By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Chargers' pass rush is enough of a problem, but they also have a young stud in the secondary. Safety Derwin James, who earned First Team All-Pro honors as a rookie, is on the fast track to becoming perhaps the best safety in football. And the Patriots are going to have their hands full with this kid in Sunday's AFC Divisional Playoff.
For Patriots observers, James' play might remind you of Patrick Chung with his tackling and aggressive coverage against tight ends and running backs. He played all 57 defensive snaps (penalties and spiked balls excluded) for the Chargers in last Sunday's Wild Card game against the Ravens, and he almost exclusively lined up within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He dropped back beyond 10 yards only three times. He lined up on the edge or within three yards of the line on 34 snaps. James finished with five tackles (one for a loss) and a QB hit, and commanded serious attention on every single play.
Few are more impressed James than Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
"This guy’s a tremendous football player," said Belichick during his Wednesday press conference. "He’s good at everything. He usually plays around the line of scrimmage. I think he leads their team in everything – tackles, assists, pass break-ups, interceptions, big hits. He does play away from their line of scrimmage at times. He’s good back there, too. He’s got good range, good speed, he’s long, he’s hard to block, very instinctive, good tackler, good blitzer. He’s good at everything. He’s a good player."
Belichick isn't exaggerating. James led the Chargers with three interceptions (tied with Desmond King), 13 passes defensed, and 105 total tackles. He led all Chargers defensive backs with six quarterback hits. So he's going to be a problem for Tom Brady as much as Belichick.
Against the Ravens, the Chargers played with six or seven DBs on nearly every snap. This freed up defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to use James as a hybrid linebacker type. He often lined up in the box, spied quarterback Lamar Jackson, and even blitzed once. As far as the short-to-intermediate areas of the field, where Brady typically likes to operate, James is all over the place.
"He's a game-changer," said Patriots wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. "He's their guy, I feel like that's their hammer in their secondary. He plays relentless every play. He's explosive, he's all over the field, he can defend the run, he can defend the pass. He's already a great player. He's definitely a key guy in the secondary."
Fortunately for Dorsett, he may not see much of James himself on Sunday. The safety will be more of an issue for guys like Rob Gronkowski, Sony Michel, and James White. But there's no question that everyone will need to know where he is on every snap, because he's as dangerous as anyone on the Chargers defense.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].