Chargers Outthink Themselves, Lose Winnable Game vs Patriots

The Patriots are certainly not rolling on all cylinders so far this season. One thing is still certain, though – A Bill Belichick-coached team will never lose by accident. Teams actually have to outplay the Patriots to beat them. It takes aggressiveness, but not over-the-top-let’s-arbitrarily-go-for-it-on-4th-and-6-and-put-ourselves-out-of-a-winnable-game aggressiveness…We’re looking at you Dan Quinn. It also doesn’t take trick plays and triple reverses or flea-flickers. It takes smart football. The Chargers failed in this respect on Sunday, and they lost a very winnable game as a result.

The Chargers had problems playing smart football in all three phases on Sunday. Travis Benjamin somehow managed to turn a punt to the 11-yard line into a safety. The defense, couldn’t get off the field down the stretch, partly due to a 3rd-and-5 off-sides penalty by Joey Bosa on a Tom Brady hard count. The offense made plenty of puzzling decisions as well.

For instance, on their first drive, instead of going for it on 4th-and-1 from the Patriots 33-yard line, the Chargers attempted a 51-yard field goal. Remember what we said about being smart but aggressive? This was absolutely the right time to go for it. A 4th-and-1 attempt versus a 51-yard field goal try on a windy and weathery day in New England? Any reasonable risk-reward analysis should have yielded the decision to go for it. The kick was no good, by the way.

After a touchdown on their next drive, the Chargers faced a 3rd-and-2 from their own 23-yard line. Melvin Gordon came off the field before the play, leaving Brandon Oliver in the backfield. The Chargers decided to split Philip Rivers to the wide side of the field and run the Wildcat. Clearly, the alignment dictated that the run would go to the short side of the field, away from Rivers. So let’s recap the thinking behind this play call: Play-making running back not on the field? Check. Ball taken out of your 14-year veteran quarterback’s hands on the money down? Check. Playcall and direction telegraphed to the defense? Check. Less space to find a running lane on the short side of the field? Check. Unsurprisingly, the Chargers would be forced to punt on the following play.

On their next 3rd down, a 3rd-and-2, the Chargers decided to run a wide-receiver screen. The pass itself was incomplete, but had it been caught, it likely would have been short of the first down…On a 3rd-and-2. Our problem with this playcall has more to do with our own philosophical preferences than anything the Chargers necessarily did wrong. Generally, we are against throwing passes short of the first down marker in 3rd-and-short situations, with very few exceptions. In these scenarios, the defense generally plays up at the line of scrimmage, so wide-receiver screens tend to have less margin for error. You’re also relying too much on your weakest blockers (wide receivers) to throw a successful block to spring the play. When you have a 14-year veteran at quarterback like Philip Rivers, you want the ball in his hands on important plays, especially considering New England does not have a great pass rush and Rivers had plenty of time to scan the field and throw the ball on Sunday. The two 3rd-and-short situations we have described here basically made Rivers a non-factor.

Sometimes, good coaching and smart decision-making is about doing the obvious. It’s about accentuating your own strengths and avoiding your weaknesses. Los Angeles failed in this respect on Sunday.

To be fair, the Chargers didn’t just lose this game on their own. They were facing Bill Belichick, who exploited L.A.’ biggest weakness. The Chargers’ interior offensive line featured a right guard in Kenny Wiggins making just his 17th career start, a center in Spencer Pulley making just his 8th start, and a left guard in Dan Feeney making his first career start. It was clear that Belichick’s gameplan was to attack that inexperience inside.

Again, smart football is sometimes just about doing the simple and obvious things.

The Chargers’ inexperienced interior O-line coupled with Philip Rivers’ lack of mobility signaled to Belichick that attacking up the middle was the best approach for this particular game. The Patriots did not generate a ton of pass rush pressure, but they did enough to disrupt the Chargers’ offense in pivotal moments.

On the Chargers’ first drive of the game, they had a 2nd-and-15 in New England territory. The Patriots blitzed up the middle versus a run, leading to a 2-yard loss and a 3rd-and-17. On their first drive of the 2nd half, when the Chargers were starting to get in rhythm and had driven the ball into New England territory again, the Patriots brought another blitz up the middle. New England was able to isolate linebacker David Harris on running back Melvin Gordon. Harris ran Gordon over, and this forced Rivers to scramble to his right, which is not exactly what the Chargers want. Rivers fumbled as he was trying to throw the ball away.

On their next drive, the Chargers had a 3rd-and-13. The Patriots showed a reduced front, which not only forced 1-on-1 matchups with their interior O-line, but it also forced 1-on-1 matchups on the edge. Defensive end Trey Flowers made an inside move to get pressure in Rivers’ face. Rivers had nowhere to step up, had to fade backwards and to his left, and ultimately threw an incompletion downfield as a result.

On the Chargers’ second to last drive of the game, they faced a pivotal 3rd-and-8. The Patriots brought another stunt inside to test the Chargers’ inexperience and give Rivers nowhere to step up in the pocket. The result was a free rusher in Rivers’ face and a tipped pass for an incompletion.

It would be a major stretch to say that the Patriots put constant pressure on Rivers all afternoon. In fact, their only sack came on Rivers’ self-induced fumble. The Patriots did just enough to disrupt the Chargers offense, though. And they were aided by some self-inflicted mistakes brought on by some severe overthinking.

Despite playing less than stellar football thus far this season, the Patriots are 6-2. You can credit the Bill Belichick psych-out factor (opposing coaching staffs thinking they need to trick the Patriots to beat them) for 2 or 3 of those wins.