Hannable: The Chargers' not-so-secret weapon against the Patriots

Ryan Hannable
January 08, 2019 - 10:24 pm
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The Chargers have some big names, but the one the Patriots offense needs to be aware of most may be a relative unknown.

Everyone knows about the Chargers’ stud defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, but the most important player on their defense this week is only 22 years old — safety Derwin James.

The rookie out of Florida State will determine a lot of what the Patriots do on offense, so if there’s a bit of a feeling out process on the first few plays of the game, it is to see how James is being used.

Despite being just five years old when Tom Brady first came into the league, he’s one of the most talented players on the Chargers defense. In the regular season, he finished with a team-high 105 tackles, 13 passes defensed, 3.5 sacks and six quarterback hits. Because of this, he’s earned Brady’s attention heading into the contest.

“Derwin James has had an incredible season as a rookie,” he said Monday morning on Mut & Callahan. 

Even Bill Belichick is impressed.

“He’s very good,” he said. “He’s as good as anybody we’ve seen all year. Big, fast, athletic, very instinctive. He primarily plays around the line of scrimmage. Usually in a safety position but they play a lot of six and seven defensive backs, so sometimes he’s in a linebacker-type position, but whether you want to call him a linebacker or a safety, he’s down near the line of scrimmage. It’s pretty much the same.

"He’s a very good tackler. He’s a very good blitzer when they blitz him. He can play very strong against the running game and when they put him in the deep part of the field, which happens some – he’s down a lot more than he’s back – but he plays effectively from back there too. … The guy’s a really good football player.”

So, why is James such an important factor to what the Patriots will do offensively? His role will determine how the Patriots attack.

Because of a number of injuries at linebacker, the Chargers went with seven defensive backs on 58 of Baltimore’s 59 offensive snaps in last Sunday’s game, and James was a major reason why because he’s so comfortable lining up in the box. He even lined up as a defensive end at times.

James primarily gets matched up with opposing tight ends and he’s had quite a bit of success in that area. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Chargers were the best in the league in covering tight ends. For example, Travis Kelce had eight catches on 15 targets for 67 yards in two games against them this year.

But, for as good as the Chargers have been against tight ends, they have been just as bad against running backs. They gave up 973 receiving yards to running backs, the most in the NFL. Also, in the meeting last year at Gillette Stadium, Brady was 14-for-15 with 163 yards when targeting backs. 

Because of this, the Chargers defense could take a different approach with James and move him off tight ends and in coverage against backs like James White. This would not be all that surprising given what Rob Gronkowski is at this point — just four catches for 45 yards in this last three games.

If James covers Gronkowski, expect Brady and the offense to feed the running backs out of the backfield and it isn’t just White, as Rex Burkhead and even Sony Michel are capable. But, if the Chargers change things up and have James on the running backs, that is where things get interesting. 

If that happens, don’t be surprised if the Patriots go heavy with James Develin in the backfield and look to run the ball with Michel. In any other year Gronkowski would be targeted a great deal, but this is different and he hasn’t shown much that would say he will be able to be a difference maker. It also doesn’t seem the Patriots receivers can be counted on much besides Julian Edelman with Chris Hogan having a down year, along with Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson not seeing the field much.

It’s not too often a rookie safety can impact the opposing offense’s gameplan, but James is that good.

Related: Tom Brady explains why he wants to play until he's 45 years old

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