Michael Lombardo: Despite the fact that the 3-4 defense is traditionally tough to run against, LaDainian Tomlinson seems to always have huge games against the Patriots. What is it about the Patriots defense that allows Tomlinson to enjoy these monster games? More specifically, do the Patriots leave more cutback lanes open than most 3-4 defenses? How will they adjust for Sunday's game?
Jon Scott: If there were a clear-cut answer to slow L.T. down, I think Bill Belichick would have found it by now. It's really a matter of having players on the field making plays. Last year at various points, the Patriots had their starting players banged up. Not just "dinged" but really banged up. The second group behind the starters is not as well versed in the defensive scheme, nor as skilled, and is susceptible to being beat.
One issue, which the San Francisco 49ers will find out, is that Tully Banta-Cain -- Willie McGinest's successor -- had serious problems with containment on the edge. It was so bad against the Chargers in the playoffs that he didn't start the following week against the Colts, even though the Patriots really needed help on their defense.
I think the Chargers are able to exploit that angle better than many teams because of their offensive line. They're a talented group with big bodies who have the ability to create a seam for a great back like L.T. If you double-team Richard Seymour and there isn't a solid OLB to fill the point of attack, then you're going to be successful running against the Patriots. The same goes for the middle of the line when Vince Wilfork isn't in there. That's the time you see the Chargers be successful. When you have very solid linebackers, the Chargers are a normal team… as evidenced last week when they had all they could handle trying to run against the Chicago Bears.
ML: When the Bears essentially took Tomlinson out of the opener, Norv Turner turned to Antonio Gates and fed his big tight end early and often. How do the Patriots plan on covering Gates? Will they use a safety, cornerback or an assortment of players?
JS: Gates is an enigma, much like Ben Watson is for New England. When Gates is in the game on obvious passing downs, expect to see the Patriots put one of their cover safeties on him. He's too fast for many of the linebackers - with the exception of Adalius Thomas. Thomas may actually draw the assignment. If you watch that guy, he can do everything from covering tight ends to stuffing the run.
Don't forget, the Patriots use a LOT of zone defense in their version of the Tampa 2. It will certainly be a mixture of players, but one guy will know that Gates is his man at the start of the play based on the route he runs. I wouldn't expect to see a lot of Gates running free in the secondary but he will certainly have opportunities to make plays; he's that good and the Patriots defensive backs are not.
ML: The Patriots have arguably the best quarterback in the league and a born-again playmaker in Randy Moss. Can these two repeat their stellar opening day performances? What will the Patriots do to exploit what appears to be an obvious mismatch between their loaded receiving corps and San Diego's suspect secondary?
JS: I'm not sure what teams will do against Moss. The key to remember about New England is that it isn't about Brady and Moss; it's about Brady and seven or eight targets, four or five of which can really hurt a defense. Take one of those away and Brady will just check off to another. You saw what happened when Wes Welker got going against the New York Jets. He was the target on six of the first eight passes. The Jets opted to double Welker – or rather roll an extra defender and leave their corners on an island. While it worked to slow down Welker, Moss killed them deep.
That's going to be the challenge for San Diego: covering Moss deep, containing Welker and not letting Ben Watson get on track. Laurence Maroney was hardly a factor last week, ostensibly because he missed much of the preseason nursing that shoulder injury. We haven't even mentioned Donté Stallworth, who can flat out fly. He's one of the fastest guys on the team. Ellis Hobbs and Willie Andrews, also former track stars, are the defensive equivalents.
I'd expect much of the same game plan from week one. Run a lot at first to bring guys up in run defense and then try to throw deep or down the seams with Watson, Moss, Stallworth or one of the other receivers. If the defense plays too far off the line, you'll see a lot of underneath patters with Welker, Watson, Kelley Washington and Gaffney.
ML: Brady had all day in the pocket in the game against the Jets. It seems unlikely he will have that luxury in week two, although the Patriots did stonewall Shawne Merriman in last season's playoff game. How do you expect the Patriots to fare against the Chargers aggressive front seven? Will the Patriots run the ball more to slow down the pass rush? Or will they spread the field and try to force Merriman and Shaun Phillips to drop into coverage?
JS: Good question. Last year, I went back through the tape in our post-game analysis and saw that Merriman was much less effective than his teammates at getting pressure on Brady. While it may sound like a bit of a homer to say that Merriman didn't look so hot, it was the tape telling the story. Phillips was able to use his ability to get past the single blocker to pressure Brady. It was really San Diego's defensive line that deserves the credit, much like the one in Chicago. The linebackers only have to flow to the hole and maybe fight off one blocker to make the tackle if the defensive line is doing its job. I saw Merriman get pancaked by Logan Mankins on one play, then buried by Stephen Neal on another. It wasn't great blocking -- although some may argue that -- it was Merriman was just using bad technique to get to Brady.
I think you'll see much of the same game plan this time around, but with five solid targets in the secondary, it won't take a long throw to Reche Caldwell on a fourth-and-short to beat San Diego's linebackers, it can be done by using four- or five-receiver sets and hitting the quick throws. Blitz Brady and he's going to use Welker, Watson or Kevin Faulk to bail him out. Even if it just goes for 4 or 5 yards, it defeats the blitz.
ML: It seems as though Bill Belichick always has a trick up his sleeve for hyping his team up for big games. What is he harping on this week? Is there an us-against-the-world speech coming on the heels of this signal-stealing story? Or will he be posting Tomlinson's quotes from last January on the bulletin board?
JS: I think you'll see a lot of ticked-off Patriots players determined to prove that their victories aren't from signal stealing with their performance on the field. All week, players have bristled at questions posed by media types who have swarmed through the door of Gillette to cover "Video-gate." To be quite honest, it even ticks off the beat reporter group, who understandably has to ask the questions but knows not to be "stupid" about it.
As for Belichick, he's been trying his best to dodge the tough questions and has done a good job of skipping out on his press conference when the heat gets dialed up. The media aren't giving him a pass but he's trying to take it anyway. The focus -- if there is any -- is on L.T. and that tough Chargers defense.
ML: Junior Seau is one of the greatest Chargers players of all time. Can you speak a little about his role in what is likely his final season? What has he done to earn the captain status he was awarded before the opener?
JS: Seau is the primary backup at the inside linebacker position. He won the job mainly because the Patriots have no one worthy of being a starter in their second group, except Seau. You'll see him in passing situations, as he's a bit more versatile than Tedy Bruschi in coverage. Although many of the Patriots defensive groups rotate players in and out, Seau typically stays on the field for those situations.
Seau has shown enough motivation to impress his teammates, coaches and the media covering him. The best way to describe him is intense. He not only runs from drill to drill, he sprints. He is so focused on the task at hand that everyone tends to steer clear of him when he's in that mode. You can see how his personality off the field has won over his teammates, though. Seau is a good guy. Some of our staffers, who have had reason to interact with him outside the realm of football, have spoken well of him.
I think you're seeing the reaction his teammates have to that intense practice mindset. Belichick complimented Junior last year, saying he's one of the few guys who beats him into work at the facility. Seau won over fans, teammates and coaches last year with his inspired play. He's continued that intensity in 2007.
The thing I can add is that when you watch Seau on the field, he looks literally 10 years younger than he is. He out-hustles the young guys. He's in incredible shape and he's extremely aware on the field. Even though he's had injury issues in the past, it's hard to believe teams think he's all done. When Seau arrived in Foxboro, it was like the Rodney Harrison experience all over again. We just couldn't believe San Diego gave up on these guys.
Jon Scott has covered the NFL since 1995. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long time contributor to the Scout.com network. A New England native, Scott has followed the Patriots for over two decades and covered the team since 2001.
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