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Four Chargers to watch against the Patriots in Week 8

Joey Bosa has 19 tackles and 3.5 sacks for the Chargers in six games this season.Nick Wass/Associated Press

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

But this year’s Chargers team comes into Sunday’s game with New England as playoff contenders at 4-2. So as tempting as it is to think the Patriots will roll over them, the Chargers should pose a formidable test for a team looking for its first signature win.

Unlike some opponents the Patriots have faced this season, you don’t have to look hard to find the players you should watch. Quite simply: Los Angeles’s AFC team boasts some of the game’s brightest stars, starting with its quarterback.

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Justin Herbert

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert has thrown for 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns in six games.Gail Burton/Associated Press

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

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

He’s also one of the most aggressive quarterbacks, 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. He also ranks seventh in adjusted completion percentage on throws 20+ yards down the field per PFF.

Whether it’s a check down to running back Austin Ekeler or a jump ball to big-bodied receiver Mike Williams — one of the best deep-ball receivers in the game — Herbert has the arm to beat an opponent from anywhere on the field.

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

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The loss to the Cowboys, when Dak Prescott threw for 445 yards passing and three touchdowns, should serve as a warning about what happens when the Patriots fail to contain a good quarterback.

Rashawn Slater

The Chargers drafted offensive tackle Rashawn Slater in the first round in 2021.Nick Wass/Associated Press

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

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

Slater figures to see a good amount of Kyle Van Noy and Matthew Judon on Sunday, as well as a sprinkle of Josh Uche. 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, according to PFF — but no one attacks rookies like Bill Belichick.

The Patriots will have a 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.

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If the Chargers help Norton on the right side, breaking down Slater could become even more important to New England’s game plan.

Derwin James

Derwin James missed the 2020 season with a torn meniscus, but has appeared in all six games in 2021.Harry How/Getty

At 6 feet, 2 inches and nearly 220 pounds, James is a combination of Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, flying around to detonate ball carriers in the box or acting as a deep cover man.

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

James is the kind of weapon that keeps offensive coordinators up at night.

You never know where the dynamic ex-Florida State defensive back will line up. He’s 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.”

Whether 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.

Joey Bosa

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

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Bosa has two games with five or more pressures, harassing the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Raiders’ Derek Carr in consecutive weeks.

After that, the Browns and Ravens neutralized Bosa by running the ball away from his side, making quicker throws, and double-teaming him.

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

He’ll probably spend most of 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 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.