Offensive line central in Patriot domination of Chargers
The Patriots had just taken a 14-7 lead on Sony Michel’s 14-yard dash and dive to the pylon late in the first quarter and Gillette Stadium was shaking like it hadn’t all season.
The volume only intensified during the commercial break when highlights of Tom Brady leading the Patriots to victory over the Raiders in the Snow Bowl on the Jumbotrons.
Among those watching intently from their seat on the sideline were David Andrews and Joe Thuney. The two large men, who now make their living protecting Brady, were just 9-year-old boys when Brady cold-cocked the Raiders in 2002 to help kick off New England’s dynasty.
At the other end of the heated bench sat Brady, who also was looking at some moving pictures. Except he wasn’t interested in the big screen. He had his head buried in a tablet while conferring with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Perhaps in 15 or so years, the stadium might show highlights of the job Andrews, Thuney, Shaq Mason, Trent Brown, and Marcus Cannon did against the Chargers in a thoroughly dominant 41-28 victory.
Los Angeles’s twin terror pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa were muted all afternoon as Brady enjoyed clean pocket after clean pocket. Brady wasn’t sacked and was only hit twice.
The Chargers recorded 30 sacks on the road this season, including seven in the wild-card win in Baltimore.
The offensive line also opened gaping holes for Michel to truck through and got downfield on screen passes to wipe out defenders at the second and third levels.
A great example of the offensive line’s versatility came during the second quarter on the Patriots fourth scoring drive.
On first down, Brady hits James White with a quick screen pass. As White spins to head down field, Andrews is delivering a wall off block, while Thuney and Mason provide the convoy. Thuney then wiped out safety Adrian Phillips while Mason just chugged along out front and sealed off several defenders without ever having to knock anyone over.
Three plays later, Michel rips off a 40-yard run that is a great combination of blocks at the point of attack, Michel’s vision, and downfield attack.
Michel takes the handoff from Brady as the offensive line leans right. Mason occupies his guy while Cannon and Rob Gronkowski combine to seal off another. James Develin, meanwhile, picks off another Charger looping around the right edge.
This creates a huge lane and Michel fires through it. On the second level, Andrews has leaked out and delivers another block. Michel makes a subtle inside move before bouncing back out and zipping down field.
The ability of the offensive line to adjust from pass protection to road grading to getting out into open spaces downfield was impressive.
New England will need a repeat performance in Kansas City where the crowd noise will make communication — vital in setting protections — extremely difficult.
Upon further film review, here are some other things that stood out as the Patriots secured their eighth straight trip to the AFC Championship game.
It’s becoming old hat to point out how disruptive Flowers is week after week. He was at it again Sunday. The versatile defensive end has a ridiculous combination of speed, power, and athleticism, and very rarely loses one-on-one battles.
Perhaps his best play against the Chargers came on one of his easiest battles. On a first-and-10 late in the first half, Flowers lined up on the left side. At the snap, Flowers engaged briefly with right guard Michael Schofield but the backpedaling Schofield got caught up in traffic, creating a clear path to Philip Rivers. Flowers flew in and dumped him.
The aforementioned play also was a great example of how the Patriots kept Rivers guessing all game by disguising their looks and coverages.
Dont’a Hightower lined up on the left edge and Kyle Van Noy lined up on the right, giving the impression of a blitz. At the snap, Hightower rushed (forcing right tackle Sam Tevi to engage him rather than Flowers) while Van Noy dropped into coverage.
Van Noy picks up running back Austin Ekeler, who Rivers would normally look to as a safety valve when under duress. He couldn’t and instead had to eat the ball.
Slot machine pays off
There was plenty to like about Julian Edelman’s performance (9 catches, 151 yards) as he came up with big play after big play. Edelman looked better than he’s looked since before tearing his ACL last preseason, buzzing around the field and through his routes with ease.
He caught short passes and long passes, but his best was a catch-and-run late in the first quarter when he showed off his quickness and toughness.
On second-and-13, Edelman lined up in the slot right. He got a cursory push from safety Derwin James before running a quick out route. Brady hits Edelman along the sideline about 6 yards short of a first down. He gets hit by Casey Hayward, then sandwiched by James, but somehow squirted through both defenders and dove to the marker for the first down.
Keenan Allen was the latest in a long line of visitors who were burned during their visit to Gilmore Island.
The All-Pro corner was again outstanding as he put the clamps on Allen for the majority of the afternoon. Yes, he fell for a double move early that led to Allen’s touchdown, but he was singularly fantastic from that point on, not allowing another catch.
He capped his day with an interception of Rivers when he mirrored Allen on an intermediate out route. Gilmore hand checked Allen and then stuck with him down the field. As he leaps in front of Allen, you can hear Patriots safeties coach Steve Belichick holler, “Yeah, Steph!” just as he snags the pass.
Gilmore could face an even bigger challenge in Kansas City if the Patriots choose to match him up with the fleet-footed Tyreek Hill.