Basing too much on a team’s most talented players or reading too much into what it just did is an outstanding way to give a horrible game forecast.
How many times since 2012 have we flapped our arms for six days about what J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the Texans are capable of, only to see them play like JAGs on Sundays? Several.
So there’s your grain of salt as we loosen up our jaws for a week of telling you how difficult the Chargers defense will be to deal with.
And they will be difficult to deal with.
Jenny Vrentas of Sports Illustrated was at the Chargers-Ravens game Sunday and did an excellent job highlighting the wrinkle L.A. threw at Baltimore’s land-locked offense under Lamar Jackson – using seven defensive backs.
Usually, when a team goes DB heavy, it’s to neutralize a passing game. But the Chargers believed they had to match the speed of Jackson and felt they could do so because they have a very athletic and sure-tackling secondary.
“Our defensive coaches felt like against this quarterback, it would be good to go small, because [the DBs] can help in coverage and they can help track Lamar,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn told Vrentas. “And it worked. Now, we were prepared to go a different direction if it didn’t work. But for the most part, it worked today.”
The Chargers stuck safety Rayshawn Jenkins deep, put corner Casey Hayward on Michael Crabtree and then dropped safeties Adrian Phillips and Jahleel Addae at the linebacker level, writes Vrentas.
“The DBs were better suited to match Jackson’s speed, which offset the gamble of using a smaller lineup to stop an offense that had been averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game in Jackson's seven starts since he took over for Flacco. The Ravens finished with just 90 rushing yards on Sunday.”
“Lamar Jackson ran a 4.3,” Jenkins said. “We needed some fast guys, right? We needed guys who could run sideline to sideline and still help in the passing game if they got fooled. Not saying our linebackers couldn’t do it, but let’s be honest, DBs are faster than linebackers.”
Here’s where the chess match featuring Lynn and L.A. defensive coordinator Gus Bradley against Bill Belichick and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels begins.
Because while the Patriots offense is the polar opposite of Baltimore’s, the heavy-DB scheme might still make sense.
When the Rex Ryan-coached Jets began having success against the Patriots, it’s because they’d flood the short middle with defensive backs and force Tom Brady to throw outside where he often didn’t have big-time talent at wide receiver. Lynn was on Ryan’s staff in New York and in Buffalo as well.
The Patriots' eventual answer became better personnel and the development of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
But the 2018 Patriots are back to being under-equipped in the passing game. Julian Edelman is the focal point and their best (only) wideout capable of winning consistently in 1-on-1 situations. Gronk looked better in Week 17 but he’s been so inconsistent it’s hard to bet on his production.
Besides, L.A. has two All-Pros – Desmond King and Derwin James – who will check Edelman and Gronk frequently. Forcing Brady off of his preferred options and onto Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan seems a winning defensive strategy.
But the Patriots’ counter is the diversity in their running game. They can use power with Sony Michel and fullback James Develin. Or they can use that rocket/jet/biplane/zeppelin (whatever air vehicle we’re using to describe it this week) motion and get action going side-to-side.
Speed on the field is great when you’re hauling down a willowy quarterback. How about when you’re getting a fullback and running back shoved down your throat? If the Chargers go more conventional to address the Patriots running game, then they may get a steady dose of play-action.
The bottom line to this is there is going to be a big feeling-out process at the start of this game where the Patriots try to divine the Chargers' defensive game plan.
Vrentas asked Lynn about the old Jets and Bills game plans against Brady where multiple DBs were used.
“That was for completely different reasons,” Lynn said.
I wrote after the game about the success the Patriots have had against the Cover-3 defense that Bradley is a disciple of.
The predictability of that scheme, even when there’s great talent carrying it out, has been an Achilles heel that Brady and McDaniels attack.
How do the Chargers try to cover up that heel? And does that open up a new spot for New England to exploit?
What the Chargers did to the Ravens Sunday – what they’ve done all year in going 8-1 on the road and winning in difficult venues – is impressive. And their roster is loaded with the kind of young talent that promises a nice run of success.
But the Patriots' backyard is lousy with the shallow graves of “young and impressive” teams that got big-brained right into the offseason.
The Chargers will have to buck a trend.
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