Chargers-Patriots guide: Can Bolts' pass rush slow Brady down?
NFL

AFC Divisional Round
Who:
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at New England Patriots (11-5)
When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
TV: CBS
Odds: Patriots -4
Over/Under: 47.5

Tale of the tape

2018 Stats Chargers Patriots
Points Per Game 26.8 (T-6) 27.3 (4)
Points Allowed/Game 20.6 (8) 20.3 (7)
Rush Yards/Game 117.1 (15) 127.3 (5)
Pass Yards/Game 256 (10) 266 (8)
Total Yards/Game 372.6 (11) 393.4 (5)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 105.8 (9) 112.7 (11)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 228 (9) 246 (22)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 333.7 (9) 359.1 (21)
Third-Down Offense 39.5% (16) 40.8% (13)
Third-Down Defense 39.1% (18) 38.6% (16)
Team Sacks 38 (T-19) 30 (T-30)
Turnover Differential +1 (T-15) +10 (5)

(Regular-season rank in parentheses)

Game-breaker

Chargers' 4-man pass rush could be a problem for Tom Brady

Conventional wisdom tells us that the blueprint to beating Tom Brady is getting pressure on him with just four pass-rushers. This enabled the New York Giants, for example, to crush the Patriots' dreams of a perfect season in Super Bowl 42. And no other team in recent history is as well-suited to execute such a game plan as the 2018 Los Angeles Chargers.

Los Angeles tallied 38 sacks this year during the regular season, good for middle of the pack. However, the underlying numbers might give Patriots fans pause. On 11 of those sacks, the Chargers brought five pass-rushers; on 27 of them, they brought just four.

What makes this Chargers pass rush so deadly? It begins with Melvin Ingram. Los Angeles' versatile star aligns all over the defense. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can put him on the inside to work against a guard, as he does here against the Oakland Raiders:

NFL

Or he can be deployed on the outside, giving him an opportunity to beat an offensive tackle in a one-on-one situation:

NFL

When the Chargers decide to bring an extra rusher, it's often rookie safety Derwin James. Bradley likes to blitz the safety from the edge or the slot, and will slant the rest of the defensive front away from him:

NFL

This blitz package gives James a one-on-one matchup of his own:

NFL

There's a silver lining for Patriots fans. Because the Chargers rely heavily on four- and five-man pressure schemes, they play a ton of zone coverage in the secondary. In fact, after the Colts, the Chargers deployed the most zone coverage this year, using it on 58 percent of their plays. Brady has traditionally been deadly against zone coverage, and if he can find time to throw on Sunday, he could put up some big numbers.

Biggest mismatch

Patriots DL Trey Flowers vs. Chargers OT Sam Tevi

Trey Flowers is the most underrated defensive lineman in football, but don’t be surprised if he finally starts to get the acclaim he deserves after this weekend. He should take full advantage of Chargers right tackle Sam Tevi, who tends to struggle against high-quality opposition.

Flowers is a technically refined defensive lineman who is equally impactful against the run or pass. As a pass-rusher, Flowers doesn’t have double-digit sack production, but he does generate a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Against the run, Flowers plays with excellent pad level and hand usage, allowing him to stack and shed blocks with ease. He has the strength to hold his ground versus double teams and the ability to penetrate and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Tevi, on the other hand, is one of the more unrefined starting tackles in the league. His footwork is not crisp, making it difficult for him to recover in pass protection or perform reach blocks in the run game. His hand technique is sorely lacking, as his strikes lack force and speed, making it easy for defenders to counter:

NFL

On this play, Tevi is opposite Seahawks pass-rusher Frank Clark. When the ball is snapped, Tevi attempts to square Clark up by immediately expanding outside to meet him.

Instead of executing a quick and forceful strike to disrupt Clark’s rush, Tevi tries to come underneath his opponent's hands to reach and grab onto his frame. Because Tevi is wide and slow with his hands, Clark is able to easily parry the strike by swatting Tevi’s arms down as he races into the backfield.

Things won't get any easier for Tevi against Flowers, whose hands are among the most precise in the NFL - both against the run and the pass.

Don’t be surprised if Flowers has a big-time performance Sunday as he has his way with Tevi throughout the game.

3 keys to the game

Chargers defending play-action: The Patriots lead the league in play-action yards per attempt (9.9), and they run play-action at the fourth-highest volume league-wide.

Any team will struggle against play-action when it’s run effectively. The Chargers have been solid if unspectacular against it. They concede an average of 7.6 yards per play against play-fakes. That’s fine against regular-season foes, but it’s enough to lose a game pretty handily in Foxboro.

Do the Patriots unleash Gronk? It's obvious that Rob Gronkowski is not the same player he used to be. You can almost see the creaking of the machinery through the TV as he trundles downfield.

Still, does he have a throwback game in him? Brady always looks to Gronkowski in big moments during the playoffs. Sunday will likely be no different.

Trent Brown vs. Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram: Joey Bosa and Ingram are flat-out unblockable when they’re playing at their highest levels, which they are right now. Ingram’s tape against Baltimore last week should be labeled "for mature audiences only." Bosa has rebounded nicely from his prolonged foot injury; his spring, burst, and agility are all back.

Poor Trent Brown will have to try to block one on nearly every snap. Sometimes, the Chargers line Ingram and Bosa up alongside one another in an act of sheer cruelty.

Brown is a good player, big and long and quicker than you would think given his measurables. But stopping Bosa and Ingram is a challenge for even the very best left tackle in the league, and Brown isn’t close to that level just yet.

Betting action report

Bettors keen on the Chargers are hoping Philip Rivers can break a unique trend when his club takes on the Patriots: beating Brady. Rivers is 0-7 straight up and 1-6 against the spread in his seven starts vs. Brady, helping his team average just 16.4 points per game.

What bettors certainly like is Los Angeles' 9-0 record on the road this season, as the Chargers are garnering 56 percent of the bets and 66 percent of the money on the spread, as well as 72 percent of the moneyline tickets and 77 of the handle on an alluring price of roughly +170.

Predictions

Mark Schofield: The Patriots' offensive line might be the unsung heroes of their season, and that unit boasts the talent and experience to protect Brady. In addition, watch for the weather. It might be a snowy day in Foxboro and that could slow down this Los Angeles pass rush a bit. Patriots 23, Chargers 20.

John Owning: The Chargers' poor offensive line finally comes back to bite them, as Brady works his magic late to get the win. Patriots 24, Chargers 17.

Oliver Connolly: I really, really want to pick the Chargers, but I can't. It cuts against logic, but I'll always take the Brady-Belichick combo at home in January. Patriots 27, Chargers 21.

Alex Kolodziej: Rivers finally gets the better of Brady as the Chargers kick off the beginning of the end of the Patriots' dynasty. Chargers 23, Patriots 20.

Comments
Chargers-Patriots guide: Can Bolts' pass rush slow Brady down?
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
Daily Newsletter
Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox