By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots will open the 2011 season at home on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, game time is 4:15p.m.
While the Patriots have enjoyed some good success against the Bolts in recent years, the Chargers usually play the Patriots tough. Last season after a series of errors in the first half had the Patriots with a seemingly comfortable lead, Philip Rivers led a furious second half comeback that just fell short with a missed 50 yard FG as time expired.
San Diego always has played Tom Brady tough and always seems to gather in at least one turnover from him while making life difficult for the Pats QB.
The Chargers are one of the more talented teams in the NFL (they always are) and this season many are picking them to go to the Super Bowl. Whether or not they make it to this year’s dance may have an impact on head coach Norv Turner’s status. The Chargers have been notorious slow starters under Turner and last season’s slow start cost them a berth in the playoffs.
The Patriots added a lot of new faces, especially on the defensive side of the ball this off-season and the results on Monday Night Football in Miami were mixed but generally positive. So with two teams that are garnering a lot of support for long post-season runs meeting for the first of possibly two meetings this season, let’s look at some key matchups.
Patriots Running Game: The Patriots two headed tandem of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead ran pretty well against a tough Miami front seven on Monday night. They’ll have to do the same against a very stout Chargers unit to keep the Bolts from pinning their ears back against Tom Brady.
The Chargers, save for one big run from Adrian Peterson, did a very good job of limiting the Vikings star from being the big factor in the game. They did lost DE Luis Castillo indefinitely with a broken left leg. In his place, rookie first round pick Corey Liuget played well. He will probably be targeted regardless as the Patriots look to establish some balance in the running game.
The Chargers picked up tackling machine Takeo Spikes at ILB this off-season, and for New England to be effective, Spikes will have to be neutralized. With C Dan Koppen out with a broken ankle, that may fall to Dan Connolly.
It will be tough sledding against the Bolts front seven, Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will have to come up with creative play calling to open up some gaps for the Patriots to run.
Patriots Passing Game: Tom Brady had another game for the record books on Monday night in Miami, passing for 517 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Fins. But his yardage numbers against the Bolts seems to be always a tough go. Last season he was a pedestrian 19-32 for only a 159 yards and 1 TD in San Diego. Likewise, the Bolts held Deion Branch and Wes Welker to small outputs of only 4 catches each with only 39 and 25 yards respectively because they do such a good job of limiting yards after catch.
The Bolts corners Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason are very good and can challenge the Patriots wideouts at the line, limiting their separation. Safeties Eric Weddle and the talented but perennially hurt Bob Sanders are active. San Diego limited Donovan McNabb and the Vikes to just 39 yards passing last week.
The Chargers will play tight and try to take away the short and intermediate passing game and challenge Brady to throw deep, relying on their excellent pass rush highlighting Shaun Phillips.
The Patriots will counter this by trying to isolate one of the tight ends in coverage, both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski provide matchup wins for the Patriots. Brady will try to target them to loosen up the defense. With so many weapons at his disposal, it just comes down to giving him time to find the open man.
Rookie RT Nate Solder did a fantastic job of limiting the Dolphins Cameron Wake last week, he will have his hands full again with the veteran Phillips. Look for Brady to screen pass a bit more in this game with Woodhead to counter the pass rush.
Chargers Running Game: The Chargers Ryan Matthews struggled against the solid Vikings defense getting only 45 in 12 carries. They need him to pick up the slack and provide the balance needed since LT II left town. So far, he’s been inconsistent in his short career. They rely on Mike Tolbert to get the tough short yardage carries and keep opponents off balance.
The Patriots did a very good job of limiting the Dolphins to run effectively, not that it was a big surprise, Reggie Bush is not an every down between the tackles guy. The biggest rusher was QB Chad Henne who scrambled for 59 yards. With Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork anchoring the middle of the line, it’s going to be tough for anyone to run against this defense.
While San Diego’s offensive line is better than Miami’s, I don’t see this changing much. One matchup to watch will be C Nick Hardwick and G Kris Dielman against Haynesworth in the middle. That should be an entertaining battle. One other thing to watch is who plays the MLB position for the Patriots. Brandon Spikes was a healthy scratch last week. He could be in Bill Belichick’s doghouse.
Chargers Passing Game: What more can people say about Philip Rivers? He passed for 4700 yards last season and is fiery and tough. He played the AFC Championship game in Foxboro back in 2007 with a torn ACL.
Rivers has arguably the best TE threat in the business with Antonio Gates, who is finally healthy after his foot injuries are behind him. He gives the same matchup nightmares as the Patriots TEs. And you know, Rivers and he are watching the film of Anthony Fasano having a big game against the Patriots defense last week.
The Bolts have a deep, talented stable of wide receivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd provide an excellent 1-2 punch and Rivers will test the waters with the deep ball as the Chargers like to stretch the defense. Patrick Crayton the Bolts’ very good slot receiver has been out and it’s unsure whether he’ll be available for this one.
Last week Minnesota took away the deep threat and Rivers ate them up with underneath routes to Tolbert and of course to Gates. The Chargers and the Patriots are alike in their approach, if you take away one aspect of the passing game, they’ll throw to two others.
The Patriots will have to dial up some pressure on Rivers to take away his time to survey the field. Andre Carter, Mark Anderson along with Shaun Ellis will be the keys for the Patriots here. Carter and Anderson each had a sack last week and will be looked to provide some pressure on Rivers and force him into mistakes. But the Chargers will get plenty of passing yards, bank on it.
One telling stat from last week was the third down matchup. Last year the Patriots were dismal on third down, last week, despite giving up a lot of yards through the air, the Patriots held the Dolphins to 2-14 on third downs. While it is only one game, the difference between 47% and 14% is startling. This must continue for a defense that is just starting to find its feet.
Special Teams: How could a team that had the #1 offense and the #1 defense in the NFL miss the playoffs in 2010? Look no farther than the woeful performance of the Bolts special teams last year. This was supposed to be fixed but the Vikes’ Percy Harvin took back the opening kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown in the opener. To add injury to insult, while trying to make the tackle, excellent K Nate Kaeding tore his left ACL and is gone for the season.
With Julian Edelman having an excellent pre-season, this is an area that the Patriots must exploit. Edelman can change field position or put six on the board for the Pats.
With Kaeding out, and Stephen Gostkowski kicking for New England, this is a clear cut advantage for the Patriots. But Gostkowski can’t afford any misses this week as he missed a 48 yard FG at the end of the half this week.
‘X’ – Factors: The Chargers are always one of, if the not the most talented teams of the league. But under Norv Turner, they are always one of the slowest starting teams. Coming into New England for an early season matchup with both teams being tagged as two of the more dominant teams in the AFC is not the time for a stinker.
The Patriots always play well at home, not having lost a home regular season game since 2008 with Matt Cassel at QB. This is a huge psychological advantage, coupled with the fact that the Bolts never seem to bring their “A” game to the East Coast.
And coupled with the fact that Bill Belichick is unmatched in the ability to game plan the Patriots opponents should give the Patriots a big edge here.
Conclusions: This one should be another close game, akin to the game last season where it went right down to the wire. Both QBs are at the top of their game, lost in the hoopla over Brady’s record night was Rivers throwing for over 300 yards against Minnesota.
Both teams should be able to move the ball through the air, as Brady and Rivers should each be able to find favorable matchups to find the open man. Gronkowski and Hernandez for Brady and Gates for Rivers are the type of TEs that give defensive coordinators nightmares.
Wes Welker is fully recovered from his knee injury and gives Brady the great outlet in the slot. In the past, the Bolts have slid their coverage down low to limit Welker’s YAC (yards after catch), here is where Hernandez comes into play and can break a deep pass or two.
The Patriots will have to dial up some pressure on Rivers, something that has been missing the past few years but now with the new players along the defensive line, it’s something the Chargers will have to deal with.
In the end, the slight edge of the Patriots running game over San Diego’s will allow the Patriots to balance things out better and control the game as the Patriots hold serve at home. Brady will only throw for 200 – 250 yards here, but the Patriots use special teams and the running game to edge the Chargers 31-27.
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