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Nora Princiotti

Chargers unlikely to play 7 defensive backs against Patriots

Tom Brady throwing to James White out of the backfield is one of the Patriots’ go-to plays.
Tom Brady throwing to James White out of the backfield is one of the Patriots’ go-to plays.(file/jim davis/Globe staff)

FOXBOROUGH — To reach the divisional round, the Chargers gambled and won. They played seven defensive backs and bet that quickness, not heft, was the way to stop quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rushing attack.

The Patriots present a different challenge. Don’t expect to see much of that seven defensive back grouping from the Chargers in the AFC divisional-round game Sunday. The Patriots have the personnel to force the Chargers into putting their linebackers, who represent the weakness in their defense, on the field. What remains to be seen is if the New England running backs can take advantage of it.

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“They’re going to pose a good challenge for us and I think that’s what it’s all about in the playoffs and we’re excited just for that chance,” Patriots rookie Sony Michel said Friday.

The Patriots can force the Chargers out of their lighter looks by using some of their heavier packages. Rob Gronkowski isn’t what he used to be as a receiving option, but he can still block, as can Dwayne Allen. The Patriots also make frequent use of 21 personnel — with two backs, one tight end, and two receivers — often getting James Develin on the field as a blocker in those packages. The offense was in 21 personnel for 29 percent of its snaps this season, the second most in the NFL by a wide margin, according to SharpFootballStats.com.

The Patriots are especially good at throwing out of their 21 personnel looks, averaging 8.1 yards per play over the last six weeks of the season. It’s a small sample size but, in that same period leading up to the playoffs, the Chargers failed to stop any of the six passing plays opponents ran out of 21 personnel looks, according to Sharp Football.

Overall, the Chargers have had a difficult time defending passes to players coming out of the backfield, a strength of the Patriots offense mostly because of James White. Los Angeles ranked 29th this season in passing yards allowed to targets coming out of the backfield (841), and Tom Brady has targeted his backs at the third-highest rate in the league, according to the NFL’s NextGen Stats.

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That’s usually where White, who leads the Patriots with 87 catches, comes in.

“This is what you play for, to play in moments like this, this is why you play in the NFL, this is why you’re here, to be a Patriot and to win games like this,” White said Wednesday.

White said that the communication on offense will be challenged by the Chargers’ ability to mix things up on defense, giving the seven defensive backs looks against the Ravens as an example.

“They switch up the looks every other play, you’ve just got to communicate what defensive personnel is in the game,” White said.

Rex Burkhead also factors into the passing game, averaging 9.4 yards per reception, and if the Chargers stay with particularly light fronts, the Patriots can run it up the middle with Michel behind a solid interior offensive line. The Patriots do need to be careful not to become too predictable with Burkhead, who gets the ball 51 percent of the time he’s on the field.

“Any time you can do something with the run game or the pass game to open up things on either side it’s definitely huge and beneficial,” Burkhead said. “It helps out as the game goes on.”

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Michel is in an unfamiliar position, playing his 14th game of the season. He missed three games in the regular season because of injury, but he’s still passed the point where rookies sometimes hit a wall adjusting to the longer NFL schedule.

Michel said he’s stuck to a consistent routine of rest and recovery after each week and that, overall, he doesn’t feel fatigued.

“I mean there’s times, but that’s part of the game, that’s part of football and you’ve just got to push through it,” he said.

Push through and there should be opportunity on Sunday, for Michel and the rest of the Patriots running backs.


Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.