FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots’ defense lined up on Sunday, linebacker Kyle Van Noy made the calls. Then he made them again, and maybe even a third time. The rest of the defense was extra chatty too, echoing Van Noy and making sure the players nearest them knew what was being called.
To say the defense was communicating wouldn’t quite cover it.
“Sometimes it takes over-communicating,” linebacker Elandon Roberts said.
“Over-communicating,” he repeated. “You keep repeating yourself over and over and over and over. Making sure like, ‘Hey, you got what I’m saying?’ Just to make sure.”
It wasn’t perfect, but the talkative defense put on a solid performance in the win against the Chargers, holding Los Angeles to 13 points without linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive tackle Malcom Brown, or cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore. It was the fourth straight week in which the Patriots have held their opponent under 20 points.
“Matty P [Patricia] said it a ton,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We’ve got to over-communicate today. Make sure we’ve got it. We can’t replace High. [He is a] crucial part of the defense but I thought guys stepped up as a whole. It wasn’t one guy. It was everyone playing fundamentally sound and playing good football.”
After allowing at least 300 passing yards to the first six quarterbacks they faced, the Patriots held Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers under that mark in back-to-back weeks. Rivers (17-of-30 passing for 212 yards and a touchdown) barely had time to get into a rhythm because the Chargers had the ball for 23 minutes and 1 second and converted only 3 of 10 times on third down.
The run defense, in particular, seemed as if it could have been due to take a hit without Hightower and Brown.
The Patriots did give up one huge play on Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run, but otherwise held the Chargers to 70 yards on 20 carries, good for 3.5 yards per rush. That’s not terrible, but it’s not good enough to power an offense by itself, and the Chargers threw the ball just five times in the first half.
Roberts and safety Duron Harmon said they weren’t too surprised the Chargers ran the ball so much. They were expecting to get a little bit more on the ground because of the windy conditions, and often playing with two high safeties encouraged Rivers to hand the ball off.
Harmon also took the blame for Gordon’s touchdown. He and safety Patrick Chung both seemed to get turned around on the play, and Harmon said he should have forced Gordon back inside instead of letting him break free down the sideline.
“It was little things,” Harmon said.
Without Hightower, several linebackers stepped up. Roberts and Van Noy led the Patriots with six combined tackles apiece, plugged holes effectively, and each got into the backfield for a tackle for loss.
“I think all of those guys contributed,” coach Bill Belichick said of his linebackers. “They were all involved in different groups so Marquis [Flowers], Kyle [Van Noy], Elandon [Roberts], David [Harris], and Trevor [Reilly], they all played different roles defensively. Again, it wasn’t a perfect performance by any means but they all were involved in areas.”
Harris helped bring the pressure that led Rivers to fumble on the Patriots only sack (for 20 yards), although he didn’t get credit for it because he tripped on the way to the quarterback.
“I mean, give coaches credit,” Harris said. “They came in with a good game plan this week and guys really had to step up because we did have a couple guys out. Malcom Brown as well. A lot of guys out there and guys who haven’t been on the field a lot and we did a good job of executing the game plan.”
The Patriots said there were not any issues with Van Noy wearing the green dot in place of Hightower. Van Noy has done so before and, though he’s less experienced, says he feels comfortable in that role.
Harmon said Van Noy’s calls were clear from the secondary and that the rest of the linebackers did a good job relaying them when necessary, talking right up until the Chargers snapped the ball.
Beyond the Gordon touchdown, cornerback Malcolm Butler seemed to be expecting help over the top when receiver Travis Benjamin beat him for a 24-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, but overall there were few gaping miscues.
“They did well. I’ve got all of the confidence in those guys. Of course, none of those guys are Hightower, but I mean, they did a good job of just being consistent. Playing good football, protecting the front seven, getting the guys up front in the right gaps and stuff like that and just communicating,” Harmon said.
Or over-communicating, if that’s what it takes.