The New England Patriots blitzed Jamie Collins up the middle (the “A gap”) to prey on rookie Chris Watt and make things miserable for Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers passing offense in their victory Sunday night.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and the shortest distance to the quarterback is right up the middle. Teams that successfully pressure the two “A Gaps” ‒ the space between the offensive center and the guards to either side ‒ make things miserable for opposing quarterbacks. The New England Patriots used A gap pressure to put heat on Philip Rivers throughout their 23-14 victory over the Chargers Sunday night, producing several key plays.
Without two of their top rushers ‒ Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower ‒ New England needed to get creative to generate a pass rush, rather than relying on winning individual matchups. “Schemed pressure” up the A gap also let them take advantage of San Diego’s fourth-string center, Chris Watt. The rookie played guard collegiately, but was pressed into action at center after season-ending injuries to Nick Hardwick, Doug Legursky, and Rich Ohrnberger.
A Rookie Mistake
Watt’s inexperience showed on the Chargers’ first drive, as they faced a third-and-four in Patriots territory:
The Patriots line up both inside linebackers, Jonathan Casillas (#52) and Jamie Collins (#91) in the A gaps. At the snap, both initially appear to blitz. Watt (#65) and right guard Johnnie Troutman (#63) both look to engage Casillas, who drops back into coverage after his initial action. That leaves Collins unblocked and he bursts through the line for an easy sack. Even without knowing the protection scheme, it’s easy to imagine that the novice Watt blocked the wrong man, since Troutman was on the wrong side to pick up Collins.
Welcome to the NFL, Kid
The Patriots’ second sack again came at the expense of the 24-year-old center, but this time it wasn’t a mental error ‒ Collins just dominates Watt one-on-one:
The second-year linebacker bursts forward just before the snap and drives into Watt shortly after he hikes the ball. Collins then swats him aside with a (video) Deacon-Jones-esque head slap, sending the rookie stumbling. With a clear path to the immobile Rivers, the athletic Collins finishes the sack easily.
A Ripple Effect
The threat of A gap pressure can cause protection problems elsewhere on the offensive line. That was the case on Rob Ninkovich’s (#50) third-quarter sack:
The Patriots put Collins and Akeem Ayers (#54) in the A gaps and rush both. Left guard Chad Rinehart (#78) and Watt do a solid job picking them up, but Troutman and right tackle D.J. Fluker (#76) look to double team Vince Wilfork (#75). That leaves Ninkovich (#50) unblocked off the right edge. This seems like a blown protection by the Chargers but the A gap blitz creates confusion that can lead to miscommunication and mistakes like the one here.
Pressure Makes Diamonds … Or Crappy Throws
The three plays above led to sacks, but A gap pressure also leads to poor throws and rash decisions. Rivers’ worst play of the night was a third-quarter interception caused by A gap pressure:
The Patriots again line up Casillas and Collins in the A gap and send them both. Outside linebackers Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers (#55) each drop into coverage at the snap. This appears to be a designed cross blitz, with Collins initially engaging Watt and then looping around behind him as Casillas hits the center from the side. Running back Ryan Mathews identifies the action and stops Collins’ rush, but Watt is so off-balance after Casillas’ shove that the linebacker finds himself free to rush at the quarterback. Rivers uncorks a sidearm throw in the face of pressure, but doesn’t see Ayers, who steps in front of Keenan Allen for the interception.
The A Gap: Plan B?
The Patriots used A gap pressure to great success Sunday night and that look produced three of their four sacks, plus their only turnover. Despite this success, it seems unlikely that A gap rushes will be a major strategy moving forward. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia tailor their schemes to the opponent, and in the Chargers’ case they saw a weak offensive line anchored by a rookie center that they could confuse and overpower. That won’t be the case every week. Still, when used judiciously, blitzes up the middle can disrupt blocking schemes, create free rushers, and force even great quarterbacks into bad throws.
All video and images courtesy NBC Sports.
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