By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The hype around Chargers-Patriots has understandably focused on the two quarterbacks, and the powerful pass rushers on the L.A. side. But the Chargers have a unique weapon in the AFC Divisional Playoff that can swing momentum in a hurry. That would be slot cornerback/return man Desmond King II.
King is tough enough as a corner on the inside, where he ranked behind only the Patriots' Stephon Gilmore on Pro Football Focus with a 90.7 coverage grade. He often covered Danny Amendola last time these two teams met, and is likely to get a heapin' helpin' of Julian Edelman on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. He could make life a lot harder for Tom Brady and the Patriots offense if he can neutralize Edelman in the slot.
"It’ll be the best defense we’ve played thus far so it’s definitely going to be a challenge," said Edelman on Friday. "We’ve got to be able to take advantage of these next 48 hours to prepare the best we possibly can."
But the area of the game where King could really be trouble is as a kick and punt returner. He earned two spots on the 2018 All-Pro teams, making the first team as a defensive back and the second team as a punt returner. He finished third in the NFL with 13.8 yards per punt return. Against the Ravens in last Sunday's Wild Card game, he made four punt returns for an 11.5-yard average. He also had one kick return in that game - and took it 72 yards.
"Man, he’s just a football player," said special teams captain Matthew Slater on Monday. "You put him in wherever and he’s going to play it and he’s going to play it well. He’s played in numerous roles in the kicking game this year. Obviously, we know his role on defense and now we’re seeing what he can do as a return man. To me, I think he’s just a hard guy to tackle. He runs hard, he’s playing with a lot of confidence, those guys are blocking really well for him. He’s got tremendous balance, he’s got good quickness, he’s aggressive to field the ball.
"I think he poses a lot of problems for you, but not only in the kicking game. He’s a football player, which is no surprise for an Iowa guy – those guys are usually football players."
King runs with power and decisiveness as a returner, making it hard to bring him down with just one guy. It only gets harder the more momentum he builds. He can break tackles by simply blowing by you, like he did on a punt return against the Steelers when he slipped through three would-be tacklers and found a seam, taking it to the house for a 73-yard touchdown.
The Patriots have had trouble covering kicks and punts all season, but it's gotten better since Bill Belichick shook things up by adding PFF All-Pro Albert McClellan to the mix. But King is a guy who can make you pay just by making one or two guys miss, making it as important as ever for the entire group to Do Their Jobs.
"You’ve got to get all 11 guys around him," said safety Devin McCourty on Thursday. "He does a great job I think of finding holes and then breaking and running through arm tackles. You see it each week, even if they have a guy or two that kind of has what we call half a body free to try to make a tackle, he usually runs through that. He makes game-changing plays. I think for us, from a coverage unit, that’s something you don’t really want to give up especially this time of year. It takes everybody. One guy is not going to get down there and make the play each time. It’s going to take all 11 guys kind of in their lanes and covering their appropriate style in what we talk about all week."
King represents the Chargers' best chance to give themselves a marked advantage in special teams. If the Patriots can limit the damage when they kick the ball away, it will take away one of their most dangerous weapons in any phase of the game. Yet they would still need to worry about him as a cornerback, either way.
As a dual threat, King is as dynamic as it gets. As important as it'll be for the Patriots to win their matchups on offense and defense, it'll be particularly important to play mistake-free football in that third phase as well.
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].