As the New England Patriots shift their focus to this Sunday’s matchup with the Carolina Panthers, here are four final thoughts on their 27-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers:
— Storm Norton: awesome name, awful performance.
The most glaring mismatch on the field Sunday was Norton, the Chargers’ backup right tackle, against stud Patriots edge rusher Matthew Judon.
Judon has been one of the NFL’s most disruptive players in his first season with New England, and he flat-out dominated Norton, finishing with 1 1/2 sacks, one tackle for loss and an eye-popping 10 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus. PFF charged Norton with eight allowed pressures.
How rare is it for a Patriots defender to record double-digit pressures in a single game? Extremely.
It’s happened just four times over the last 15 seasons, with Judon joining Chandler Jones (11 vs. Indianapolis in 2013; 10 vs. Baltimore in the 2014 divisional round) and Adalius Thomas (11 in Super Bowl XLII) as the only players to do so.
Judon, whose four-year, $54.5 million contract included $32 million guaranteed, has been a slam-dunk signing thus far. Eight games in, he ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks (eight), tied for eighth in QB hits (14), tied for fourth in tackles for loss (11) and sixth in total pressures (39).
At this pace, Judon will breeze past his career high of 9 1/2 sacks within the next few weeks. He’s seriously threatening the Bill Belichick-era Patriots record of 12 1/2, shared by Jones and Mike Vrabel, but would need a phenomenal second half to catch Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett’s franchise mark of 18 1/2.
— He didn’t find the end zone like he did in last year’s Chargers matchup, but All-Pro punt returner Gunner Olszewski consistently set the Patriots up with solid field position.
With Matthew Slater and especially Justin Bethel consistently sealing off LA’s gunners, Olszewski ripped off returns of 10, 21, 22 and 27 yards in the win, becoming the first Patriots player with three 20-plus-yard punt returns in a single game since his position coach, Troy Brown, did so way back in 2000.
“Gunner did a good job, and so did his teammates,” Belichick said Monday. “The other 10 guys around there did a good job of holding up some of the coverage players, and Gunner did a good job of handling the ball. We got outside and created some good field position for our offense, so really well-executed team plays. Again, Gunner did his job, but so did the guys that created those opportunities for him to get out there, so excellent job by the punt return team.”
Want a visual representation of how those returns helped the Patriots’ offense? Olszewski returned this punt to the 29-yard line:
This one to the Chargers’ 36:
This one to the Patriots’ 32:
And this one to the Pats’ 39:
Had Bethel not been glued to his man, Olszewski likely would have needed to fair-catch punts 1 and 3. With the blocking there, he took the aggressive route and returned both, giving the Patriots an extra 31 yards of field position.
On his fifth and final punt, LA’s Ty Long kept the ball far away from Olszewski, booting it out of bounds at the 35-yard line. The Patriots proceeded to stage an 11-play drive that drained nearly seven minutes off the clock before producing what proved to be the game-winning field goal.
— How about a thought that combines both Judon and special teams?
The high-priced edge rusher already has played more snaps in the kicking game this season than he did in his entire final year in Baltimore, and he came within inches of making a game-changing play there Sunday.
On one Chargers punt during the third quarter, the Patriots rearranged their return team to align Judon over the nose. At the snap, he bullied his way past long snapper Matt Overton and dove toward Long, narrowly missing the ball.
Judon wound up crashing into Long’s plant leg and was flagged for running into the kicker, but a kick catch interference penalty on the Chargers negated the foul, resulting in a rekick.
“We had a chance for a block,” Belichick said. “… We were very close on the block, but we just missed.”
Linebacker Jamie Collins also nearly drove his blocker into Long on two separate punts. The Chargers entered the game ranked last in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA — a weakness the Patriots clearly aimed to exploit.
“I thought that unit definitely impacted the game,” Belichick said.
But upon second viewing, one ultimately inconsequential play by the rookie quarterback stood out.
With the Patriots facing third-and-2 near midfield early in the second half, Jones handed off to running back Brandon Bolden and then either tried to fake a QB keeper or turn himself into a lead blocker. Either way, his dash toward the line of scrimmage caused a split-second of hesitation from slot cornerback Chris Harris, allowing Bolden to slip through.
Then, when Chargers defenders stood Bolden up near the first-down marker, Jones pushed the pile to drive him over.
Kendrick Bourne wound up losing a fumble three plays later, so the first down went for naught. But plays like that help explain why Jones seems to be so well-liked within the Patriots’ locker room.