FOXBOROUGH — Adam Butler shot out of a cannon, unblocked, into the backfield and into Philip Rivers’s face. Rivers, his team down 28 points and about to go three-and-out on his first drive after halftime, scurried to his right, threw the ball away, and started screaming at his offensive line, presumably wondering if his five oldest children might make for more enthusiastic blockers.
“You’ve got a 300-pound guy running clean at you unblocked? I mean, come on,” Butler said. “I think we’d all be frustrated at that.”
This was the plan, to come at Rivers up the middle. The Patriots knew they had to get to the Chargers quarterback, but doing so wasn’t just up to the defensive line. They had to make the Chargers’ offense one-dimensional, to take away the run, then cover well enough on the back end so that the rush could get home.
As Butler backpedaled away from the frustrated quarterback, he chuckled. The plan was working. The Patriots’ defense was rolling.
“I thought we put constant pressure on [Rivers],” coach Bill Belichick said.
The final tally on the stat sheet said Rivers was sacked twice and hit seven times. That doesn’t count the hurries, the forced incompletions or the fear and mental chaos instilled. It was the best performance of the season for the Patriots’ defense, which held the Chargers to 28 points, but just 7 in the first half as they ran away to the AFC Championship game.
It started with the pressure, but the Patriots created an ideal situation for their pass rushers by shutting down the run and covering on the back end.
Defensive end Trey Flowers had a sack, two quarterback hits, and a holding penalty drawn on a fourth down, plus numerous pressures.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower pressured Rivers on a pair of incompletions, and gave up nothing in coverage.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn, back in the lineup after back-to-back healthy scratches, sacked Rivers once and hit him twice more. Clayborn has struggled against mobile quarterbacks, but playing Rivers was a good matchup for him.
“We understood that we had to get him off the spot, not allow him to be comfortable in the pocket, not allow him to step up, you know, because he’s a great quarterback,” Flowers said. “We had to pressure him, get him off the spot, and I think we executed that well today.”
It helped that they knew Rivers was throwing. New England was scoring at such a clip that Los Angeles got away from the ground game early, but the run defense held up, too. The Chargers ran only 10 times for 19 yards, and their lead back, Melvin Gordon, playing with braces on both knees, averaged 1.7 yards per carry.
The decision to put defensive tackle Danny Shelton back in the lineup continued to pay off, and linebacker Elandon Roberts laid a pair of hits that shook the stadium. Kyle Van Noy also had a run stuff.
“We did a good job of stopping the run up front and kind of making them one-dimensional,” said cornerback Jason McCourty.
Then it was up to the secondary. The Chargers finished with 331 passing yards, most of it coming in the second half when the Patriots had a big lead. Los Angeles scored on its first possession when a coverage breakdown led to a 43-yard touchdown for Keenan Allen, who was shadowed by Stephon Gilmore most of the game.
“Just being a little bit too nosy,” Gilmore said of the mistake. He made up for it in the second half with an interception, sussing out an out route Allen had fooled him on earlier in the game.
Allen finished with two catches for 75 yards on six targets, Gilmore’s physicality knocking him off his routes early.
Tyrell Williams finished as the Chargers’ leading receiver with five catches on seven targets for 94 yards, mostly covered by McCourty, and J.C. Jackson handled Mike Williams (five catches, 11 targets, 68 yards). Rivers couldn’t get anything going other than a few chunk plays, and more often than not the rush closed in as he waited for those to develop.
Then there was nothing for Rivers to do but duck or roll away, throw up his hands, and wonder if the defense was feeding off his anger. The pressure got to him, and the Patriots’ defense had one of its best days.
The next test? Can they do it on the road against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.