By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
On Sunday, the Patriots will kick off their five-day, two-game west coast road trip with a matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Chargers are a young, promising team led by rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. However, despite a decent collection of talent around Herbert, they're just 3-8. Is that due to something as simple as growing pains, or is it a bigger problem? And how can the Patriots exploit those issues on Sunday?
When New England has the ball: Jermaine Eluemunor vs. Joey Bosa
The Chargers have a number of talented players on defense, but Joey Bosa should be the main focus for the Patriots offense. How disruptive - or undisruptive - he is on Sunday will go a long way in dictating the flow of the game when Cam Newton & Co. are on the field.
“Bosa is one of the most disruptive players in the league – as good as anybody we play against, run or pass,” Bill Belichick said earlier this week. “He’s a one-man wrecking crew...He's got a great motor, very strong hands, good instincts. He just makes a lot of disruptive plays. Most of the time it's him making the play, but a lot of times it's him screwing the play up and forcing the ball to somebody else. So, he's definitely a guy to stop.”
When the Patriots and Chargers last met - in the divisional round of the 2018 playoffs - the Patriots countered Bosa and the Bolts’ strong pass rush with quick-release throws. Josh McDaniels had quick-hitters lined up for Brady wire-to-wire. At one point, Bosa even had to ask Brady to slow the offense down.
Two years later, it’s a bit of a different story. Cam Newton is now under center for New England, and one of his biggest issues this season has been holding the ball for too long.
That will put a lot of pressure on the Patriots’ left tackle position. It’ll likely be Jermaine Eluemunor in that role on Sunday, although last week the Patriots used a 75/25 split with him and rookie Justin Herron.
How will Eluemunor hold up against one of the most dominant pass rushers in the league? Will the Patriots trust Herron to rotate him in again? Both are crucial questions as McDaniels puts together his game plan.
When Los Angeles has the ball: Stephon Gilmore vs. Keenan Allen
For the second week in a row, the Patriots need a big game from Stephon Gilmore up against a star wide receiver.
As Justin Herbert’s star rookie season has gone on, he’s looked more and more to Keenan Allen. Allen leads the NFL with 85 catches, and has been targeted 122 times this season, which is more than double the next closest Chargers receiver. That tendency seems to compound itself in big moments.
Time and time again for the last 20 years, Bill Belichick has shut down young quarterbacks by taking away their ‘safety blanket’ and forcing them to read the defense fully and move through their progressions. If that’s going to happen on Sunday, it means Gilmore blanketing the NFL’s leading receiver.
MORE: Week 13 Patriots Mailbag
Perhaps recognizing the weight of the matchup ahead of him, Gilmore was tight-lipped talking about Allen this week.
"He's a great player. He's a great receiver. Mike Williams is a great receiver. Those guys get a lot of targets,” Gilmore said on Thursday. “[Herbert] is throwing it to those guys a lot, and they're coming up with the football. So it's a big challenge, but that's why you play the game, to go against great receivers like those guys."
Allen will undoubtedly be schemed into at least a few touches on Sunday. Limiting those to minimal plays, as Gilmore and the Patriots did with Hopkins last week, would be huge.
Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Anthony Lynn
Matt Dolloff got into this topic earlier this week, but nowhere do the Patriots have more of an advantage on Sunday than in the coaching matchup, especially in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots have struggled at times in late game situations this year, sure. But that’s been the Chargers calling card since Lynn took over in 2017. The last two-plus years, the Chargers have played 35 one-score games - only the Seahawks, Bears, and Steelers have played more. Yet they’ve lost 22 of those games, the second-most from that same sample size.
Need more? Earlier this year, LA became just the fifth team in history to blow back-to-back 17-point leads. Their largest loss this season was by 10 points, which came last week against Buffalo.
If Sunday’s game comes down to the final minutes - and it likely will given how both teams season’s have gone this year - Belichick and the Patriots can’t slip up, because Lynn and the Chargers almost certainly will.
Check out the latest Pats Pod below for an early look at the 2021 offseason, and quarterbacks in particular.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].