Kickoff coverage and punt coverage units – The Patriots won the “hidden yardage” game decisively, as their average starting point was their own 30-yard line, while the Chargers was their own 20. The punt coverage team took advantage of Travis Benjamin’s miscue to produce a second-quarter safety, which helped produce a five-point swing in the game. Bill Belichick constructs his roster with as many special-teams-only players as any club in the NFL, and a game like this reinforces why as the Patriots decisively set the tone with these units.
Rex Burkhead/James White/Dion Lewis – The three running backs land here for their work outside of the traditional rushing category, as Burkhead was the team’s leading receiver with seven catches (for 68 yards), and White had the most receiving yards of any player (85) on five catches. Lewis, meanwhile, had a 71-yard kickoff return. As for why the running backs were such a big part of the passing game, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn explained, “We tried to take away their deeper threats because in man coverage, there were some mismatches. We knew the backs were heavily involved in their passing game and we had to come up and make those tackles. We didn’t always do that.”
Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle – The Patriots’ starting offensive line was up to the task against the Chargers’ strong pass rush led by Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. While the Chargers had three sacks (those aren’t necessarily on the line), Ingram and Bosa were mostly held in check. Also, when Cannon left the game late in the second quarter with an ankle injury, Waddle stepped in and the unit didn’t break stride. “LA gave us a good half,” Belichick said, referring to Waddle by nickname. The run blocking was a challenge at times, with players noting how the Chargers brought a safety into the box to challenge them, but they still ground it out late.
Elandon Roberts/Kyle Van Noy – In the first game since Dont’a Hightower tore his pectoral muscle, Roberts stepped in and tied for the team high with six tackles, showing up with a big stop on third-and-2 to force a punt early in the second quarter and at other times with well-timed run blitzes. Roberts also seemed to rise up from a communication standpoint to keep everyone on the same page, which was critical without Hightower. Meanwhile, Van Noy (6 tackles) continues to evolve into a critical piece in the middle of the D.
Tom Brady – The Patriots were 1-of-3 in the red zone (not including a fourth trip when they were smartly working the clock with a conservative approach). In addition, in the third quarter, they started their first drive on the Chargers’ 25 and went three-and-out (three straight incompletions) before a missed field goal. And then they had a first down on the Chargers’ 22 on the next drive and settled for a field goal with Brady taking a sack on second down. Not all of this is on Brady, who still makes several exceptional decisions and throws, but he’s still trying to find his groove with a complete 60-minute performance this season. One play he would like back came on a flea-flicker when Chris Hogan had flashed open to his right but the ball went to double-covered Brandin Cooks over the middle instead.
Stephen Gostkowski – Having entered the day 16-of-17 on field goal attempts, he missed wide left from 43 yards out and then wide right from 43. He was successful on four other field goals (25, 36, 43, 26) and an extra point, so it wasn’t all bad on a windy day. Of the misses, Gostkowski said, “The first one I didn’t get good rotation. The second, I thought I hit pretty good and sometimes that happens. The first one was definitely tough and not my best kick. The second one, I put a good swing on it. I maybe kicked at it too hard into the wind. Sometimes if you get a lot of spin on the ball, the wind is going to affect it more, so you just got to kick a ball that has a little less rotation on it so it cuts through the wind a little better.”
Cassius Marsh – On Melvin Gordon’s 87-yard touchdown run, Marsh was playing on the left edge and he got caught inside and then was pushed to his backside by pulling guard Kenny Wiggins. It was hardly the only miscue on the play, but it highlights how the 245-pound Marsh has had some struggles with the all-important responsibility of setting a hard edge in the running game. Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich spoiled fans with their expertise in this area over the years, and Marsh is still adjusting to the Patriots’ style of play.