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.
The Patriots got good pressure up the middle here on a stunt between their two best interior rushers. Butler was the penetrator, while Flowers looped around. Chargers lost Butler as he was passed off.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 14, 2019
(Hightower also overpowers RT Sam Tevi, making it a party in the backfield.) pic.twitter.com/cLVtbAcpcF
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.
“Amoeba” look here to generate pressure up the middle again. Van Noy and Flowers clear space for Simon and Hightower to get up the gut. Rivers doesn’t move off his spot, but the throw is out early and inaccurate. Result: another punt. pic.twitter.com/naixubzLI5— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 14, 2019
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.
Flowers and Butler working together here again on Flowers’ sack. This time two Chargers stick with Butler, giving Flowers all kinds of room to loop around and get to Rivers. Patriots mixed in plenty of blitzes throughout the day, but this was just a four-man rush. pic.twitter.com/za7p7QRATl— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 14, 2019
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.
When you’re just getting unblocked off the nose, it’s a good sign you have the offensive line baffled. Rivers was hot after this one.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 14, 2019
“You know what? If I was him,” Butler said, “I’d be mad as hell, too. That’s Football 101. You can’t cut the closest guy to the ball loose.” pic.twitter.com/6utjOTSBJy
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.
Last one. More middle pressure. Again with the “Amoeba” look. Flowers and Simon flush left. Hightower fills in behind. Rivers completes the throw but is well short of the first down. Another punt coming. pic.twitter.com/q7xVH1hago— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 14, 2019
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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