New England Patriots AFC Divisional Round Gameplan: Stopping the Los Angeles Chargers Offense

New England Patriots AFC Divisional Round Gameplan
FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 29: Philip Rivers #17 of the Los Angeles Chargers makes a pass against the Los Angeles Chargers during the second half at Gillette Stadium on October 29, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

After a week of self-reflection, the New England Patriots now need to focus on the Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers were arguably the worst-possible matchup for New England, but the Patriots are more than capable of taking down their west coast competition. The Chargers boast one of the most effective trios in the league in Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, and Keenan Allen. However, a deep dive into the numbers shows how New England can minimize each player’s impact on the game.

New England Patriots AFC Divisional Round Gameplan: How To Stop the Los Angeles Chargers Offense

The Run Game

The Chargers have an elite running back duo in Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler. While Ekeler is certainly capable of beating New England through the air, he’s not much of a threat on the ground. The same cannot be said for Gordon. While he missed the last four games of the season, the fourth-year running back still had a great year. Gordon ran for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns on 175 carries, good for 5.1 yards-per-carry. Additionally, Gordon added another 50 receptions for 490 yards and four touchdowns through the air.

Gordon didn’t look 100% in the AFC Wild Card Round against the Baltimore Ravens, but New England cannot afford to overlook a player of his caliber. The Patriots should gameplan with the expectation that Gordon will be fully healthy for Sunday’s contest.

How To Stop Gordon

Gordon’s 5.1 yards-per-carry implies that he was one of the most successful and dependable running backs in the league. While that is true to an extent, Gordon was only an efficient runner on outside carries. Taking a look at Gordon’s directional success rate shows that the fourth-year running back just wasn’t the same guy whenever he had to run between the tackles.

New England Patriots AFC Divisonal Round Gameplan

Image courtesy of Sharp Football Stats

This isn’t a case where runs in-between the tackles are naturally less efficient than outside runs. When compared to the rest of the league, Gordon is still a slightly below average back on runs in-between the tackles.

New England Patriots AFC Divisional Round Gameplan Melvin Gordon

Image courtesy of Sharp Football Stats

Gordon is an absolute monster on off-tackle runs. The Patriots edge defense needs to be on their A-game to force Gordon to cut back inside instead of going out wide. While edge defense has been an issue all season long, New England seems to have found an answer over the past two weeks.

In short, New England’s edge defense has dramitically improved since benching Adrian Clayborn and riding with Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers, and newcomer Ufomba Kamalu. While they played underwhelming competition, the results were pretty encouraging. With Danny Shelton shoring up defensive tackle, New England should be able to take care of business against interior runs. If the edge defense plays its’ best game, they should be able to minimize the Chargers ground attack.

When the Chargers Throw

Stopping the Chargers aerial attack is probably harder than stopping their run game. Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Tyrell Williams all possess game-breaking ability, while Philip Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Rivers is too good to entirely shut down, so let’s focus on how to stop his weapons. If Rivers has nobody to throw to, New England can indirectly slow his production as well.

Mike and Tyrell Williams boast similar builds, as both players are listed at 6’-4” and over 200 pounds. While both players struggle with consistency, either guy is capable of torching a defense all by themselves. Mike Williams finished the 2018 season with 10 touchdowns, while Tyrell Williams has the ability to stretch the field and score on any given play. These are good receivers, but the real worry should be stopping Keenan Allen.

Allen put together another amazing season in 2018, recording 97 receptions for 1,196 yards and six touchdowns. In terms of efficiency, Allen finished 2018 with the ninth-highest success rate (62%) among receivers with at least 50 targets. Allen is one of the best receivers in the league and New England cannot allow him to take over the game.

Fortunately, Allen isn’t equally effective in all parts of the field. For whatever reason, Allen and Rivers struggle to connect on passes on the right side of the field. Throughout the 2018 season, Allen has just a 40% success rate on passes to the right. On all other portions of the field, Allen has a 71% success rate.

How to Stop Allen

The obvious answer here is to use Stephon Gilmore to shadow Allen across the field. Gilmore is having the best season of his career and earned First-Team All-Pro for his fantastic season. He managed to limit Antonio Brown during Week 15, so he should be able to do the same to Allen. Gilmore should be up for the task, leaving J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty, along with safety help, to cover Mike and Tyrell Williams.

However, New England could also opt to keep their cornerbacks on a specific side of the field. As previously mentioned, Allen just isn’t that efficient when targeted on the right side of the field. If the Patriots desired, they could probably keep Gilmore on the right side of the field and put a safety over the top left corner of the field. This would allow Gilmore to take away the right side of the field and would allow New England to use everyone else to take away the left and middle portions of the field.

While New England could sprinkle in that concept, it’s probably best to have Gilmore follow Allen along the formation. There’s no need to overthink this; Allen is the Chargers best receiver and Gilmore is the Patriots best cornerback. It’s strength on strength, and the rest of New England’s secondary should be able to slow down the Chargers other weapons.

Last Word on the New England Patriots AFC Divisional Round Gameplan

The Los Angeles Chargers have a good offense, but not an unstoppable one. Melvin Gordon, Philip Rivers, and Keenan Allen are all phenomenal players, but each have a weakness that can be exploited. Gordon struggles to run the ball between the tackles while Allen and Rivers have trouble connecting along the right sideline.

Stopping Gordon relies entirely upon Trey Flowers and the new defensive end rotation doing their job. The unit impressed in the final two weeks of the regular season, but this personnel grouping has yet to face an offense this good. The current defensive tackle rotation is good enough to shut down interior runs. If New England truly did solve their edge issues, then the Chargers won’t be able to effectively run the football.

While they could have their cornerbacks play sides, the best option for New England is to have Stephon Gilmore shadow Keenan Allen as much as possible. Gilmore is one of the best cornerbacks in the league and is capable of taking away any receiver in the league on any given week. Allen will challenge him, but Gilmore should ultimately prevail in this matchup.

Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams are both larger receivers, which could be bad news for the relatively undersized duo of J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty. However, if Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon play over the top, they should be able to limit these receivers. These guys will still make plays, but not enough to overtake the game.

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