against the Vikings was not acceptable because they were gashed up the middle multiple times. I expect the Patriots to take advantage of this, as it is their best bet to run against the Chargers. If they attempt to run east-west against the Chargers, I don’t expect them to have as much success because of the defenses ability to contain the edge. They are very good in pursuit as well.

ILB Takeo Spikes is a weakness in pass coverage for the Chargers because of his lack of change of direction (COD) skills as well as foot speed. Spikes is good against the run but his limitations in pass coverage may prove to be an issue in this game because of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Fortunately for the Chargers, they have ILB Donald Butler, who has very good athleticism, who can help with those issues but he won’t be able to cover both tight ends of the Patriots. They may turn to their nickel package, which could replace Spikes with a defensive back who is a better matchup for the Chargers.

Finally, this game should be a very good one. I expect it to be a tough battle between the two teams and another good performance between the two quarterbacks. I don’t expect Tom Brady to put up a similar performance to the one he had in week one against the Miami Dolphins, but he should have another good outing. The Chargers will have their hands full on defense with the passing game of New England. Meanwhile, the Patriots will have to figure out how to stop the Chargers pass rush. They had success last week against a good one in Miami, but they will be tested once again this week. Can they slow down yet another quality pass rush with an up-tempo offense? We will see.

For more on the Patriots defense, read Alen's blog post at The Score. Follow Alen on Twitter at @DraftableXnOs.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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