The San Diego Chargers had a historic 2010 season, but not for the reasons general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner would have liked. The Chargers were the only team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to miss the playoffs after leading the league in total offense and defense.
Special teams and turnovers hurt the Chargers last year, but San Diego returns key members of elite offensive and defensive units. The Chargers will provide a big test for a Patriots team fresh off Monday’s 38-24 victory in Miami.
Here are three areas to watch for from the Chargers:
• Patriots fans remember the trouble the Chargers had in the kicking game last season. A failed onside kick, a 34-yard Julian Edelman punt return and a false start penalty on the potential game-tying field goal were some of the San Diego lowlights in last year’s 23-20 Patriots victory. The unit allowed four punt or kick return touchdowns and had four punts blocked last season, both NFL-high totals. New special teams coach Rich Bisaccia’s first official play on the job was a 103-yard kick return touchdown by Minnesota’s Percy Harvin in last Sunday’s opener. With San Diego’s new coordinator and the lockout limiting the amount of time teams could work on special teams play in camp, the Patriots should have an advantage in the kicking game based on past success and continuity of personnel.
• Philip Rivers has excelled against standard four-man pass rushes. Last season, no quarterback averaged more yards per pass attempt against four or fewer pass rushers than Rivers (8.8). The Patriots defense has sent four or fewer pass rushers on 74.0 percent of dropbacks since last season, fourth-highest in the NFL. Additionally, with question marks in the Patriots secondary, the Chargers could employ extra wide receivers to stretch New England’s defensive back corps even thinner. The Patriots struggled a year ago defending formations that required extra defensive backs, while San Diego was excellent spreading the field with extra receivers. Vincent Jackson (who missed last year’s meeting due to a contract dispute) and Malcom Floyd provide big targets downfield for Rivers, while tight end Antonio Gates is a matchup nightmare for any defense.
• The Patriots offense is among the league’s statistical elite at deep passes, with Monday’s performance serving as just the latest example why. However, it will run into one of the top units in the league at defending intermediate to deep passes. Cornerback Antoine Cason has defended or intercepted 17 passes since 2010 (seventh in the NFL). The Chargers defense led the league in touchdown-interception differential and Total QBR against on throws of 15 or more yards downfield since last season. Safeties Eric Weddle and Bob Sanders plus veteran corner Quentin Jammer provide the coverage downfield. Versatile linebacker Shaun Phillips is a disruptive force around the line of scrimmage, posting 16 tackles for loss last season (tied for 14th in NFL). Phillips also defended or intercepted six passes in 2010, tied for 16th among linebackers, and is San Diego’s biggest playmaking threat in the front seven.