Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert enters the matchup with the New England Patriots posting historic numbers. Through 10 games of his rookie season, Herbert has thrown 23 touchdown passes. With 5 games remaining, Herbert needs just 5 more touchdown passes to break Baker Mayfield’s rookie season record set in 2018.
Herbert has positioned himself as the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year with his gaudy passing numbers, despite the Chargers struggling to to a 2-8 record in his starts. Herbert has been tasked with throwing over 400 times in just 10 games, getting valuable experience and necessary reps.
With that many passing snaps, opposing coaches have been able to confuse Herbert at times. This will be the case with every NFL quarterback that drops back nearly 450 times, but can be magnified with rookies who haven’t played enough against unique defensive schemes. Herbert has been sacked 22 times, has 6 fumbles and thrown 7 interceptions.
It’s safe to say that the Patriots will have the coaching advantage on Sunday with Bill Belichick facing Anthony Lynn, who is just 7-19 in his last 26 games. Belichick has previously shown the ability to take what other coaches throughout the league have used to slow down explosive offenses, implementing that in the Patriots defensive gameplan with success.
This scenario famously played out in Super Bowl LIII, when Belichick borrowed former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s “6-1” defensive front to shutdown the Rams’ bunch formation and outside zone heavy offense. Detroit had success against the Rams with that style of defense late in the 2018 regular season, and Belichick noticed this on film and relied on it during the Super Bowl.
Another former Patriots defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, had success against Herbert in the Dolphins vs. Chargers matchup in week 10 of this season. Using a few long-time Patriot defensive calls, Flores and the Dolphins confused Herbert throughout the game. Miami held Herbert to just 187 passing yards, with his next fewest in a game so far being 264 yards.
On a 3rd and long during the 2nd quarter, Miami was able to blanket the Chargers wide receivers and force Herbert into an ugly incompletion while getting hit.
The play call is known as “1 Double #,” with that # being the jersey number of the opposing receiver that will be double teamed. The “1” stands for Cover-1, which means 1-high safety covering deep, with man coverage on the rest of the receivers.
Miami doubled Keenan Allen, one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and brought a pass rushing stunt to further confuse Herbert and collapse the pocket. This type of play-call fits the Patriots defensive personnel, as the secondary has been built to survive in man coverage and the pass rush is reliant on stunts in order to generate pressure.
Here is a throwback video of Bill Belichick telling former Bengals wide receiver Chad OchoCinco that they were going to double-team him throughout a game with “1 Double 85.”
On the opening drive of the game, Miami used a version of “Fire Zone” in order to pressure Herbert and get home for a sack. Fire Zone is essentially Cover-3 with a 5-man pressure, leaving 3 underneath zones instead of the typical four.
This defensive structure has been used by New England throughout the Belichick tenure, and has been popularized by current Miami Hurricanes head coach Manny Diaz over the past decade.
Miami did a great job of disguising their play-call pre-snap, threatening the pass rush from the backside but bringing the blitz from a player who looked like he would be covering a receiver.
One last way that Brian Flores disrupted Herbert was with a “Cover-0 Blitz,” which was something that New England actually led the league in last season. Cover-0 involves man coverage across the board, and blitzing all other defenders. While this can be dangerous, it allows the defense to blitz one extra defender than the offense has blocking.
Here is an example of New England using a Cover-0 blitz during a game last season:
On this 3rd down in the 4th quarter of the Dolphins vs. Chargers game, coach Brian Flores dialed up a Cover-0 blitz that forced Herbert to fade away from the pocket and unable to drive the ball to an open receiver. The pressure resulting in an incompletion short of the 1st down marker.
You’ll notice the movement from the defensive front before the snap, further disguising the blitz to Herbert and the Chargers offensive line.
These three defensive play-calls have all been used by the Patriots in the past, and were effective in slowing down Herbert and the Chargers potent passing attack. If Belichick were to borrow effective play-calls from a former assistant like he did in Super Bowl LIII, these blitzes and disguises should be implemented into the defensive gameplan on Sunday.