Thursday, September 15, 2011
Updated: September 16, 3:02 PM ET
Signs point to a Pats-Chargers shootout
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's home opener against the San Diego Chargers.
Mike: This has the makings of a high-scoring game and an emotional weekend when factoring in Drew Bledsoe's induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame and the team handing out 70,000 pins in memory of Myra Kraft. The Patriots haven't lost a home opener at Gillette Stadium, and they've won 14 of their past 16. I know you feel like the emotion of the day could help the Patriots, and I do, too. But in the end, it will come down to performance, and there are a few notable injuries, starting with center Dan Koppen, who is out with a fractured fibula.
Tedy: For the communication aspect of that offensive line, there is a lot that goes on with the center. You see Tom Brady making the checks, but there is a lot going on with the center, who is moving his head from left to right, communicating to Brian Waters on his right and to Logan Mankins on his left, and they start communicating to the tackles. It all starts in the middle, and that's Koppen. It's been Koppen for so long, and that's a huge factor in their success. The Patriots must decipher the Chargers' schemes, so that will be something to watch. Can Connolly communicate that as well as Koppen did?
Mike: Another factor is shotgun snapping. The Patriots use it a lot, and Koppen was almost taken for granted in that regard. I remember Connolly having some trouble with it in the 2008 preseason game at Tampa Bay, but he's really improved since then.
Tedy: We also saw former Patriots offensive lineman Damien Woody have problems with the shotgun snap, and he ended up being moved to guard. Sometimes it becomes mental when you have those problems. As soon as you snap the ball, you have to look and decipher rush combinations and try to pick up the right men to block. Just looking at that quarterback/center exchange, it's a different tempo and flow. A quarterback like Brady develops a comfort knowing where the ball is going to be, and now it's a change, so that's something to watch closely.
Mike: One other injury of note is with defensive lineman Mike Wright, who led the team with 5.5 sacks last season. He sustained a concussion in the season opener, and after missing the final seven games of 2010 with a concussion, this is a troubling situation for him.
Tedy: Any time you're talking about neck and brain injuries, it doesn't get much more serious than that. Concussions have received a lot of attention in part because of the issues that so many former players have had. It comes down to "What does Mike Wright want to do?" It could be a situation where doctors say it's still OK to play, or do they tell him that if he gets another one it could do some serious damage? That's where a player has to face his mortality and think about the long term.
Patriots' defense vs. Chargers' offense
Mike: A lot of places we could start here, as the Patriots are coming off a season-opening performance in which the Dolphins gained 488 yards of total offense. Some see those numbers as a sign of "just like last year," while others focus on holding the Dolphins to 2-of-14 on third down as a step in the right direction. This Chargers offense can move the ball in a hurry.
Tedy: The Patriots have had some difficulties with big receivers in recent years. This year, we saw it in the third preseason game against the Lions with Calvin Johnson and Maurice Stovall, when it seemed like those two guys were outphysicaling the defensive backs for the ball, whether it was jump balls or brushing them off for an underthrown ball. Then you look at Monday night and Brandon Marshall, a 6-foot-4 receiver, and he had some success. Cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling were there, in position, so it comes to the time when the ball is in the air and you win or lose. Right now, I'm seeing those bigger receivers being able to overpower the cornerbacks. Now, you look at the Chargers with Vincent Jackson at 6-5 and Malcom Floyd at 6-5, and you can count tight end Antonio Gates at 6-4, who is like a receiver.
Mike: It is interesting how the Patriots have gotten bigger at cornerback over the past few years, as we've seen a shift in philosophy of sorts. Gone are the Darius Butlers, Terrence Wheatleys and Jonathan Wilhites -- that corner in the 5-9, 185-pound mold -- and in their place are McCourty, who is 5-10, 193, but plays bigger, as well as Leigh Bodden (6-1, 193) and Dowling (6-1, 198). We'll see how they hold up against a tough Chargers passing attack that threw for 335 yards in the opener against the Vikings.
Tedy: They're playing more man coverages and counting on those guys to execute. I think that's where the size comes in, so you're not as overpowered in that spot. Maybe Coach Belichick sees it down the line, that you have to deal with Brandon Marshall twice a year, Plaxico Burress twice a year, and then there is a game like this week. Maybe the size helps.
Mike: So you're Bill Belichick and you get into that defensive meeting room, where do you start your plan this week when factoring in tight end Antonio Gates? Earlier this week, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was talking about how teams try to defend Gates, with a key not letting him get off the line of scrimmage. Rivers joked that the Chiefs are one team that treated Gates like a gunner on the punt team, with two defenders vising him.
Tedy: It's been notable how Coach Belichick has handled receiving-type tight ends in the past such as Dallas Clark, Kellen Winslow and Gates. When you have a tight end like that, you are accounted for. He uses his front seven to do that at times. Even though Gates might be covered by a safety, there is a "hammer" call you can use, where a defensive end or outside linebacker disrupts Gates at the line of scrimmage before he gets out into his pattern. You double-team with an inside linebacker. The key thing is just making sure he gets hit before he gets off the line. Out of everything, I'd expect that is where Belichick goes first in the game plan.
Mike: Gates had eight catches for 74 yards last week. Overall, it was a game in which Rivers went more to his running backs and tight ends than receivers. That runs a little counter to what we often hear Belichick talk about with a Norv Turner-type offense, which features those big strikes down the field. The Vikings worked hard to take those away from the Chargers last week, so it took Rivers a lot of pass attempts (48 in total) to reach 300 yards. Thoughts on Rivers and where he falls among NFL quarterbacks?
Tedy: When you look at the Chargers' offense under Turner, it's reminiscent of the Troy Aikman-to-Michael Irvin days with the Cowboys. It's not just a quick out or quick slant pattern. They want the deep 15- to 20-yard out. The in-cutting route that is deeper than the linebackers, just inside the free safety. They go down the field, and as for Rivers, he has the talent to do that. He is a scrapper. He's not as elusive and hard to bring down as a Ben Roethlisberger or Michael Vick, but he just battles in the pocket and will hold it until the very last second. He'll use his physical attributes -- he has good size (6-5, 228) -- and he'll stand in that pocket and deliver the ball with someone's helmet right under his chin.
|The size of receivers Malcom Floyd (6-foot-5) and Vincent Jackson (6-5) and tight end Antonio Gates (6-4) is enough to give any defensive backfield fits. |
Patriots' offense vs. Chargers' defense
Mike: When I asked running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis what his impressions of the Chargers' defense were, he started with veteran inside linebacker Takeo Spikes, who is in his first year with the team.
Tedy: I think it says a lot about Spikes and how he was signed from the 49ers this offseason, coming to San Diego with his old defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, that he's already been named a captain. That speaks volumes about how your teammates think about your ability and leadership. Spikes still has it in him. Elsewhere at linebacker, Shaun Phillips gives you problems from the outside. Bill Belichick said this week that it would be suicide not to account for him in pass protection.
Mike: The Chargers do have some injury issues, losing starting defensive end Luis Castillo to a broken leg. That ends his season. Castillo was a first-round draft choice in the 2005 draft and one of their best players.
Tedy: I like rookie Corey Liuget, their first-round pick out of Illinois. He's a player I thought could have been a great pick for the Patriots, so more attention will be on him now that Castillo is out. He started the season opener and had two tackles, one for a loss.
Mike: They also like their nose tackle, Antonio Garay, the former Boston College product who has interesting career progression. They also will be counting more on third-year end Vaughn Martin, who had a good preseason. Meanwhile, on the back end, their safeties have good name recognition -- Eric Weddle and Bob Sanders. How do you view those two relative to matchups against Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez?
Tedy: They are good safeties. Sanders, as we know, has battled a string of injuries. When healthy, I view him more as a run-supporter, the big hitter. Weddle got the big contract in the offseason and he's always been solid, in my opinion, almost like a Jim Leonhard type of guy. He's always in the right position to make a big play. That being said, Gronkowski and Hernandez are a special combination. I think the reason why we saw the Patriots use Gronkowski and Hernandez so much last week (65 of 80 snaps with two or more tight ends on the field) was because of the quality the Dolphins had at cornerback with Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. The Patriots obviously didn't anticipate them cramping up and leaving the game, which opened everything up, but the idea was to have the two tight ends attack the middle of the defense. Looking at San Diego, they have a couple of good corners in Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, so you could see a similar approach this week.
Mike: From an overall standpoint, if you're offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, how are you attacking this defense? The Patriots struggled against the Chargers last year in a 23-20 win, gaining just 179 net yards. Tom Brady was sacked four times.
Tedy: Overall, I don't see this Patriots' offense saying, "Let's really establish this run, ground-and-pound it, and have 35 rushes." That's just not who they are. They throw the ball to set up the run. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead will get their carries, but a lot of their success comes from the passing game keeping the defense on their heels, thinking they have to drop back in coverage. I still think to spread this team out, and focus on the passing game is the way to go. But one factor to consider is that the Patriots usually don't show the same thing two weeks in a row, as they are a game-plan offense.
Mike: Pass protection will be a key, as the Chargers can bring some pressure. It looks like starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has a good chance of returning from a back injury that kept him out of the season opener, which figures to bump first-round pick Nate Solder to the swing tackle role. Antwan Barnes has been a productive rusher for the Chargers. It wouldn't be surprising to see Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky try to pressure up the middle, so I'm interested to see how Connolly holds up at center.
Tedy: Another thing to look at is special teams. The Chargers allowed a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Percy Harvin last week. They had a lot of struggles last year on special teams, and I'm sure everyone in the stands was saying "Here we go again," but what impressed me was the mental toughness they showed to overcome that.
Mike: It's also notable that the Chargers lost kicker Nate Kaeding to a left knee injury, and they'll go with Nick Novak at kicker. As for our predictions, this looks like it has the potential to be a high-scoring, entertaining game. The Patriots have been tough in home openers, although this is a challenging spot coming off a Monday night road game. If Tom Brady gets the same level of pass protection as he did Monday, he could once again light up the scoreboard. In turn, I think the Patriots' defense will create just enough resistance. Patriots 35, Chargers 31.
Tedy: Tom Brady hasn't lost a regular-season home game in a long time -- Nov. 12, 2006 to the New York Jets -- and I think his streak continues. The Patriots' defense doesn't want to have another performance like last week. I think they answer the bell, and I wouldn't be surprised if Chad Ochocinco is incorporated more into the offense and catches around five balls and gets a touchdown. Patriots 31-28 in overtime.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
|Tedy Bruschi expects tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to be a big part of the Patriots' offensive game plan this week. |