Patriots

The Patriots will face one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks and one of the league’s most dynamic defenders against the Chargers on Sunday.

Derwin James. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Patriots had their way with the Los Angeles Chargers during Justin Herbert’s rookie season, winning their 2020 matchup by a score of 45-0.

But this year’s Chargers team is much different, coming into Sunday’s matchup with New England 4-2 and situated as playoff contenders after struggling last season. So as tempting as it is to think the Patriots will roll through this matchup, the Chargers should pose a formidable test for a team looking for its first signature win of the year.

Unlike some of the teams the Patriots have played this season, you don’t have to look hard to find the Chargers players you should be watching. Quite simply: Los Angeles’ AFC team boasts some of the brightest stars football has to offer, starting with its quarterback.

Four Chargers to watch against the Patriots in Week
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Quarterback Justin Herbert in action during the first half of a game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, in Baltimore.

Justin Herbert

He’s the Chargers’ quarterback, so everyone will be keeping an eye on him anyway. But there’s more to it than that.

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The former Oregon product is a special quarterback talent at just 23 years old and could be thought of as a top-10 signal-caller for years to come.

Like Mac Jones, Herbert tends to get the ball out of his hands quickly compared with other quarterbacks, releasing throws an average of 2.57 seconds after the snap — just .02 seconds slower than Jones (via PFF).

But he’s also one of the most aggressive quarterbacks in the league, according to NextGen Stats, yet has maintained an impressive 14 TD-to-4 INT split while sitting just outside the top 10 passing leaders with 1,771 yards through the air. On top of that, Herbert ranks seventh in adjusted completion percentage on throws 20+ yards down the field per PFF.

Whether he’s dishing the ball off on a quick checkdown to pass-catching back Austin Ekeler or loading up for jump balls to big-bodied receiver Mike Williams — one of the best deep-ball receivers in the game — Herbert has the arm talent to beat an opponent from anywhere on the field.

The key is that, unlike Zach Wilson, for instance, Herbert can make those plays regularly and efficiently rather than just in flashes.

That’s why Bill Belichick has made such glowing remarks about the ascending young quarterback, and it’s why the Patriots need to do two things to foil him: Force him to hold onto the football, and get him on the ground.

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The Dallas Cowboys game (445 yards passing and 3 TDs allowed) should serve as a warning of what happens when the Patriots fail at that against a good quarterback.

Four Chargers to watch against the Patriots in Week
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Chargers offensive tackle Rashawn Slater (70) guards during a game against the Cleveland Browns Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021.

Rashawn Slater

The Northwestern star was the second tackle taken in the 2021 NFL Draft, coming off the board with the No. 13 pick (two slots before Mac Jones).

So far, he’s made a case that he might be the best rookie at his position this season.

Of the 10 rookie tackles to play at least 100 snaps in 2021, Slater is the highest-graded pass-blocker and second-best tackle overall behind Washington’s Samuel Cosmi, per PFF. He has allowed just 10 pressures on the season, which is 15 less than No. 7 overall pick Penei Sewell.

Furthermore, PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency stat places Slater (97.7) as the 15th-best tackle in the entire league — second among rookies behind Minnesota’s Christian Darrisaw, who has played just two games — with a minimum of 100 snaps played.

Bottom line: the Chargers look like they have themselves a good one, and he could have a sizeable role to play in this game.

Slater figures to see a good amount of both Kyle Van Noy and Matthew Judon on Sunday, as well as a sprinkle of Josh Uche here and there. But the Patriots will also likely test the rookie on stunts and blitzes to see if they can free up an easy shot on Herbert.

Slater is good — one of the five best players on the Chargers already, according to PFF — but no one attacks rookies like Bill Belichick.

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The Patriots will certainly have a much better matchup on the other side of the line against 2017 undrafted free agent Storm Norton, who has been pressed into service at right tackle after an injury to Bryan Bulaga.

But if the Chargers elect to help Norton more on the right side, that could make breaking down Slater even more important to New England’s defensive game plan.

Four Chargers to watch against the Patriots in Week
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Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown (5) as Chargers free safety Derwin James (33) tries to bring him down during the second half a game in Baltimore.

Derwin James

Even the scientists who created James in a lab to be the perfect NFL safety probably have to laugh at how ridiculous he is.

At 6-foot-2 and nearly 220 pounds, James plays like an unholy combination of Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, flying around to detonate ball-carriers in the box and teleporting around the field as a cover man in the deep part of the field.

But he also can mirror routes against talented receivers and tight ends with unnatural quickness and footwork along with 4.4 speed.

It’s just not fair.

In the hands of Chargers’ coach Brandon Staley, James is the kind of weapon who keeps offensive coordinators like Josh McDaniels up at night.

You never know where the dynamic ex-Florida State defensive back will line up on a given snap. He’s already logged more than 100 snaps as a box safety, a free safety and a slot corner this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He can ruin a game,” Belichick said of the “very instinctive” safety. “Fast. Quick. Good tackler. Smart player. 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.”

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Whether it comes to getting a hat on him in the run game and blitz pickup or noting where he is in coverage, the Patriots should do their best to keep the ball away from James as much as possible. He’s that good.

Four Chargers to watch against the Patriots in Week
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Chargers linebacker Joey Bosa (97) in action during the first half of a game against the Ravens, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021.

Joey Bosa

Speaking of guys who can “ruin games,” the Chargers have yet another of those players on defense in Bosa.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft has the third-highest pass-rush grade among NFL edge defenders this season and wins his pass-rush reps 22.6 percent of the time (seventh-best in the NFL among players with at least 50 pass rushes), per PFF.

He has every tool you could want — power, speed, bend and technical skill — and he’ll do it without relenting if you allow him. He has two games with five or more pressures, harassing Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes and Derek Carr, of the Las Vegas Raiders, in consecutive weeks.

After that, the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens started to neutralize Bosa with a combination of running the ball heavily (and away from his side), relying on quicker throws to stop him from getting home and double-teaming him as often as possible.

The Patriots obviously can and should duplicate all of those elements to limit Bosa’s effectiveness.

He’ll probably spend most of his Sunday lined up across from left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who has struggled much of the season, so directing help that way will be crucial to protecting Mac Jones’s blindside. But with Michael Onwenu starting at right tackle for just the second time this year, Bosa will likely test his young opponent on that side as well.