PHOTO: San Diego Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson leaves St. Louis Rams defenders in his wake on a 55-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of their preseason game Sunday, Aug. 21, 2005, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
Team Has to Stop Chargers Ground Game
By Dave Fletcher
Here they go again. Last season, injuries didnt begin to pile on like this for the Patriots until the end of October. This year, the leaves have barely started to change color, yet New England finds itself in an all too familiar predicament.
Before last week, the Patriots (2-1) injury report was lengthy, but most of the ailments were relatively minor. This week? Rodney Harrison has already been placed on injured reserve, Matt Light has reportedly had surgery on his broken left leg and Kevin Faulk is out at least six weeks with a broken foot. Enter safety Guss Scott, tackle Nick Kaczur and running back Amos Zereoue. Enter the San Diego Chargers (1-2) into Foxboro.
When pressed to articulate what Harrison has meant to the Patriots, coach Bill Belichick acknowledged his importance to their defense and finished by saying, Were playing San Diego this week.
The statements simplicity blows the mind, but the attitude behind it is part of what has made New England so good at overcoming injuries to win ballgames.
LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates are almost certain to give the Patriots an early look at what life will be like without Harrison. Stopping them from having a big day is the key to victory, but it will be much easier said than done.
Tomlinson routinely draws an extra safety up to the line of scrimmage because he is so explosive if he bounces to the outside. Whether it is Scott or Eugene Wilson who is called upon to fill that role, they will need to make those tough tackles that Harrison so routinely made to prevent big gains. In 66 games since he entered the league, Tomlinson has 66 touchdowns and a 4.4 yards-per-carry average. He is certainly capable of beating a team all by himself as he did last week against the Giants, when he ran for three touchdowns (his 15th straight game with a score) and even threw a TD strike to Keenan McCardell for good measure.
New Englands defense comes into the game after a stellar performance against the run last week in Pittsburgh, where they held Willie Parker to 55 yards on 17 carries.
Tomlinsons yardage total doesnt figure to be that low. San Diego is a lot like Pittsburgh in that they wont call upon their quarterback, Drew Brees, to make too many things happen unless they have to. Since taking over as the Chargers starter at the beginning of 2004, Brees has been one of the best in the league at managing games.
He gets (the ball) to guys in a position where they can make plays and he's not careless with it, said Belichick. (He) doesn't get fooled very often. He sees where the defense is, where they're deployed and where the best place to go.
Last year, Brees threw 27 touchdowns compared with an NFL-low seven interceptions. Defenses didnt have any better luck forcing him into mistakes on the road, either. Brees has thrown just three interceptions and has a 99.0 passer rating in nine road games since the beginning of last season.
Former basketball star-turned-tight-end Antonio Gates has, quite literally, been the biggest reason Brees has managed to be such a model of efficiency.
It seems like the ball is never at a place where it's a struggle for him to catch it, but for a lot of other guys it would be, said Belichick. Like all good receiving tight ends, they are hard to match up against. You put a linebacker on them, and they're more athletic. Usually, with a linebacker you can match up with them. If you put a defensive back on them, they're bigger and more physical than the defensive backs, so a good pass receiving tight end is a tough matchup for any team.
It will be especially tough for New England to keep Gates at bay on Sunday with the secondary ailing. Belichick seems to be leaning toward assigning a linebacker to cover Gates, who has a six-inch size advantage on Scott. Doubling Gates may be risky given if it leaves wide receivers McCardell and Eric Parker isolated on cornerbacks near the sidelines. However, taking away Brees favorite target will force him to read the coverage further down field and make tougher throws. If Richard Seymour and the defensive line can duplicate their dominating second half performance against the Steelers, Brees might begin to struggle like so many other visiting quarterbacks have at Gillette Stadium.
On the other hand, it is usually anything but a struggle for Tom Brady when he takes the field in Foxboro. Brady is coming off one of his career defining games, where he registered a perfect 12-for-12 completion percentage in the fourth quarter against a tough Steelers defense that knew he was going to be passing the ball.
After Light went down in the second quarter and was replaced by Nick Kaczur on his blind side, Bradys protection in the pocket got better even against increased blitzes. With a full week to study the Pats all-rookie left side of the offensive line, it is likely that San Diego will focus on attacking Kaczur and guard Logan Mankins. New England may shift either Brandon Gorin or Tom Ashworth from the right side to the left for a veteran presence.
The best remedy for keeping the Chargers from exploiting the inexperienced line would be a power running game in the first half. Corey Dillon couldnt establish much consistency last week against the stout Steelers front, and San Diego is almost as good at shutting down the run, allowing just 81 yards-per-game last season, third in the NFL.
Normally, the Patriots would probably call upon Faulk to take on a bigger role against a defense like San Diegos. But with Faulk out, either Patrick Pass or Zereoue will need to step up as the change of pace back. Pass is the most logical choice to fill Faulks void because he has been in the system for over five years.
He's a very smart player, said Belichick. He understands multiple roles and multiple assignments. He's played fullback. He's played halfback. He's been our third down back. He's played at times in short yardage and those types of situations. He's a pretty versatile guy and he's experienced.
The Chargers have shown vulnerability in their pass defense, which has surrendered 254 passing yards-per-game this season. Brady will probably top 40 pass attempts again this week as the offense aims to spread the ball around to keep the Chargers off balance. Its a trend that will continue until Dillon and the offensive line can gel and start pushing defenses around.
I hope it doesn't end like 2002, said Brady. I think we had over 600 pass attempts (in 2002). I'm sure we're on schedule for that throwing as much as we have been. You never want to be throwing the ball as much as that. You'd like to have much more balance. Last year was kind of where we wanted it to be. I think some of the games this year, it just forced us to throw the ball. We would like to be more balanced and that's what we're working toward.
What to watch for: How involved are the Patriots tight ends in the passing game? Ben Watson and Daniel Graham have totaled just six catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in the first three games. Brady hasnt thrown to his tight ends as much as he usually does so far this season. That may change Sunday if the Chargers put eight in the box and over-commit to stopping the run or pressuring Brady.
Notes: The Chargers +15
turnover differential last season was the third best in the AFC. So far this season,
their differential is -1
Injured cornerbacks Randall Gay (ankle) and Tyrone Poole (ankle) arent likely to return to action this week ... Hines Wards
85-yard score last week was the longest TD pass against the Patriots since an
86-yarder by Kansas City in 1990
Gates led the league in third down catches
Lights 57-game streak starting at left tackle will come
to an end
Belichick said safety James Sanders is getting closer to returning
... Deion Branchs 21 receptions lead the AFC and is the fourth highest total
in the NFL
Bradys 78 completions leads all quarterbacks
11-yard punt return average is second in the conference.
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