The 9-3 New England Patriots will meet the 8-4 San Diego Chargers at Qualcolmm Stadium on Sunday.
Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m. ET. But before the cross-coast matchup begins, a look at some of the pregame notes between the two teams.
Hightower Holds the Front: The green dot of the defense, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower was limited in New England’s sessions this week with a shoulder injury he suffered last weekend. If he is unable to go, New England will have to look elsewhere for A-gap pressure, containment on running backs Ryan Mathews and Branden Oliver in the flats, and reliable coverage drops into the second level. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Alabama product’s versatility and communication have made him a vital component within the Patriots’ multiple 3-4 and 4-3 fronts this season. And in turn, his potential absence would call upon the likes of recently acquired Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jonathan Casillas and practice-squad promotion Darius Fleming to fill the void.
Awaiting Jones: It also remains to be seen whether or not defensive end Chandler Jones will make his return Sunday, as he is questionable for the second consecutive game. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Syracuse product has not suited up since he registered four tackles and a sack against the New York Jets in Week 7; however, he has returned in a limited capacity for the last two weeks of practices. If he returns to a further extend versus San Diego, Akeem Ayers – listed as a linebacker on the team’s official roster – could stand up more so as a nine-technique and as a third-down rusher. Even so, Jones is expected to be eased in if he does in fact play, while Ayers sees the majority of snaps off the right side.
Siliga Activated Saturday: The Patriots activated defensive tackle Sealver Siliga from short-term injured reserve on Saturday, and the rotation will deepen along the line if he is active on Sunday. Yet so will New England’s options in short-yardage and goal-line sets. The inside of San Diego’s offensive line has fought through injuries this year, and Siliga’s presence should shore up New England’s defensive line in the same respect.
A Different Week of Pressure: The Patriots managed to bring down Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for three sacks last week, but the numbers did not tell the story in its entirety. Rodgers was able to maneuver outside the pocket and keep his eyes downfield, and on one particular play, the seventh-year starter was able to pat the football for 11 seconds delivering a strike. Those are points the Patriots will look to address opposite San Diego’s pass protection, which has graded out 27th in the league this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Quarterback Philip Rivers has been sacked 23 times in 2014. And, providing the Patriots can generate pressure with stunts and zone blitzes from a four-man rush, that total will rise.
Rivers and Receivers: Rivers has been able to stay on his feet to complete 69.1 percent of passes for 3,218 yards, 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this year, and it would be remiss to overlook the finer dimensions of the players he’s thrown to. Look for Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis to follow second-year wideout Keenan Allen, who has reeled in 72 passes for 762 yards and four scores in only his second season. Across from him, keep an eye on Brandon Browner and free safety Devin McCourty, who are expected to take on the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Malcom Floyd at the line and over the top. And, in between Allen and Floyd, a mixture of Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard are in line to account for Eddie Royal in the slot. The Chargers will spread the ball proficiently to those three, and while a Davante Adams-type performance may not be in the cards this week, how the Patriots’ Cover-1 scheme holds up against the dispersal could be the difference.
Gates, Gronkowski and the Tight End Position: Seven seasons apart, both Antonio Gates and Rob Gronkowski have found a way to modernize the tight end position in their own way. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski surpassed Gates’ mark as the fastest at the position to reach 50 touchdowns earlier this season, but the Patriots “Y” tight end has a ways to go before he surpasses Gates’ 96 career receiving touchdowns for his career. The 12th-year Charger still manages to dictate coverage for what he can do at the catch point and beyond. The Patriots figure to implement a committee approach versus the 6-foot-4, 255-pounder, and that could include linebacker Jamie Collins, in-box safety Patrick Chung and zone reinforcements. Even so, there is also “F” tight end Ladarius Green to monitor in the vertical game and down the sidelines.
New England’s Ground Control: After a week in which the Patriots ran a limited number of plays – 54 – and ran the ball a limited number of times – 17 – control will be key against the Chargers. A strong defensive tackle in Corey Liuget, a top tier safety in Eric Weddle, and the three interceptions of former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers will vie for a different kind of game, however. Yet a downhill game could be the recipe opposite them. That would mean the LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden handling early downs in some form or fashion, as San Diego has conceded a 21st-ranked 4.3 yards per carry this campaign, along with eight touchdowns. If Weddle is forced to commit to the run from the back end, that would draw quarterback Tom Brady and the play action into the equation.
Natural Grass Changes the Playing Field: The Patriots are still in search of their first win on a natural grass playing surface this season, after the team’s trips to Sun Life Stadium, Arrowhead Stadium and Lambeau Field all resulted in losses. Perhaps practicing at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium this week will help even the playing field come Sunday night at Qualcomm. Perhaps what transpired in Green Bay last Sunday will do the same.
New England is 36-4 in regular-season games following a loss since the start of 2003.