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Pats-Chargers: How defense can plan for Justin Herbert and Keenan Allen

All the evergreen truths about defending great quarterbacks — the need to pressure and disguise — now apply to the Chargers’ Justin Herbert.

Last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, Hebert has taken his game to a new level in 2021 and elevated the Bolts with him. He’s completed 65.4% of his passes for 1,771 yards, 14 touchdowns, and four picks in a half-dozen games. Earlier this week, Bill Belichick said he expects Herbert to rank among the NFL’s best quarterbacks for a long time.

That may be true, but it can’t happen Sunday.

The Patriots must affect Herbert and confuse him somewhat regularly to upset the Chargers. The good news is they’ve proven they can do both.

During last year’s 45-0 win in Los Angeles, one of Belichick’s worst defenses ever forced Herbert into posting the lowest passer rating of his career. The Pats only blitzed Hebert five times, yet generated pressure on almost 40% of his dropbacks. They’ll need to twist up his protection again — albeit against a much improved offensive line — and limit the weapons around him.

Here’s how the Patriots beat the Chargers in LA.

1. Double Keenan Allen on key downs

The Patriots defensive backs have long loved Allen.

His route-running is sharp. His hands are strong. He can play inside and out. Former Pats corner Stephon Gilmore once called him one of the NFL’s most underrated players. Gilmore’s replacement, J.C. Jackson, seems to agree.

“I feel like he’s a great receiver. One of the top receivers in the game. I respect that guy,” Jackson said Thursday. ”He’s a great route runner. He’s slick with it.”

Allen is Herbert’s most frequent target on third downs with four or more yards to go, and his most successful outlet in key situations. Unless Jackson shadows Allen all game — leaving the bigger, stronger Mike Williams as a mismatch outside — they cannot guarantee a favorable matchup against him without sending double teams. So they should, especially on third down and in the red zone.

The Pats have kept Allen quiet in their four prior head-to-head meetings, allowing him barely three catches per game. It’s time to keep that average right where it is.

2. Attack RT Storm Norton

The Chargers’ front office did an excellent job overhauling their offensive line in the offseason, drafting left tackle Rashawn Slater in the first round and signing high-priced center Corey Linsley. But they didn’t fix everything.

Starting right tackle Storm Norton has ranked among the worst players at his position this season. He’s allowed an average of four pressures per game, according to Pro Football Focus. Norton surrendered three last season versus the Patriots: a sack, one hurry and another quarterback hit.

Norton’s also taken three penalties this year and earned low marks as a run blocker. Look for the Pats to attack him with two-man stunts and a heavy dose of 1-on-1 matchups with Matt Judon.

3. Beware quick snaps on third down

Like all smart situational offenses, the Chargers use time to their advantage.

They’ll hurry to the line to convert third-and-shorts or attempt to draw defenses offside with a hard count. Occasionally, they’ll go no-huddle. The Patriots cannot afford to give away cheap yards to an explosive offense, which is also liable to try double-moves in these situations against their defensive backs.

“They go in and out of tempo from second down to third down, and go fast,” Judon said this week. “They’ve got some no-huddle tempo, or they’ll run it down to five seconds, and that’s when they hike the ball. They utilize that in certain situations that they want to get in and out of.”

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