Behind Enemy Lines: Chargers vs. Patriots I

WR Wes Welker (Winslow Townson/AP)

Our Scout.com experts, Jon Scott of PatriotsInsider.com and Michael Lombardo of SDBoltReport.com, analyze Sunday's playoff game between the Patriots and Chargers at Gillette Stadium. Let's start this series with six questions from Michael to Jon.

Michael Lombardo: Tom Brady completed a ridiculous 93 percent of his passes in the Divisional Round. Is there any way to disrupt his rhythm? Would the Chargers be better off disguising their defenses and dropping players into coverage and bringing heat with an all-out pass rush?

Jon Scott: The Patriots know how to take on an all-out blitz. That's not to say those types of pressure strategies won't work, but Tom Brady is statistically the best quarterback in the NFL against the blitz.

Teams have realized this and have changed their approach. The Giants overpowered the ends. The Eagles brought pressure inside, mixing and matching. The Ravens did a little of both. San Diego has the talent to put pressure on Brady, but they better play a deep zone in case they don't get to him, because Brady will find the open man. The thing that kills the blitz is a blown assignment when a man runs deep like Donte' Stallworth did against the Jaguars last week.

ML: The Patriots seem to have rediscovered their running game as of late. Do you expect them to continue to feed Laurence Maroney against a Chargers defense built to stop the run? Or will the Pats attack predominantly through the air like the Colts did last week?

JS: The Jaguars biggest strength on defense was their interior rush. The Patriots used their running game to attack the edges of Jacksonville's defense, running right at, through and/or between the pressure of the ends and the pressure from the defensive tackles. Once New England got Jacksonville to respect the run, the Patriots started using the short passing game to open things up. The Jaguars played very deep to stop the big play, so the running game had a greater level of success.

Against San Diego, I'd expect the same thing. When I went back over the tape of the playoff game between these two last year, the Patriots used pressure to go right at Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips to drive them back using a bigger guard or tackle to open the hole. More than once, the overaggressive Chargers defense was either out of position or out of control when the block arrived. On more than one occasion, Merriman was pulling himself up off the ground after being a complete non-factor in the play.

The Patriots' greatest strength is their passing game, but if they have to, they'll use the ground game to wear down the Chargers defense. It worked well against the Jaguars, and has an equally decent chance to work against San Diego, unless the Chargers adjust faster than Jacksonville -- a realistic assumption.


WR Randy Moss
Tom Strattman/AP

ML: Randy Moss is coming off a quiet, one-catch performance in his first playoff game with the Patriots. To get him going again, the Patriots will have to throw at the red hot Antonio Cromartie. Will the Patriots pick on the NFLs top playmaking cornerback? Or will they focus on getting to ball to Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth?

JS: No cornerback can stop Randy Moss one-on-one, and I'm not saying that to be cocky. I've seen Randy toy with defenders, setting them up time and again with his signature bait-and-leap approach. I expect the Chargers have seen enough film to know that, if they don't put a safety over the top of Moss' side of the field, the Patriots will try to get Randy the ball.

When the Chargers do play a safety deep, the Patriots will try to pick up the short or middle passes. If San Diego doesn't put a second safety deep, you'll see Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney or even Chad Jackson run go-routes hoping to hit the long pass.

Don't forget, Ben Watson used to be the Patriots biggest weapon in the deep middle. If he doesn't have to block, that could also be a factor.

ML: In the Week 2 meeting, the Patriots loaded up to stop the run and dared Philip Rivers to beat them. However, Rivers is coming off back-to-back stellar performances. Will Bill Belichick change his philosophy in the rematch?

JS: I doubt it. If the Patriots don't stop the run, it could be a very long and very disappointing day in New England. Everyone knows how dangerous the Chargers running game can be when it's on track. The Patriots have been susceptible against the run all season, but big leads have masked that weakness.

I think the Patriots hope the Chargers turn to Rivers to try to win the game, because they feel it's a better matchup.

ML: How will the Patriots handle preparing for so many core players that are listed as questionable for the game? Will they spend much time studying Billy Volek, Michael Turner and Brandon Manumaleuna? If so, could that be an advantage for the Chargers if all their starters play?

JS: New England prepares for the starters but watches plenty of film on the backups. Fortunately, the Patriots have seen a lot of Michael Turner.

Volek is the wild-card. In my opinion, he could have the biggest impact on the game if he plays. I think he's a better decision maker than Rivers at times. The receivers are the receivers, so the Patriots will play their schemes to try to take away the open play. If they have to adjust during the game, they will -- it's one of the things that make them so successful.

ML: How will New England handle kicking to Darren Sproles? Will they give him the Devin Hester treatment or give him opportunities for some returns?

JS: Depending on the weather, there may be a bit more strategy involved in the special teams game. The Patriots faced a number of very good kickoff returners this season, and they kicked the ball to them, but hung it up in the air a bit to give the coverage unit more time to get to the ball. That may be the case again this week.

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