Patriots games up front drive Chargers, Philip Rivers crazy

Patriots games up front drive Chargers, Philip Rivers crazy

FOXBORO -- The plan for Patriots pass-rushers was relatively simple: Make Philip Rivers uncomfortable. 

That meant flushing him from the center of the pocket, where he was among the most dangerous quarterbacks in football this season. That meant getting him on the move. That meant generating pressure up the middle. 

Though executing that plan would prove to be more complicated than it sounds, the Patriots made it look simple at times. They harassed Rivers on 29 of his 53 dropbacks -- a 55 percent pressure rate -- oftentimes by maneuvering their pass-rushers in such a way it confused Chargers protection schemes. Rivers was sacked twice, hit five more times, and the Patriots recorded a whopping 22 additional pressures in their 41-28 Divisional Round victory.

"We understood that we had to get him off the spot," defensive end Trey Flowers said, "not allow him to get comfortable in the pocket, not allow him to step up because he's a great quarterback. We had to pressure him, get him off the spot, and I think we executed that well today."

"We knew," defensive tackle Adam Butler said. "Everybody who's played Rivers knows. If he's able to step up in the pocket and throw comfortably, it's going to be a long day. We did that just to make it uncomfortable and for him and get him out of his element, which I feel like we did." 

Rivers' style of play -- resembling in some ways that of his counterpart Sunday -- is a relative rarity in an NFL where mobile quarterbacks have become the norm. Week after week this season, the Patriots defense has done whatever it could to keep athletic passers hemmed in the pocket. But the approach had to change with Rivers, who is for the most part a stationary thrower and was the fifth-highest rated quarterback from the pocket in 2018.

At times there were blitzes that got Rivers "off his spot." On more than one occasion, the Patriots sent the house, rushing six with no deep safety, and it resulted in an incompletion late in the first quarter when Adrian Clayborn rushed in unblocked. The Patriots sent six again midway through the second quarter, leading to a Patrick Chung hit and another incompletion. But in total, the Patriots brought unexpected rushers just 11 times, according to Pro Football Focus. 

The fact of the matter was that the Patriots didn't need to blitz all that often to create pressure. Their games, stunts and twists were enough. Whether there were two players involved or three, the Patriots got the Los Angeles offensive line moving one way, then hit it where there was an opening coming back across in the other direction. Time. And. Again. 

"We've been sprinkling it in all season," Clayborn said, "but, I mean, definitely this game it was a big plan to do that."

Late in the first quarter, Butler was the "penetrator," getting up the field to draw attention so that Flowers could loop into the backfield from the middle. The Chargers actually lost Butler when the center tried to pass him off to the guard. The result was a hurried quarterback and an incompletion. 

Late in the second quarter, out of New England's amorphous "Amoeba" package, Kyle Van Noy and Flowers served as the "penetrators," while Dont'a Hightower and John Simon looped around their teammates and streamed into an opening in the middle. Again there was pressure. Again Rivers threw incomplete. 

What helped Bill Belichick and Brian Flores was that at that point in the game, the Patriots were leading 28-7. They knew the Chargers had to throw. The Chargers knew they had to throw. Instead of third-and-long becoming the only obvious passing down in the game, second-and-long was a passing down as well. Just about any down was a passing down for the Chargers at Gillette Stadium. That meant just about every down was a pass-rushing down and an opportunity to do something creative up front.

Even if they wanted to, the Chargers didn't have time to run. 

"Especially with the lead we had," Simon said, "you want to make the opponent's offense one-dimensional and you're able to pin your ears back a little bit or get after him a little more. I think our offense played so well early on . . . it really helped with the game plan we wanted."

Later in the second quarter, the Patriots sacked Rivers for the first time. It came off of a (you guessed it!) game run between Butler and Flowers. Butler got vertical as the "penetrator," drawing two blockers in the process. Flowers looped around from his spot at left defensive end and got to Rivers unencumbered. 

With the timing and feel for the rush exhibited by Butler and Flowers on multiple snaps, the Patriots didn't need to utilize extra rushers all that often. That sack, for instance, came from just a four-man attack. 

"You definitely gotta have chemistry," Flowers said when asked about the teamwork shown up front by the Patriots, "as far as having a guy you know is going to get vertical or it may take a little bit more time to get vertical and things like that. Games may take a little longer for guys who don't get as vertical as fast, but if you got a guy to get vertical right now, you can run it a little quicker. You gotta have that chemistry and know who you're going with. Definitely here at the end of the season, we got that."

Clayborn (one sack), active for the first time since Week 15, added: "It's just communication on each play, every play, working together and being unselfish. It's knowing a guy is going to do his job so you can do yours."

The Patriots had the Chargers so confused at points that they didn't really have to do much at all to record pressure. Early in the third quarter, Butler went totally unblocked from a spot in the middle of the LA offensive line. His unimpeded pressure -- the result of confusion among offensive linemen focused on linebackers in the B-gaps who never rushed -- blew up the play before it could get started. Another incompletion. 

Rivers wasn't happy, which Butler enjoyed. 

"It was pretty funny," Butler said of Rivers' reaction after that particular breakdown. "I don't even remember what he said. It was a moment I'm thinking in my head, I'm like, 'You know what? If I was him, I'd be mad as hell too.' That's Football 101. You can't cut the closest guy to the ball loose. The play had no chance. They cut me loose. I'm right there."

There was less than a minute gone in the third quarter when the Chargers were punting away to the Patriots. The "Amoeba" front had done its job again as Simon and Flowers flushed their blockers to the left, allowing Hightower to have a chance at pressure. Rivers completed a pass on that drop, but it went for minimal yardage and his team was giving up the football again. 

CBS color commentator Jim Nantz said, "Quick and unproductive start to the third quarter." Soon thereafter the Patriots built their lead to 38-7. The game was over for all intents and purposes in large part because the Patriots wouldn't stay blocked. 

Will the Patriots be able to confuse the Chiefs and MVP frontrunner Patriots Mahomes in the AFC title game next week due to their unique pressure packages? They bottled him up well at times in Week 6, allowing only nine points in the first half, so it's not impossible. 

But if they do, they'll have to do it in a far different way than the up-the-gut pressure the Patriots cooked up Sunday. They'll have a mobile quarterback on their hands again after a brief respite in the Divisional Round. 

"Great not to see one for a change," Clayborn said, "but right back at it next week."

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Former Patriots DE Chris Long announces retirement

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Former Patriots DE Chris Long announces retirement

Former Patriots defensive end and Super Bowl 51 champion Chris Long announced his retirement on Twitter Saturday night. 

The 11-year veteran had been mulling over the decision for the last four months after his season with the Eagles ended in the NFC's Divisional round against the Saints. 

Long will exit the NFL with two Super Bowl championships, both coming in consecutive years with the Patriots and then the Eagles. In 2016 with the Patriots, Long totaled four sacks, 35 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hits. He will finish his career with 70 sacks, 85 tackles for loss and 150 quarterback hits.

Another legacy Long leaves will be his philanthropy. He donated an entire seasons worth of game checks to charity in 2017, and then donated a quarter of his salary in 2018 to help local children. Long was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year in February

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This stat should make Patriots fans excited for year two of JC Jackson

This stat should make Patriots fans excited for year two of JC Jackson

As an undrafted free agent coming into the 2018 season, cornerback J.C. Jackson made the most out of his opportunity by earning himself a starting spot on the Patriots' Super Bowl championship defense. 

Jackson will face higher expectations as he heads into his second season in the pros, but the Patriots and their fans should have plenty of reason to be optimistic about the young corner. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson ranked as the top corner in the NFL during the 2018 season in Passer Rating allowed (42.0), which was nearly 18 points higher than second place Avonte Maddox of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Jackson allowed just 22 for 262 yards and zero touchdowns on 42 targets last season. He was also seventh in forced incompletion rate and 12th in the NFL with an 82.4 coverage grade, according to PFF's rankings. 

Jackson is with elite company at the top spot of PFF's Passer Rating allowed, beating out Miami's Xavien Howard, Denver's Chris Harris Jr., and Chicago's Kyle Fuller. The Dolphins just recently made Howard the highest-paid corner in the league. 

But Jackson wasn't the only Patriot to crack the top-10. Stephon Gilmore finished 10th in this category with a 71.8 passer rating allowed. Gilmore experienced the best season of his career in 2018, making First Team All-Pro and making the game-clinching interception in Super Bowl 53. 

A lot of people like to talk about what the Patriots lose each offseason, but after letting Malcolm Butler walk in free agency to the Titans, Bill Belichick seems to have found an ample replacement in Jackson. 

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