Let's talk about the path.
I know. You've been here before. And now it's late. The path is muddy. It's hard to see a way across, and it might be worth your while to pretend it doesn't exist.
But it's there. Like it or not, it's there.
If the Patriots can figure out a way to beat the Chargers, they will have found their way back to .500, still sniffing a playoff berth. And they may have tapped into a defensive plan last weekend against the Cardinals that gets them there.
Bill Belichick's defense held Kyler Murray to 170 yards passing, almost 100 yards below his per-game average going into the Week 12 matchup (264.4). The Patriots also held Murray to just 5.0 yards per attempt when he'd been averaging 7.5 prior to his trip to Foxboro. Murray's 67.0 quarterback rating paled in comparison to the 98.7 mark he compiled through the season's first 11 weeks.
How did the Patriots do it? Pressure. Or, more accurately, showing pressure.
The Patriots were clearly more aggressive against Murray than they had been the previous week against Houston's Deshaun Watson. Wary of Watson's ability to scramble -- and after getting torched by Watson when blitzing in a 2019 matchup -- the Patriots blitzed just five times against the Texans.
But Belichick's conservative approach to defending opposing quarterbacks was a bit of a trend leading up to his team's game with Arizona. Against the Ravens and Lamar Jackson, the Patriots blitzed just three times. Even against statuesque passer Joe Flacco and the Jets, the Patriots blitzed on only six snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Against Murray, the Patriots blitzed 10 times and held him to 48 yards passing and a quarterback rating of 79.2 on those plays. On 10 different Murray dropbacks -- even some that didn't result in blitzes -- the Patriots showed an all-out blitz.
No safety. Man-to-man coverage across the board. The message to Murray and his offensive line was clear: We're coming at you.
The reality was, the Patriots wanted to speed up Murray's process behind center while also giving themselves an opportunity to guard against quick-hitting in-breaking routes and Murray's supreme abilities as a scrambler. As a result, there were snaps like the one below where the Patriots showed all-out pressure and then dropped a couple of bodies into coverage.
Here there are eight players who look like rushers when the ball is snapped. But Adam Butler drops from his spot at defensive tackle to take away Murray's quick-hitter to the three-receiver side of the field. Both Adrian Phillips and Myles Bryant, meanwhile, halt their respective rushes to keep eyes on the mobile passer.
That pressure look to start the play, though, made an impact. The Patriots created one-on-one matchups across the line of scrimmage and ended up with outside linebacker Chase Winovich attacking a running back in pass protection. The Patriots will take that. Murray was hurried and forced to throw down the field incomplete.
Later in the game, the Patriots tried something similar, with both Phillips and Ja'Whaun Bentley looking like second-level rushers before stopping their rushes to read Murray. The call was a game-changer.
What does this have to do with the Chargers? They happen to have a young athletic quarterback who had his share of issues earlier this season against a defensive scheme with Patriots ties.
Justin Herbert profiles much differently than Kyler Murray. He's about half-a-foot taller for starters. But he's a threat to scramble. And the Patriots may feel as though they can speed up his process behind center. They may feel as though they can present issues for Herbert's offensive line -- graded as the third-worst pass-protection unit in the NFL, according to PFF -- the way they did for Murray's.
Given the way in which former Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores and the Dolphins harried Herbert in a Week 10 win, there's a familiar and encouraging blueprint for the Patriots out there. Miami blitzed Herbert 16 times that day, and on nine of Herbert's dropbacks he saw Cover 0 pre-snap. When blitzed, according to PFF, Herbert completed only 53.3 percent of his passes for a yards-per-attempt figure of only 6.2.
Flores and the Dolphins have been much more liberal than the Patriots in their use of Cover 0 this season, and against the Chargers they were more willing to actually bring the house than the Patriots were against Murray. But, as you can see in the clip above, Flores also dropped rushers from the initial wave of pressure in order to help against underneath routes and to keep an eye on Herbert.
In the fourth quarter, the floodgates opened for Flores and his defense. After seeing early results by showing Cover 0 and then dropping into Cover 3, they went to Cover 0 looks again and again, mixing up when they would bring pressure and when they wouldn't.
Belichick is a fan of Herbert's based on his assessment of the rookie quarterback during a conference call this week.
“He’s impressive – very talented player, tall, sees things well, has a good arm, can certainly make all the throws,” Belichick said Tuesday. “He’s athletic, can escape the pocket, smart. They do a number of things at the line of scrimmage – you’ve seen him check plays, audible against pressure, change plays against check-with-me type situations.
"It looks like he’s going to be a good quarterback for a long time, a lot to work with and I know he’s a smart, hard-working kid that likes football and I’m sure he will continue to get better, as he has this year throughout the course of the season. He’s improved from the early games that I’ve watched, and like I said, has a lot of good skill players to work with – good tight end, good backs, good receivers. So, yeah, he’s a good player.”
But Belichick is also 19-5 against rookie passers. He's already seen what his protege in Miami did against Herbert with Cover 0 a few weeks ago. And Belichick watched his own defense keep an athletic quarterback under wraps by showing no-safety pressure looks in critical situations.
There's risk involved with that approach, even when linebackers drop out from the initial rush to provide an extra layer of cover against short stuff and scrambles. With no safety deep, it doesn't take much for disaster to strike. A blitzer doesn't get home. A corner gets beat. An accurate throw under pressure gets made. Any of those could lead to a touchdown.
But the path is already a mess. What do the Patriots have to lose? In gambling every so often last weekend, they did what they could to take control of their own destiny. And the Chargers-Dolphins tape suggests the same mentality could pay dividends for them in Los Angeles.
Not just this week, either. Jared Goff -- who the Patriots will see in Week 14 and isn't exactly at the top of his game -- was picked twice and completed less than 60 percent of his passes when the Dolphins blitzed him like crazy and beat the Rams in Week 8.