New England Patriots

L-R: Chargers safety Derwin James, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones

When Bill Belichick really respects a defensive player, he’ll often reference that player’s ability to “ruin the game,” referring to his own offense’s game plan.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Belichick mentioned two players on the Chargers’ defense that are potential ‘game ruiners’ in defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James. “They get you in third-and-longs, it’s pretty much all over there. Bosa, James – they’ve got a couple of guys that could really ruin the game,” Belichick noted.

Who on the Patriots’ offense will be tasked with preventing that duo from ruining Sunday’s game plan? And do the Patriots have any ‘game ruiners’ of their own they can counter with? Let’s take a look in this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: Michael Onwenu vs. Joey Bosa

    When the Patriots and the Chargers met last year, this was one of the most fascinating matchups. Michael Onwenu was still a rising rookie, facing one of the best pass rushers in the league in Joey Bosa. He got the best of Bosa too, limiting him to just one quarterback hit and no sacks, a week after Bosa got three sacks against the Bills.

    Once again, Bosa is coming off a big performance in his last game, recording a sack and two QB hits against Baltimore. Meanwhile, Onwenu is still transitioning back to tackle after starting the season at guard – it will be just his second start on the outside this season.

    Over the past two games, the Patriots’ offense has shown it’s true potential when Mac Jones is protected and has time to throw. That’s easier said than done against a team like the Chargers, but Onwenu neutralizing Bosa would go a long way.

  • When Los Angeles has the ball: Rashawn Slater/Storm Norton vs. Matthew Judon

    The Patriots have a ‘game ruiner’ on their defensive front too in Matthew Judon. Although he hasn’t had a sack in two weeks, Judon has still been a regular presence in the backfield pressuring quarterback and drawing holds (whether they’re called or not).

    Last year’s meeting was the worst game of Justin Herbert’s career statistically, with the 2020 sixth-overall pick recording his lowest passer rating in the NFL to this point (43.7). It was also the only NFL game in which he’s failed to throw at least one touchdown pass. Part of the reason the Patriots were so effective against Herbert in that game was pressure. He was hit 11 times, and sacked three.

    Creating pressure for this Patriots team starts with Judon, and he’ll be working against a pair of inexperienced tackles. Right tackle Storm Norton will be making just his ninth NFL start, while left tackle Rashawn Slater is a rookie. A savvy veteran like Judon should be able to find success working against them and make his way into the backfield, the question is can he do it on a regular basis?

  • Bonus: Mac Jones vs. Derwin James

    Chargers head coach Brandon Staley has quickly built the Chargers defense into one of the more formidable units in the league, especially against the pass. Bosa has been a big part of their success up front, but on the back end L.A. has another playmaker in safety Derwin James.

    James can impact the game at all three levels – he’s recorded 50 tackles, two forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks and an interception in six games this season. Expect to see No. 33 consistently on Sunday.

    “He’s very instinctive. Fast. Quick. Good tackler. Smart player,” Belichick said of James on Wednesday. “You’ve got to be ready to block him behind the line of scrimmage and on our side of the line of scrimmage, but he sees things quickly and reacts quickly. He’s a hard guy to block, especially at the second level, and with the guys they have in front of him, you start trying to get through to him, and then you’re a little light on somebody on the line of scrimmage, and that doesn’t always work out well either. He’s a very productive player.”

    This is one of those games where the quarterback will need to be aware of where the safety is before every snap. James is a valuable and versatile piece for Staley’s defense, and Mac Jones and the Patriots’ offense will need to quickly and efficiently react to what he is doing on a snap-by-snap basis.