By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Every now and again, a player suits up against the Patriots for a big playoff game and ends up coming out of (relatively) nowhere to have the game of his life. Corey Clement in Super Bowl LII comes immediately to mind.
And while this player may not be entirely unknown, you may want to prepare yourself for a heavy dose of Austin Ekeler on Sunday afternoon.
To be sure, the Chargers running back had a very good sophomore season, after not seeing tremendous action on offense as a rookie in 2017. But heading into this week, as the pundits and analysts throw out the star names of Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen, it just may end up being Ekeler who plays the most significant role against the Patriots.
That may be a reality in part due to necessity, as it’s hard to believe Gordon will or can be his usual explosive self, given that he suffered a knee injury (to his healthy knee) a week ago in Baltimore. But it’s also in part because Ekeler is good enough for an increased workload.
Last week, against a stout Ravens defense, Ekeler put up some unimpressive numbers that understandably have not produced tremendous hype for the 23-year-old this week. He ran for 29 yards on 11 carries while picking up 14 yards on four receptions. It was an altogether forgettable performance.
But again, that was against the Ravens, and that was in a game that saw Gordon leave for a spell due to injury.
This week, against a Patriots defense that ranked 29th in the league in yards allowed per rushing attempt and also got hurt fairly badly with passes to running backs this season, and in a week where the Chargers know what they have (or don’t have) health-wise with Gordon? The results ought to be a little different.
Ekeler did start three games this season in Gordon’s absence, with mixed results. He rushed for 42 yards on 12 carries in Week 7 against Tennessee, adding 26 yards on five receptions. He couldn’t get anything going in his start at Pittsburgh, with 21 yards on 13 carries (plus 22 receiving yards, again on five receptions). But he followed up that performance with 66 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries — plus 28 yards on two receptions — against Cincinnati the following week.
His best performance of the year came back in Week 2 in Buffalo, when he rushed for 77 yards on 11 carries, while also catching three passes for 21 yards. Three of his best games all came on the road — at Cleveland, at Denver, and at the Rams — when he rushed for a combined 165 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
In total, Ekeler ran for 554 yards and three touchdowns on 106 carries (5.2 yards per carry) and also caught 39 passes for 404 yards and three more scores. Picking up 958 yards from scrimmage while sharing a backfield with Melvin Gordon (who got 225 touches for 1,375 yards from scrimmage) is no small feat. Clearly, Ekeler is a capable back. Don’t be surprised to hear his name called early and often on Sunday.
Here’s the rest of What To Watch For in Sunday’s divisional round game between the Patriots and Chargers.
What? Are you serious? Are you one of those types who skips the intro and gets right to the list? Come on. Scroll back up. Read it. We’ll rendezvous back down here in a moment.
All right. Moving on.
Two Kickers — One A Rookie, One Not So Much
Undrafted rookie kicker Michael Badgley has been awesome for the Chargers this year. For a franchise that’s desperately needed stability at the kicking position, Badgley has provided it.
But kicking in the playoffs … outdoors … in the frigid cold? It’s a different ballgame.
We’ll have to wait and see how Badgley handles the moment. And while his regular-season stats — 15-of-16 on field goals, 27-of-28 on PATs — indicate he should be fine, one never can know for sure how well or poorly a rookie out of the University of Miami can adapt in such a setting.
(Badgley was immense last weekend in Baltimore, going 5-for-6 on his field goals. But he did have one kick blocked — a kick he delivered much too low after a slightly bobbled snap.)
For that matter though, there are no guarantees about the 13-year NFL veteran kicking for the Patriots. While Gostkowski has booted plenty of successful kicks in innumerable big games and in all sorts of conditions, he’s also had his fair share of misses in recent years. He did hit all of his field goals under 40 yards this year (21-for-21), but he went 4-for-6 in the 40-49-yard range and just 2-for-5 from 50-plus. He only missed one PAT this season, but his field goal percentage of 84.4 ranks only as his ninth-best season.
In a game where points may be at a premium, the pressure will be heavy on the two kickers.
Threats Out Of The Backfield
The Chargers’ defensive backfield is loaded with talent. Perhaps you’ve heard?
With All-Pro rookie Derwin James at safety, and with All-Pro slot corner Desmond King, and with 2016/2017 Second Team All-Pro Casey Hayward, and with All-Pro special teamer (who’s no slouch in coverage) all roaming the field, the Chargers have quite a bit of talent in their defensive backfield. That figures to make life difficult for the likes of Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.
But the Chargers’ unique defensive tendency to employ six defensive backs (or seven, if Lamar Jackson is the opposing QB) could make for some major opportunities for the likes of James White and Rex Burkhead coming out of the backfield.
White has proven to be a nightmare matchup whenever he’s been covered by a linebacker in open space. In that sense, perhaps the Chargers would be better off with a defensive back covering the elusive pass-catching back. But really, will the fourth or fifth-best defensive back on the field fare much better than a linebacker?
And if White struggles to find space, don’t forget about Rex Burkhead. It would not be a surprise at all to see some two-back sets where either both backs go out on routes, or where one stays in to protect only to leak out late as a receiving option for Brady in space. It could lead to some big gains. (Burkhead had career highs in receptions and receiving yards with seven for 68 last year against the Chargers, and he also had a 13-yard reception taken back due to a penalty.)
Additionally, if Sony Michel and his blocking locomotive of James Develin/Dwayne Allen/Shaq Mason/Rob Gronkowski can take advantage of that smaller and lighter defensive unit, then you have to wonder how the defensive back-heavy defense will react to play-action passes.
One way or another, the Patriots’ running back trio just might be the most important grouping on the field Sunday.
Protecting Tom’s Face
It goes without saying that in any football game ever played, it’s important to protect the quarterback. But getting a little bit more specific, the pressure will be on the Patriots’ interior lineman trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason to prevent the Chargers from generating pressure up the middle.
That’ll obviously be a little bit easier said than done when Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are involved.
And considering what Ingram did to poor Ravens left guard James Hurst last weekend …
… the task is clearly tall for the interior of the Patriots’ line.
That’s not to say that the tackles should have themselves an easy game. But generally, Brady’s proven adept at stepping up and out of pressure when it comes from the edge. That’s a major part of what makes him perhaps the greatest to ever play the position. But when the pressure comes from directly in front of his face? Those are the times when the Patriots’ offense has looked its worst over the years.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Chargers divisional round clash on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots! Coverage begins Friday night with Patriots All Access at 7 p.m., and kicks off on Sunday with a special hour-long edition of Patriots GameDay at 11 a.m.! We’ll break it all down and hear from Bill Belichick and Tom Brady LIVE on Patriots 5th Quarter on WBZ-TV after the game!