Here are 10 things worth watching for in Sunday’s Patriots-Chargers game:
Special teams: There’s no easy way to put this: the Chargers are awful on special teams. Even Google thinks so — when you Google “Chargers’ special teams,” one of the suggestions that comes up is “fire Chargers special teams coach.”
Two weeks ago against the Raiders, San Diego surrendered two blocked punts in a four-minute stretch, which Oakland promptly flipped for a safety and a touchdown. They’ve also allowed a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown at Kansas City and two kickoff returns for touchdowns at Seattle. They are on their fifth long snapper of the season. And starting kicker Nate Kaeding is out for Sunday’s game with a groin injury.
Meanwhile, with return man Brandon Tate second in the league in kick return yardage, and punter Zoltan Mesko and kicker Stephen Gostkowski coming off impressive back-to-back outings when it comes to creating great field position, the Patriots have shown themselves to have one of the best special teams’ units in the NFL, especially over the last two games. New England should be able to take advantage of a colossal mismatch on Sunday.
Helmet-to-helmet hits: After what happened last weekend, expect officials to be exceptionally vigilant when it comes to helmet-to-helmet hits. Will the renewed spotlight on such collisions, will it change the way players — specifically, defensive backs — play? The player who was at the eye of the storm this week said he just wants to get back to fundamental football and have all the extra stuff “just go away.”
"I’m going to try my best to play within the rules, like my coach had always taught us,” safety Brandon Meriweather said earlier this week. “I’m going to hit and play the game like my coaches have always taught us. Even in training camp, we have always been taught the proper way to hit, and I’m just going to focus on that and put it in my game in some way, shape, form, or fashion. And from here on, I’m focusing on the Chargers. And anything else spoken on this, I will not comment on."
“We can’t play any different,” safety Pat Chung said this week. “We’re going to play football, follow the rules and we’re going to play football.”
Containing Philip Rivers: While the Chargers have had their problems throughout the first six games of the season, Rivers hasn’t been one of them. The quarterback has managed to put up some impressive numbers in the passing game — he’s averaging a league-best 316 passing yards a game — even without Vincent Jackson riding shotgun. He’ll present a real challenge for a New England secondary that’s coming off its second consecutive positive performance.
Rivers has been particularly impressive when it comes to delivering the deep ball — according to Nuggetpalooza, the Chargers are throwing deeper passes to their pass catchers than any team in the NFL this season. Their average reception has come 13.7 yards downfield, which is on pace to be the highest mark since at least 2003. In addition, when Rivers throws deep (more than 30 yards downfield), he’s 6-for-12, with a 49-yard average and three touchdowns.
“They don’t care whether you’re up, back one, one deep, two deep, three deep, man coverage, zone coverage — they’re going deep on every play,” Belichick said of the Chargers’ passing attack. “They don’t really care what you’re in; they’re going deep. If they’ve got you beat, they throw it, and if they don’t have you beat, like I said, then you run out of guys to cover [Antonio] Gates – although he goes deep, too – but Gates and [Darren] Sproles and [Ryan] Matthews and [Randy] McMichael and whoever else is under there. That’s what makes it tough.”
Defending Antonio Gates: If Gates is available — and that’s a big if, considering the fact that he’s been hobbled by a toe injury that’s kept him from practicing all well — he remains a dynamic part of the San Diego passing game. He’s always given the Patriots a hard time, including a 2005 game in Foxboro where he finished with 108 yards receiving.
However, if he can play, he will present a difficult matchup problem for the Patriots, who will be facing their first truly elite tight end of the year in Gates without safety Brandon McGowan. McGowan built a rep last season as a designated tight end stopper, but went on injured reserve in the first week of September with a chest injury. With no McGowan and Jarrad Page (a bulkier safety who might be able to get physical with Gates like McGowan has been able to do, sidelined because of a calf injury, it remains to be seen who would draw the assignment of slowing down Gates.
For what it’s worth, Gates has started 85 straight regular-season games, longest on the team and has never missed a game — regular season or playoffs — due to injury. He wants to go. "My streak is on the line," Gates told San Diego reporters this week with a smile. "More important is we're trying to make a run, make a push. The next few games are important to our season. I want to do whatever I can to help and not hurt the team."
Protecting Tom Brady: The Chargers have the best group of pure pass-rushers the Patriots will have faced this season. They have 21 sacks on the season, and outside linebacker Shaun Phillips leads the way with six of his own through six games (San Diego is tied for second in the league as a team, and Phillips is fourth-best in the league among individuals). Meanwhile, the Patriots have done a good job protecting Brady, yielding just eight sacks through five games, tied for the fourth-lowest mark in the league.
“They’ve been doing a great job, damn good,” Brady said of his offensive line. “They do a great job of sorting things out. We’re playing against some pretty good defenses – Baltimore, the Jets, Cincy’s been good. Miami’s good. We’re playing some good guys. They battle all day and that’s all you can ask of those guys. They’re doing a great job.”
Playing 60 minutes: Through much of 2009 and the first part of 2010, the Patriots struggled to play 60 minutes of consistent football on both offense and defense, especially away from home. The last two games, New England has shown an extraordinary ability to finish off teams, playing well in all four quarters — while holding a lead — against the Dolphins and Ravens. The Patriots were particularly impressive down the stretch against Baltimore, where they displayed a real mental toughness late in the fourth quarter and into overtime that would have fit right in alongside the 2003 and 2004 New England teams.
“In a game like this against San Diego, we can’t just play 30 minutes of football,” Brady said. “There’s not one position on this team that can’t have their best game. The way they play at home, the explosiveness they have on offense, the way they’re creating turnovers on defense and sacks and negative plays, each guy in this locker room has to have their best game this week.”
Adjusting to playing on San Diego: With the exception of the dramatic playoff win over the Chargers in January 2007, victories out West have been few and far between for New England. There were ugly losses in San Diego in 2002 and 2008, and the last regular-season victory for the Patriots at Jack Murphy/Qualcomm was back in 1996. Even though the Chargers aren’t where they want to be in the standings, a trip to San Diego is always a battle.
Burgeoning Branch: In his return to the Patriots last weekend, Branch caught as many passes in four quarters (nine) as Randy Moss caught in four previous games. How will they continue to utilize him in the passing game? And how will the New England passing game continue to evolve in the post Randy Moss Era?
When it comes to the changing nature of the Patriots’ passing attack, one stat to keep an eye on comes from Nuggetpalooza — New England’s wide receivers averaged just 3.44 yards after the catch last weekend against Baltimore, their lowest average in the last 18 games and just the second time since at least 2003 that they’ve averaged less than 3.50 YAC despite 15 or more catches.
The Woodhead Factor: Since Kevin Faulk went down, Danny Woodhead has done an excellent job serving as a third-down, changeup back who can contribute in a lot of different areas. Last week against the Ravens, he accounted for 115 yards (63 rushing, 52 receiving) from scrimmage, including an average of 5.7 yards per carry.
One area where he was also able to provide a boost was in blitz pickup, where the sight of the 5-foot-9, 200-pound upending Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis on a block was one of the most impressive sights of the 2010 season. It sounds silly, but the Patriots have yet to lose with Woodhead in the lineup.
“I didn’t know much about him until we got him, but what a great surprise it’s been,” Brady said of Woodhead. “His ability to run the ball probably is the, you know, when you see a guy of his stature, you don’t know what to expect, but he really makes guys miss. He’s been great in the passing game. He has a great attitude. I think that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
The continuing emergence of New England’s young linebackers: While Jerod Mayo was credited with an absolutely ridiculous 19 tackles last week against the Ravens, both Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes also had great games against Baltimore.
According to Pro Football Focus, Spikes had five stops, defined as an offensive failure — which includes tackling somebody short of a first down on third down and a tackle for fewer than 4 yards on first down. In addition, he had six plays where he stood up or blew up his blocker to the point that it disrupted the play — three of those were against guards and three were against fullback Le’ron McClain. PFF said they only counted two plays where he was moved significantly at the point of attack, and both of those came from pulling guards who arrived at Spikes with a head of steam.
Meanwhile, Cunningham has seen a steady increase in playing time over the first five games, and had six tackles, one sack and one forced fumble against the Ravens. Cunningham, who missed a significant chunk of playing time during camp because of injury, also drew a costly personal foul penalty on fullback Le’Ron McClain in overtime that set the Ravens back.
“I can’t even really tell you what I said to him, but that’s in the past. The penalty went our way, and we came out with a W,” said Cunningham, who was nominated for Pepsi Rookie of the Week honors as a result of his effort. “I’m just trying to stay healthy and help the team in any way possible.”