Analysis

How the Patriots can fool Chargers star Justin Herbert on Sunday

The Patriots tend to dominate young quarterbacks and gave Justin Herbert problems last season. They'll look to do it again when they face Herbert and the Chargers this weekend.

Justin Herbert Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
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When Bill Belichick praises Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert ahead of Sunday’s game, you don’t have to wonder whether it’s real.

“I don’t think you’re going to find too many better than him,” Belichick said this week. “This guy is really an impressive player … I have a ton of respect for him. I think he’s going to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league for a long time to come.”

Belichick is right to offer that respect: Herbert is a top-15 NFL quarterback in terms of passing yards and touchdowns seven weeks into his second season.

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And at 23, Herbert is still young as a player, which means the Patriots might have a few things in store defensively that the young star passer isn’t expecting.

New England certainly took advantage of him last season during a 45-0 thrashing in Week 13. Of course, Belichick said he’s not counting on holding Herbert to 3.9 yards per pass attempt with no touchdowns and two interceptions again.

But a few plays from last week’s game plan against Zach Wilson — another talented quarterback who’s nonetheless quite green — might give a glimpse into how the Patriots might play things against Herbert in hopes of giving him trouble once more.

Some defensive tendencies for the Patriots are well known; for example, they love playing with man coverage with single-high safeties. Their three main cornerbacks this season — J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, and Jalen Mills — have played the highest rates of man coverage in the league among cornerbacks with more than 64 coverage snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

But just because the Pats usually run man coverage on defense doesn’t mean every opponent gets what they’re expecting.

On this third down on their opening drive against the Jets, the Patriots defense fools rookie quarterback Zach Wilson with some nifty post-snap trickery.

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New England’s defense shows a single-high shell pre-snap with Devin McCourty in the middle of the field and Adrian Phillips playing over the single-receiver side. This suggests Cover 1, in which McCourty plays the deep middle with man coverage on all possible receivers and either an extra man sent after Wilson (traditional Cover 1) or dropped into a short zone (Cover 1 “Robber”).

The Patriots go with “Robber,” but not in the way Wilson expects.

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They send four pass rushers, with nickel corner Myles Bryant coming on a slot blitz. McCourty comes down from his single-high position to fill in for Bryant on Jets receiver Jamison Crowder. Phillips, meanwhile, sprints back to replace McCourty in the deep middle.

The play call is perfect. The Jets, anticipating man coverage, ran a “pick” play on the outside, hoping to obstruct Bryant from covering Crowder’s wheel route. But Bryant comes on the blitz while McCourty easily stops the wheel route from over the top, forcing Wilson to eat the ball for a sack.

Another way to make Herbert hold the football on passing downs: drop extra men into coverage. The Patriots did that on a few occasions against Wilson, leading to incompletions.

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But the key to New England’s eight-man coverage packages is that they stay aggressive with the three men going after the quarterback.

Here’s an example on the Jets’ second offensive drive.

On 2nd-and-long, the Patriots play man coverage with a single-high safety against New York’s empty formation but add two zone defenders — Matthew Judon to the defense’s left and Kyle Dugger to its right — to obstruct crossing routes.

There’s actually something of a coverage bust on the play as Bryant and J.C. Jackson momentarily double-team slot receiver Braxton Berrios before Jackson peels off to take an open Crowder in the flat.

But the Jets can’t take advantage of it because of what New England does up front: Kyle Van Noy comes on a blitz, and he draws the center’s attention and gets a piece of the left guard on his slanting rush, freeing up Christian Barmore to stunt inside and force an errant throw from Wilson.

The Patriots ran a similar play at the end of the same drive as the Jets were driving to the red zone, forcing another incompletion and escaping without giving up a point as Matt Ammendola’s kick missed wide.

Herbert is, of course, much better than Zach Wilson at his point in their careers. He’ll also be sure to study both what the Patriots did to him personally last year as well as what New England did to Wilson last Sunday.

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But the Patriots have shown they can challenge even the best quarterbacks in the league when they’re on their game defensively, stymying even Tom Brady at times back in Week 4.

This defense will certainly need to bring an A-plus effort to the table if they want to contain Herbert and this top-10 passing offense this weekend.

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