By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s NFL playoff time, which means the national pundits are bound by law to discuss only a small handful of items in preparation for Sunday’s game. Those topics include (and are essentially limited to) quarterback comparisons and discussion of how playing at 1 p.m. on the East Coast will impact a team from Southern California.
What might go overlooked in these scintillating talks is the player who just might be the most important man on the field come Sunday. His name is James Calvin White.
There should be no mistake made about the talent that’s spread around the Chargers defense. Across the defensive line and all over the backfield, L.A.’s defense has got some top-level talent.
At the linebacker level? Not so much. The lack of linebacker depth and talent is such that the Chargers started four defensive linemen and … seven defensive backs on Sunday against the Ravens. That obviously worked very well against the run-first, run-second, throw-as-a-last-resort Lamar Jackson. But against Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense, such a strategy will be seen for what it is: covering up a weakness. And if the Patriots have done anything over the past two decades, they’ve established a track record of capitalizing on such opportunities.
That’s where White figures to play a significant role. While the receiving back is obviously a nightmare for opposing defenses when going against linebackers, the idea of getting him in matchups against corners and safeties who might be fourth or fifth on the depth chart has to be equally appetizing for McDaniels.
Really, it hasn’t mattered much who’s been tasked with covering White, as the fifth-year pro has been a force all season long. He set career highs in receptions with 87 (which was 27 better than his previous single-season high), in yards with 751 (200 yards more than his previous high), and touchdowns with seven (two more than his previous high). White became just the fourth running back in the Super Bowl era to record 750 receiving yards and score seven touchdowns in a single season. (He also set career highs in rushing yards, with 425, and in rushing touchdowns, with five. His previous single-season highs were 171 and two, respectively. This really was a remarkable season for the 26-year-old.)
With 123 targets on the year, White had by far the most targets on the team. (Julian Edelman, who played 12 games, was second with 108 targets.) In doing so, it marks the first and only time in the Brady/Belichick era that a running back has led the Patriots in targets for a season.
All of which brings us to Sunday, when White — not Rob Gronkowski, not Edelman, and not anyone else — will likely be the focal point of the Patriots’ passing offense. While contributions should be expected across the board, it’s White who figures to be at the center of it all.
And what can only be considered bad news for Los Angeles is this: No team in the NFL gave up more passing yards to running backs this season than the Chargers. Not a one.
The Chargers allowed 107 receptions for 973 yards to running backs this season, which was more than Atlanta (117 for 934) and was plenty more than Seattle (99 for 906) and Cincinnati (96 for 901).
Additionally, the Chargers allowed four touchdown receptions to running backs, which tied them for eighth-most in the league in that category.
Clearly, limiting running backs in the passing game has been a problem for the Chargers, and even last week against the defensive-back heavy lineup, the Ravens’ leading receiver was running back Kenneth Dixon. That’s the same Dixon who had just 51 receiving yards in his six regular-season games, so it’s not as if he’s normally a threat in the passing game.
Granted, most stats from last Sunday’s game come doused in innumerable grains of salt, considering the circumstances. But consider the following:
In Week 17, Denver’s running back trio of Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker and Andy Janovich (a fullback) combined to catch 15 passes for 93 yards.
In Week 15, Chiefs running back Damien Williams led all Chiefs receivers with 74 yards on six receptions. Williams’ second-best receiving game of the year had him amassing just 37 yards through the air; he gained 46 percent of his receiving yards on the season in the one game vs. the Chargers. Darrel Williams added two catches and a touchdown, along with 19 receiving yards.
In Week 10, the duo of Jalen Richard and Doug Martin combined to catch eight passes for 83 yards.
Of course, the omitted games include weeks where the Chargers’ defense was not torn up by opposing running backs in the passing game. But this week ought to be one where the opposing offense takes advantage.
And, to go a bit deeper, it doesn’t necessarily have to be White. If the Chargers do expend all of their energy on stopping White (by, say, putting All-Pro safety Derwin James on him instead of Gronkowski, for example), then it could just mean Brady looks to Rex Burkhead out of two-back sets. Though last year’s matchup isn’t very applicable to Sunday’s game, it is worth mentioning that Burkhead caught seven passes for 68 yards for the Patriots in last year’s win over the Chargers at Gillette. That was by far the best receiving game of Burkhead’s entire career.
There’s also this: If the Chargers do roll with a defensive back-heavy lineup and opt to forego having linebackers on the field? The Patriots won’t hesitate for a second to adjust their game plan to involve a heavy dose of running the football. Expect Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James Develin and Shaq Mason to lead the way, muscling the smaller defensive backs out of the picture and thus opening running lanes for Sony Michel, White and Burkhead.
You simply cannot roll out seven defensive backs against Brady and the Patriots, the way you did against Jackson and the Ravens, and live to tell the tale.
In terms of talent, the Chargers’ defense has all the names. But when it comes to fully stopping or containing the attack of the Patriots’ offense, L.A. might not have enough bodies. James White makes all the difference.