Chargers Defense Fails to Learn from Two Decades of Patriots Dominance

We gave Gus Bradley credit for a great approach and game plan against the Ravens last Sunday. But his approach against the Patriots also deserves to be scrutinized as among the worst we’ve seen any defensive coordinator attempt against New England in recent memory.

We came into the game thinking that Bradley might be onto something with his 7 defensive backs approach against the Patriots. After all, it would help neutralize the mismatches and confusion New England generates with their unconventional formations (RBs and TEs on the perimeter, WRs inside).

Unfortunately for the Chargers, and all fans of football who wanted a close and intriguing game, Bradley’s defense played the softest zone coverage we’ve seen against the Patriots in a long, long time.

We’ve beaten the drum on this plenty, but conceding underneath throws to the Patriots, who primarily attack with short underneath throws in the passing game, is the most surefire way to get beat. It’s an approach that has never worked against the Tom Brady-led Patriots. We repeat. Never.

Brady doesn’t lose his patience. If you give him 5 yards uncontested, he’ll take it every time. Soft coverage that fails to disrupt receivers means Brady can get the ball out of his hands quickly. This neutralizes any pass rush. The Chargers’ hopes of getting to Brady were taken away by their own approach in coverage.

The Chargers played almost all cover-3 zone in the first half, with the exception of a handful of snaps. Tony Romo was right on the money during the broadcast, repeatedly saying you can’t just play zone against Brady. This oversimplified things a bit. You can play zone, but you have to jam and disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage. You have to disguise. You have to be prepared for the route concepts they attack with. The Chargers did none of these things.

Below are just a few examples of L.A.’s noncompetitive approach. On the first play, keep an eye on the underneath defender in the slot at the bottom of the screen. That’s cornerback Desmond King (#20). This was a 2nd-and-10 and he ended up dropping two yards behind the first down marker.

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His responsibility there was the curl-flat area, but he ended up way too far on top of Edelman’s out-route from the slot. This was something we saw repeatedly from the Chargers.

On the below play, watch Chargers safety Rayshawn Jenkins (#23) in the slot at the bottom of the screen. This was 1st-and-10 and he also dropped 2 yards beyond the first down marker.

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Who was he covering? What route was he taking away there? He ended up deeper than the outside deep 3rd defender in cover-3. This play was an incompletion because Brady and Chris Hogan weren’t on the same page. The point here is that playing that soft against this passing game creates so many easy throws underneath. It made absolutely no sense in this matchup, yet the Chargers continued to do it.

You can see this again on the below play. Watch Desmond King (#20) in the slot. He was, once again, the underneath defender in cover-3 and, once again, he dropped 2 yards beyond the first-down marker. The Chargers had no one covering the underneath zones on this play.

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The Chargers seemed to pay no attention to the first down markers. They didn’t vary the depth of their drops to account for the down and distance and all. Instead, they conceded underneath throws on play after play.

Underneath coverage is supposed to take away the underneath zones. Against the Patriots especially, you have to make Brady throw over the underneath coverage if you are going to play zone. The Chargers, instead, had everyone dropping deep. This, despite the fact that the Patriots do not really challenge defenses deep with their passing game.

This happened over and over and over again in the first half, and we really can’t explain or understand the thought process behind it. The Chargers didn’t jam or disrupt or get their hands on Patriots receivers at all when this game was still actually a game. It’s just absolutely confounding. We don’t think we can say that enough.

Just look at some of these numbers below:

On New England’s first drive, Brady attempted 8 passes, completing 7 for 60 yards. Those 8 passes traveled a combined 5 yards total from the line of scrimmage…And gained 60 yards. That’s how soft L.A.’s coverage was.

Brady attempted 29 passes in the first half for 233 yards. Those passes traveled, on average, 4.4 yards from the line of scrimmage. Of those 29 passes, 24 were thrown less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. 23 were thrown 6 yards or less from the line of scrimmage. 12 were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. How do you expect to force incompletions, sacks, turnovers, or negative plays when you provide so much space underneath that a quarterback can throw the ball without fear of putting it in harm’s way and still gain more than 8 yards per attempt?

We don’t mean to make it sound like the Patriots had nothing to do with their own success. Of course they did. They attacked with those short passes, knowing what coverage they would be getting. They called lots of screens, both running back screens and wide receiver screens to capitalize on the cushion they were receiving. This again contributed to Patriots receivers getting yards well before they were first contacted.

The Pats also took advantage of the Chargers’ smaller personnel by being persistent with the run. The Chargers caused several negative running plays early. New England didn’t let that get them away from the run, though. They stuck with it and had a lot of success.

The Patriots’ did a great job of mixing their runs. We saw powers, leads, inside zones, outside zones, sweeps, and lead draws. The Patriots had particular success with their outside zone lead runs. They absolutely blew the Chargers defensive line off the ball on these runs, getting great double teams on the play side. Defensive End Melvin Ingram was pushed 10 yards beyond the edge of the formation on one outside zone lead, resulting in a 40-yard run for Sony Michel.

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Two plays later, he was driven 5+ yards off the line of scrimmage into the end zone on a Rex Burkhead touchdown run.

The Patriots had their full arsenal working. The few times they attacked downfield in the passing game, they did so off of play-action. Brady has perfected his play-fakes at this point in his career, and combined with the Pats’ use of run-selling action up front, the Chargers were unable to decipher what was happening. The Patriots generated 3 big plays off of play-action at the intermediate levels, where there were huge windows, leading to gains of 17, 28, and 19.

Again, the Patriots generated much of their success, but the Chargers did themselves no favors by playing the style of defense that New England’s offense is designed to beat.

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