FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the New England Patriots were preparing to face the Los Angeles Chargers in October 2017, Bill Belichick noted the presence of pass-rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa by saying they put the Chargers’ defense into a “special category.”
“There’s not many teams in the league that have one player like this. They have two,” he said.
Belichick talking up the opposition is standard operating procedure, but anyone watching the Chargers’ 23-17 wild-card victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday would be hard-pressed to disagree — particularly with Ingram’s ability to control a game.
The Patriots haven’t faced too many disruptive pass-rushers like the 6-foot-2, 247-pound Ingram this season, and how they handle him is one obvious storyline heading into Sunday’s divisional-round game at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 1:05 p.m. ET). What stood out most about Ingram on Sunday, when he totaled a team-high seven tackles with two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, was how he aligned in multiple spots on the line of scrimmage.
His speed, first-step quickness and dynamic pass-rush moves contributed to making him a first-round NFL draft choice out of South Carolina in 2012. Offensive tackles across the NFL can attest to how challenging it has been to face him, particularly over the past four seasons, as he has totaled 36 of his 42 career sacks over that span.
But the Chargers also move Ingram inside, where his speed is a tough matchup for guards and centers at times.
So it’s not just Patriots offensive tackles Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon who have to study up on Ingram and Bosa this week, but left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason, as well.
That group on the interior has been a strength for the Patriots, with Thuney playing every snap this season and Andrews (99 percent) and Mason (84 percent) not far behind. This is their third year playing together, which has also helped from a cohesion standpoint.
“That group’s been pretty solid, pretty dependable, pretty reliable for us. We’ve been pretty fortunate in that part of the offensive line,” Belichick said in late November.
Quarterback Tom Brady has also helped his own cause at times with his knack for getting rid of the football quickly, which has negated pressure; the Patriots finished the regular season ranked third in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass play. Brady will need a quick trigger Sunday against a Chargers defense that totaled seven sacks against Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, tying a franchise postseason record. All seven of those sacks came with the Chargers rushing four or fewer defenders, which is consistent with their approach in the regular season.
“Any time they can rush four guys and force the ball out quickly … You hold the ball for an extra tick of a second, it’s a strip sack by Ingram or Bosa,” Brady said in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI’s “Mut and Callahan Show.” “I think it’s one of those games where we have to play on time.”
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) January 2, 2019
Brady and the Patriots have faced some excellent pass-rushers this season, with the Bears’ Khalil Mack probably the closest to what they’ll see Sunday with Ingram. But Mack clearly wasn’t 100 percent in the Oct. 21 meeting between the teams.
Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt gave them some trouble in mid-December, as did the entire Tennessee Titans front in Week 10.
But this looks like a greater challenge than anything they’ve seen.