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5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 21-13 win over the Chargers – Boston.com

 

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots win over the Chargers, a 21-13 grinder that sends New England to its bye week with possession of first place in the AFC East:

OFFENSIVE PLAN WAS EFFECTIVE … MOSTLY

The Chargers entered Sunday yielding more rushing yards per game than any team in the NFL. By contrast, they’d allowed the sixth-fewest passing yards in football and boasted a fearsome pass rush. If Los Angeles was vulnerable anywhere, the numbers said it was on the ground.

So, naturally, the Patriots came out attacking through the air.

And it worked – for the most part.

New England threw the ball on 47 of its first 78 offensive snaps (and of 82 overall), trusting Tom Brady’s quick decision making and a play-action passing game rather than trying to ram the ball at the Chargers and attempting to put Los Angeles on its heels by running right at its talented front. Forgoing the longer throws that have been featured with relative frequency over the first half of the year, but require holding the ball longer, Josh McDaniels used short and intermediate passes to control the clock and to move the ball incrementally.

By halftime, Brady had thrown for 191 yards, and for the game the Patriots had five possessions that lasted for at least 10 plays. A sixth drive covered 73 yards, and on the way to 27 first downs New England held the ball for 36 minutes and 59 seconds. Nineteen of those chain-movers came courtesy of the pass, offsetting the possessional limitations that might be expected while averaging a paltry 3.0 yards per rushing attempt.

Brady connected on passes to eight different receivers, including 14 of 16 throws to his running backs and wound up with 333 passing yards with only three completions covering more than 20 yards. There were issues when it came time to cash in on the advanced they’d made, and that’s a trend. After topping 30 points in each of their first four games, the Pats maxed out at 24 points while averaging 21.8 over the next four. There’s still work to be done in the way of execution.

TOO MANY POINTS LEFT ON THE BOARD

With 1:08 remaining in regulation, the Chargers took possession with a chance to tie the game – and the Patriots found themselves in a still-precarious position that didn’t need to be nearly so touch-and-go.

New England converted a 14-play drive for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter, though it spent the rest of the afternoon struggling to capitalize on scoring chances after having decent success moving the ball over the middle portion of the field. The Pats punted on the series immediately following their initial score, but moved the ball to the Chargers’ 25 yard line or deeper on each of their next five drives. Once they penetrated to the 6; on another they reached the 18.

But the Patriots produced a grand total of nine points from those five possessions, with Stephen Gostkowski making three field goals while missing a pair of kicks from 43 yards out. They wasted Lewis’s 71-yard kick return, then wound up with nothing to show for a season-long 16-play sequence (aside from the eight minutes of clock it swallowed).

Some of that is obviously a credit to the Chargers, who came in with the NFL’s fourth-best red zone defense, and didn’t give up a touchdown from inside their 20-yard line during the three-game winning streak they carried with them to Gillette Stadium. However, even before producing just one touchdown in four red zone visits Sunday, New England ranked among the middle of the pack league-wide by eventually getting to the goal line on barely 50 percent of such series this season.

It cost the Patriots a degree of comfort this week – but moving forward the price could be significantly steeper if they continue to leave points on the field.

SPECIAL TEAMS WAS BIG

Despite Gostkowski’s two wide kicks, overall it was another excellent week for the Patriots’ special teams units, which helped New England control field position in a tough, low-scoring tussle – and even produced some points on its own.

Those came on a second-quarter safety, when Chargers returner Travis Benjamin made a choice that has to be on the short list of silliest decisions an NFL player has made on the field this season. Muffing Ryan Allen’s kick along the sideline, he scooped the ball and rather than cut his losses he tried to get back across the field. In the process he retreated all the way to the end zone, and when he did the tandem of Jonathan Jones and Brandon King made him pay for his error in judgment. Before he could get back beyond the goal line, they took him down, and put two points on the board for New England.

New England’s special teams made a scoring impact in more subtle ways, too. On drives where the Chargers didn’t take over after a missed field goal or via a touchback – in other words, when there was a kick to be covered – Los Angeles’ starting positions were the 20, 12, 15, 12, 9, and 21 yard lines. All three of Ryan Allen’s punts wound up inside the 20, including the 57-yard boomer that resulted in the safety, and on the other side there was Lewis’s 71-yard kick return to open the second half.

A week after Cassius Marsh blocked a field goal to turn the tide early, Sunday offered more of the complimentary, three-phase football Belichick preaches.

DEFENSE DOES ITS WORK

Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run was a breakdown at every level of the defense, and a reminder of the big-play vulnerabilities that plagued the Patriots at the start of the season, but given what New England was dealing with from an injury perspective it was another encouraging day for the defense.

Remove that Gordon run from the equation, and the Chargers, gained 262 yards on their 51 other plays – an average of 5.1 per play. The Patriots gave up 192 passing yards, setting a season-low for a second straight week. Los Angeles managed only 16 first downs, fewest against New England this season, in large part because the Patriots held their visitors to three conversions in 10 third-down attempts. And while the Chargers scored twice from outside the 20, the Pats didn’t allow any drives into the red zone.

With Sunday, the Patriots have now kept their opponents to 17 points or fewer in four consecutive weeks, most recently allowing only four touchdowns in their past 11 quarters – and this despite injuries piling up. Dont’a Hightower was lost for the season this week, but Kyle Van Noy had another strong performance and both Elandon Roberts and David Harris were factors from the linebacker level. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore missed another game with a concussion, though Johnson Bademosi was capable, even as the Chargers targeted his coverage of top-threat Keenan Allen.

Fellow corner Eric Rowe was out again, joined on the inactive list by tackle Malcolm Brown, though veteran Lawrence Guy made five tackles from the middle of the defensive line. With next week’s bye could come a chance to get healthier, and with health there’s finally evidence to suggest the Patriots defense could get to where it needs to be.

HALFWAY HOME

The Patriots have reached their bye week, and while Belichick doesn’t seem to need a week of self-scouting to identify the two things he’d most like to see his team improve – “We’re giving up too many big plays on defense, and we can’t convert on third down in the red area,” the coach said. “That’s two huge issues” – all things considered his team is in a good spot. They’re 6-2, have won six of seven since an opening-night embarrassment, and tied for the best record in the AFC.

The bye is particularly well-timed in that it comes exactly halfway through the season, which not only makes a good time to do a collective assessment, but also lends itself to looking at what sort of pace players have set for themselves individually. Here are a few projections of note:

*Brady: 5,082 passing yards, 32 TDs, 4 interceptions
*James White: 86 catches, 730 yards
*Brandin Cooks: 66 catches, 1,126 yards, 6 TDs
*Rob Gronkowski: 68 catches, 1,018 yards, 10 TDs
*Devin McCourty: 100 tackles, 8 passes defensed
*Van Noy: 92 tackles, 7 sacks
*Malcolm Butler: 14 passes defensed, 4 interceptions

 

5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 21-13 win over the Chargers – Boston.com

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