The Los Angeles Chargers have the chance to dethrone the defending AFC champions in the Divisional Round. But for the Chargers to beat the New England Patriots, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley must evolve his scheme to avoid familiar traps.
The NFL playoffs continue this weekend as the Divisional Round kicks off with a pair of games on both Saturday and Sunday. The AFC owns both of the early time slots, while the NFC has primetime Saturday night and the afternoon Sunday affair.
Sunday’s AFC battle between the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots is the most even-matched of all four games. Both teams possess great coaching staffs and quarterbacks, and there’s history between the franchises.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers will be looking to avenge his 2007 playoff loss to the Patriots, a game where they lost 21-12 and Rivers played on a torn ACL. He played poorly that day, which has been the case much more often than not for him in his 10 career playoff games.
While Rivers and the powerful Chargers’ offense must play sharper and be more efficient than they’ve been in recent games even this season, they have the upside to score with anyone. Their deep receiving corps and running back tandem is as explosive as anyone’s.
Though both teams have significantly different levels of receiving talent, each utilize their running backs in the passing game at a high level.
And for the Chargers, how the Patriots produce with their backs is where their playoff fate is tied to the most.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s going to be under the microscope to see how he adjusts to slow an offense that’s had enormous success against both his units and others he’s influenced. He entered the Wild Card with the advantage of playing Lamar Jackson’s Ravens for the second-time this season, and concocted a game-plan that helped thwart their devastating rush attack.
One of New England’s greatest strengths, throwing to their backs and creating easy yards, is going up against the biggest weakness of the Chargers. If Bradley runs his traditional Cover 3 as usual, even out of dime or quarters formations, Tom Brady’s going to march up and down the field as he did in their 2017 matchup.
Some important things have changed since their last meeting, when New England won 21-13. The Patriots swapped out Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead for Sony Michel, while James White has remained as well. They’re still tremendously good at isolating their backs that lead to chunk plays.
The Chargers are missing several front seven players due to injury this go-around but have schematically maximized Derwin James and Desmond King as middle-of-the-field stoppers. Theoretically, this gives them a better alternative than forcing safety Adrian Phillips of being their leading tackler like he was in their 2017 game.
The video above is a cut-up of every target to the running backs from that matchup. In total, Brady completed 14-of-15 attempts for 163 yards to his backs. White and Burkhead totaled 12 of those receptions for 123 yards, often getting into the flat with huge lanes in front of them.
What’s notable about this performance is that Bradley’s and defenses architected by Bradley have been similarly shredded on other occasions.
Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks featured Shane Vereen’s career-changing game as he racked up 11 receptions for 64 yards. White broke out with his 14 reception, 110-yard, one touchdown performance in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons.
Both of those Seahawks and Falcons defenses were either coached by Bradley or one of his disciples. Years after both of those games, Bradley’s defense still hemorrhages yards to running backs.
The Chargers allowed the second-most receiving yards in one season (973) to backs since 2008, according to Pro Football Focus via Kevin Duffy of the Boston Herald. They’re facing an offense that has the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns by backs in 2018, per Ben Volin of the Boston Globe.
Oddly enough, only the Chargers have more yards to their backs than the Patriots.
Every defense has its own weakness because of schematic and personnel limitations, but the Chargers shouldn’t enter this week allowing Brady to feast on open checkdowns. Without Josh Gordon in the picture, the Patriots’ receivers are much less threatening.
Bradley prefers to use King as a roaming presence in his zone-heavy scheme over man assignments, which is one reason I found it odd King earned All-Pro honors. He’s been very good in the role, but it’s not an especially valuable one within the defense.
Using King in man more against Julian Edelman and James against Rob Gronkowski doesn’t necessarily leave a better option than Phillips on the backs, which was exposed badly last year. A variation of these looks where King and a safety take the deteriorated Gronkowski, and James roams for leaking backs is a workable fix to what’s been a huge issue.
The Chargers should be daring Brady to look deep and test their best corner Casey Hayward. It not only plays into their strength as a defense to filter targets into crowded deep windows, but also buys time for their nasty pass-rush to reach the 41-year-old quarterback. Brady’s a legend, but he’s also looked more vulnerable than ever this season and is the worst quarterback left in the AFC based on the 2018-19 season.
Giving him easy underneath looks against their zones will bail him out. Bradley doesn’t have to reinvent his defense this week, but also threatens to ruin arguably the best Chargers team since their 2006 or 2009 iteration if he’s not more open to another slight evolution like he showed last week.