The New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Chargers at home in Foxboro this weekend, and the Chargers are possibly the most complete team that the Patriots have faced all season. The Patriots offense will have to be running like a well-oiled machine against the imposing Chargers defense. As Josh McDaniels commands yet another offense on a historic postseason run, let’s look at the Patriots Divisional Round wide receivers report.
Chargers Defensive Outlook
The Patriots should be facing a fully healthy Chargers secondary this week. Jahleel Addae, the Chargers second starting safety across from the talented rookie Derwin James, has appeared on the injury report for two weeks with a shoulder injury but has not been limited in practice at all.
In their last three games, the Chargers have played a rather ragtag bunch of receivers. The Denver Broncos have been struggling to establish an identity in their receiving corps all season, and losing Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders ahead of their week 17 matchup didn’t help things. Case Keenum spread the ball around decently well against the Chargers, getting the ball to eight different pass-catchers.
We can see traces of that same share-the-wealth passing attack when the Chargers lost to the Ravens in week 16. Lamar Jackson targeted nine pass-catchers, eight of which caught at least one target. The last time the Patriots targeted eight pass-catchers was week 15 when Josh Gordon was an active part of the offense.
Fortunately for the Patriots, spreading the ball around in the passing attack doesn’t seem to be that effective against the Chargers. For the Ravens in week 16, no pass-catcher hit 30 receiving yards, with the exception of Mark Andrews, who torched the Chargers for a 68-yard touchdown. That touchdown was the only offensive touchdown scored by the Ravens in that game. The Broncos fared little better with three wide receivers and a running back catching for between 40 and 50 yards. The Broncos also only scored one offensive touchdown in that game, a 20-yard pass to Andy Janovich.
Getting the Ball Out
One of the major problems that the Patriots receivers will face this week is an indomitable pass rush that racked up seven sacks on Jackson in the Wildcard Round. Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are as fearsome a pass-rush duo as the Patriots have seen this season. Of course, this means getting the ball out very quickly to keep Tom Brady upright and healthy for yet another postseason run. The Patriots have seen a couple of decent pass rushing defenses this season, particularly the Chicago Bears and Khalil Mack, which may provide some insight into how the Patriots intend to approach the Ingram/Bosa problem.
Against the Bears, Julian Edelman was the team’s most targeted receiver. But there’s no surprise there; Edelman is likely to be the team’s leading receiver on any given Sunday. James White also saw a good deal of work in that games, another expected outcome. Viewers on Sunday can expect to see these jerseys come up quite a bit, as the Chargers defense has allowed seven touchdowns to wide receivers short over the middle this season.
However, the short ball may be a touch unreliable this week. The Chargers have the league’s third-best DVOA against short passes according to Football Outsiders. On the other hand, they have the second-worst DVOA against deep passes according to the same metrics, trailing only the New Orleans Saints.
Edelman, to some surprise, has been the team’s most successful receiver deep over the middle, catching 80 percent of his targets in this area of the field according to Sharp Football Stats. Given that Gus Bradley loves his Cover-3s, Edelman should be able to slip into openings in the middle consistently. He has the ability to step up as a postseason hero, and those heroics should be on display this week.
The Rest of the Gang
Chris Hogan has become the Patriots de facto deep threat with Gordon out of the picture. This season, Hogan is perfect up the left sideline, which bodes well for his potential use against the Chargers this week. He’s also 6 for 12 out deep elsewhere on the field.
This is also a big game for Phillip Dorsett. For Dorsett, who has caught all of his last 16 targets, any game from here until February could be his last in a Patriots uniform. He’s expected to hit free agency in 2019, and the playoffs are his opportunity to prove to the league that he is actually worth the first round draft pick the Indianapolis Colts spent on him. The bad news for Dorsett is that the area of the field in which he is most successful — short/intermediate left — is the area of the field where the Chargers have allowed zero touchdowns to wide receivers and picked off three passes intended for wide receivers.
The Patriots will have to keep an eye out for Derwin James all day, but James will likely have his hands full trying to cover Rob Gronkowski. Both James and Desmond King were used to hold star tight end Travis Kelce to just 67 yards in two meetings this season with the Kansas City Chiefs. Gronk stands to benefit from Bradley’s Cover-3s as much as Edelman, but the big tight end will likely be doing a lot of babysitting the Chargers defensive backs to open up other opportunities in the passing attack this week.
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