When the New England Patriots kick off their post-season on Sunday, they will face a stiff test when Tom Brady and company have the football. Across from Brady will be a Los Angeles Chargers defense that is athletic up front and has demonstrated the ability to do what defense strive to do against not just Brady, but any quarterback: Pressure him with just four up front. How the Patriots fare against this pass rush will go a long way towards keeping their pursuit of a sixth Super Bowl championship alive.
We can start with some numbers. Thanks to the fine folks over at Pro Football Reference, we know that the Chargers have tallied 39 sacks during the regular season this year. One of those, against the Cleveland Browns in Week 6, was nullified due to a penalty. But we will keep that play in our sample for terms of discussion. Here’s how that broke down from week to week.
- Week 1 versus Patrick Mahomes: One sack
- Week 2 versus Josh Allen: Five sacks
- Week 3 versus Jared Goff: One sack
- Week 4 versus C.J. Beathard: One sack
- Week 5 versus Derek Carr: Three sacks
- Week 6 versus Baker Mayfield: Six sacks (one nullified due to a penalty)
- Week 7 versus Marcus Mariota: Two sacks
- Week 9 versus Russell Wilson: Four sacks
- Week 10 versus Case Keenum: Zero sacks
- Week 11 versus Carr: Four sacks
- Week 12 versus Josh Rosen: Two sacks
- Week 13 versus Ben Roethlisberger: One sack
- Week 14 versus Jeff Driskel: Three sacks
- Week 15 versus Mahomes: Two sacks
- Week 16 versus Lamar Jackson: Three sacks
- Week 17 versus Keenum: One sack
There is a pretty wide spread in output from week to week. They got to two rookies (Allen and Mayfield) for some big numbers, but another rookie, Rosen, was sacked just twice, both by Joey Bosa in his first game back from injury. But here is the more critical factor, and the one that might have Patriots fans hyperventilating with visions of Super Bowl 42 dancing in their heads:
Of their 39 regular season sacks, 27 of them came when the Chargers rushed just four pass rushers. As we will see in a moment, the Chargers have a number of different ways they can generate pressure with just four. But the vast majority of their sacks this season have come with just four players attacking the quarterback, allowing them to drop seven into coverage. We’ll get into what that means in a moment.
That leaves 12 sacks unaccounted for. Of those, 11 came when the Chargers rushed five after the quarterback. Meaning that one…just one of their sacks this season came when the Chargers sent more than five after the quarterback. However, even that play is a bit misleading, as it came on a third and goal from the one against the Cincinnati Bengals, and Jeff Driskel ran a play-action boot concept and was stopped trying to run for no gain. Not exactly the picture of pass rushing excellence.
As for the 11 sacks that came with Los Angeles rushing five, here’s the breakdown of those by situation. Six of them came on third downs, all of them third and five or longer. Two came on first and ten situations, and the other three were on second downs, one on a second and three, one on a second and five and the other one on second and seven. So if the Patriots get into a third and long situation, they might face one of the Chargers’ five-man pressure schemes.
Overall, seven of the sacks came on first down, 13 on second, and 19 on third down. So as the plays get more critical, the Chargers tend to dial up the pressure a bit. Of course, there is a game script aspect to that as well, as you’ll see more passes on third down than first. This could point to the Patriots perhaps throwing more on first down as this game goes on.
Pressure With Four
Let’s look at how the Chargers get pressure when they bring just four. Often, the Chargers can just rely on one of their talented pass rushers to win a one-on-one matchup. Especially with Bosa back in the lineup, Los Angeles now has a handful of guys who can win in those situations. For example, here is Bosa in his first game back, against Rosen and the Arizona Cardinals in Week 12, just beating the right tackle for a sack:
Here, the Chargers put six defenders down on the line of scrimmage, including Bosa (#99) and Melvin Ingram (#54) on the same side of the formation. Linebacker Jatavius Brown (#57) sugars the A-Gap on the inside, and Issac Rochell (#98) – a defensive end – aligns across from the left guard. Uchenna Nwosu (#42) is on the outside shoulder of the left tackle, and rookie safety Derwin James (#33) is down on the line as well. Brown and James both drop (with Brown perhaps spying Rosen (#3) in the pocket) but because of the alignment Bosa gets a one-on-one against the right tackle, and he simply wins his matchup.
The Chargers also use a lot of stunts, twists and loops in their pressure game, even when they rush just four. Some of these stunts and loops can be long and slow-developing, but because the Chargers are dropping six or even seven into coverage, they trust that the secondary will constrict throwing lanes and make the quarterback take the time to work through reads, giving the looping defender time to get home. In their Week 7 game against the Tennessee Titans the Chargers implemented this scheme up front:
Ingram aligns outside the wing tight end on the left, but will slide down inside a few steps when that player goes in motion. He will loop from that spot and eventually work his way into the opposite A-gap, and get to Marcus Mariota (#8) for the sack:
Setting the table for this sack is the work of nose tackle Brandon Mebane (#92). He uses the tilted alignment, angling himself for the right shoulder of the center. As the play begins he aims for the A-Gap between the center and the left guard, and he occupies both players and pulls center Ben Jones (#60) with him and away from the looper. Ingram eventually gets home, because the coverage in the secondary with seven defenders is clouding Mariota’s reads, and the linebacker notches the sack.
Ingram is an important player to watch because as Bill Belichick recently pointed out himself, the Chargers will move him around across their defensive front. We already saw him aligned inside of Bosa, on the first example, and whether the Chargers are rushing four or five, Ingram can come from anywhere on the field. This play against the Bengals comes from late in the second half, and the Chargers align just four defenders up front. As you can see, Ingram is aligned inside, between the right guard and the right tackle, with Nwosu outside of him:
Now granted, the game was in hand and this was a clear passing down, but with Ingram occupying the center and right guard, Nwosu is left isolated on the tackle, and he blows right by him. Now with Bosa in the mix, a pass rushing package of Nwosu, Bosa, Ingram and a fourth defender is something to be wary of.
Pressure With Five
Now we can look at some of the ways the Chargers have schemed pressure looks with five pass rushers. These designs bring some of the linebackers into the mix, such as Brown (who is now on Injured Reserve) but perhaps more importantly, now we can start discussing rookie safety Derwin James, who is a defensive force all over the field.
It did not take long for James (#33) to make an impact as a blitzer from the outside. Back in Week 1, the Kansas City Chiefs faced a third and 10 early in the second quarter. The Chargers responded with a 3-2-6 nickel package, dropping James down into the box, and blitzing him off the edge using this design:
They use a twist as well, and here we see Ingram aligned inside, in the A-Gap at a linebacker’s depth, along with Brown (#57), who aligns in the opposite A-Gap. But at the snap of the play it is Ingram who drops into coverage while Brown blitzes, aiming for the tackle. EDGE defender Nick Dzubnar (#48) twists into the A-Gap. But James gets the sack when the pressure forces Mahomes (#15) to try and climb the pocket, and the rookie safety tracks him down:
Mahomes nearly escapes here, but James is athletic enough to chase him down from behind.
Another thing the Chargers do when they blitz James is set him up for a one-on-one matchup on the edge by slanting the defensive front away from him. This is an example of what that looks like, courtesy of the Chargers’ Week 2 contest against the Buffalo Bills. The offense faces a first and 10 midway through the third quarter, and they face this alignment from the Chargers’ defense:
Los Angeles puts six defenders in the box, with Ingram outside the left tackle and Rochell down over the tight end. But James is lurking just outside the tight end (shaded in red) and he will blitz on this play off the edge. Rochelle, defensive tackle Justin Jones (#91) and fellow defensive tackle Damion Square (#71) all slant away from the blitzing safety:
Now, with running back LeSean McCoy (#25) having a free release out of the backfield, quarterback Josh Allen (#17) needs to identify the blitz from James and throw quickly to his hot receiver. That does not happen, and the safety gets to the QB for the sack. If the Patriots see such a look and situation on Sunday, Brady will need to get the ball out of his hands faster.
We can close this out with a five man pressure scheme that is sure to give Patriots fans some heartburn, as it involves a pass rusher kicked inside against a guard. On this play against the Oakland Raiders back in Week 10, the offense faces a third and six just outside the red zone. Los Angeles puts Ingram inside, between the left guard and the left tackle:
Ingram sets up the left guard by starting outside, before using a quick spin move back to the inside. He gets to Carr (#8) and forces a strip-sack, ending the scoring threat.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Patriots fans, about the memories this play might trigger.
Now, there are some silver linings to consider before believing that all is lost. The Chargers finished the year with 38 official sacks (because of the one they lost due to penalties) which put them right in the middle of the pack, tied for 19th as a team with the Indianapolis Colts and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So while the fact that the Chargers are getting home with four is something to worry about, they aren’t posting huge sack totals. So there is that silver lining.
Of course, they were without Bosa for a bulk of the season, so there is an asterisk to that silver lining.
The other thing to consider is this. Because they can generate pressure with four, the Chargers often drop seven into coverage. This results in Los Angeles running a lot more zone coverage than other teams. In fact, the Chargers ran zone coverage on 58% of their defensive plays this regular season, second to only the Colts, who used zone coverage on 59% of their plays. That means in all likelihood, Brady is going to see a lot of zone coverage Sunday. Historically, Brady has been very successful against zone, and if he has time to throw, he should have some success.