FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With the New England Patriots (5-2) pass defense showing some life in recent weeks -- even if it retains its 32nd ranking thanks to its abysmal work as a whole through seven games -- the next biggest question facing the defending champions is Tom Brady's pass protection.
Brady has been sacked 18 times in seven games, putting him on pace to tie his career high of 41 sacks set as a first-year starter in 2001.
The good news is that the pressure has lessened over the last couple weeks. Brady was not sacked once in the Week 6 win over the Jets in New York. Last Sunday night's win over the Falcons saw him sacked only twice.
The bad news is that this week's matchup with the Chargers (3-4) brings arguably the NFL's best pass-rush duo to Foxborough to give Brady's line a true test of his protection improvements.
Los Angeles ranks No. 4 in the NFL in sacks per pass play, having gotten home for 23 sacks in seven games. The bulk of the damage comes from veteran edge man Melvin Ingram, called a Leo in the Chargers scheme, who is fourth in the league with 8.5 sacks, while also notching an L.A.-best 11 QB hits. That production is followed closely by rising second-year star defensive end Joey Bosa, who's sixth in the NFL with 7.5 sacks to go along with 10 QB hits and a pair of forced fumbles.
"Bosa and Ingram make this defense, I would say, put that into a special category," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of the two-headed pass-rush challenge. "There's not many teams in the league that have one player like this; they have two.
"You just can't say it's all speed or it's all power or it's all counter. They have them all. They can both throw a number of different pitches. They do one thing and then you go to stop that and then they do the next complementary move that goes with it then you're thinking about that and then they just run you over. It's just a continuous (process). Honestly, as you go through each game it's just a continuous highlight reel between the two of them. It's usually one of them but a lot of times it's both of them that are just being disruptive."
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels also raved about the two pass rushers, especially impressed with what the youngster Bosa brings to the table.
"Ingram and Bosa are exceptional players at their positions; probably two of the best players on the same team that we're going to play all year," McDaniels said before breaking down Bosa's game. "There's not much that doesn't impress me. The guy plays with tremendous effort. He gets off on the snap. He can play with speed or power. He's a very good run player, a disruptive guy who can knock back the line of scrimmage, set a good edge, create negative plays in the running game. He's involved when they run their stunts and games. He can do a good job of disrupting the pocket with those types of plays, also.
"He's incredibly competitive and you're going to have to play every play until the whistle blows with him. For a young player it's not all just one thing. Sometimes it takes guys a little time to develop a repertoire of rush moves in our league that enable them to have success and I would say this guy is really - for a guy that hasn't played multiple, multiple seasons in the NFL he's got a lot of different things to him as a pass rusher that you've got to get ready for. A really, really good player both in the running game and in the passing game. Tough, physical, explosive, capable of creating game-changing plays on every snap, so we're going to have to do a great job of getting familiar with him as well as the rest of their guys on defense."
If Brady and his line do their jobs, it will be a major step toward New England heading into next week's bye with a potential four-game winning streak. But getting to that point won't necessarily be easy against a Chargers team that's been playing better and winning more in recent weeks.
"Knowing that this is the last game before that you want to finish on a high note and you want to go in feeling really good about what you've done," Brady said. The problem is this team is - they're hot, they've won three straight, they've got a really good defense. There's nothing easy about it. It's a big challenge facing them but to get to 6-2 would be huge for this team and that's what we're going to try to do."
SERIES HISTORY: 38th regular-season meeting. Patriots lead series, 21-14-2. This rivalry dates back to the old AFL days which included more than half the matchups in the series. New England has won three straight meetings and six of seven overall, including two postseason victories following the 2006 and 2007 seasons. San Diego had the upper hand in the AFL days, winning 12 of 20 meetings including a 51-10 domination in the 1963 AFL title game. The Patriots won the last meeting, 23-14 in San Diego in December 2014, while the last matchup in Foxborough also went New England's way, 35-21, in September 2011.
Defensive end/outside linebacker Cassius Marsh arrived in New England via trade from the Seahawks on Sept. 2 as teams were cutting down to 53-man rosters to open the season. Marsh was on the field less than a week later for the Sept. 7 opener against the Chiefs, a shaky opening performance that saw him give up a 78-yard catch-and-run touchdown to K.C. rookie running back Kareem Hunt.
Since then Marsh has played in all seven games, including a Week 3 start against the Texans. He's totaled 14 tackles, a sack, two QB hits and a forced fumble as a rotational player with 50 percent play time on the undermanned edge of the New England front. His playing time has been on the rise in recent weeks as the former Seattle backup and special teamer has worked to fit into the Patriots scheme.
"He plays on a spot that has a lot of - there are a lot of variables at that spot. It's similar to what Rob (Ninkovich) did for us," head coach Bill Belichick explained. "He has some coverage responsibilities, different responsibilities in the running game, multiple responsibilities in the passing game, pass rush, man coverage, zone coverage. It's part linebacker, part defensive end. There's quite a bit to that position, but he's done a good job of getting better at it every week, being a little more comfortable. He works hard. He's a smart kid. He plays hard. He's got a good motor. There's still a lot of things for him to learn and process. There's new situations that come up every week.
"He's done a good job. Each week it gets better and he works really hard at it. He's not there yet but we're definitely making progress."
New England has utilized a backfield committee approach more often than not over the years dating back to Corey Dillion's franchise-record 1,600-yard season in 2004. Over the years there have been occasional 1,000-yard rushers like BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley and, last fall, LeGarrette Blount.
More often than not, though, and once again this season, the production in the backfield is split between a variety of versatile options. This year that's included newcomers Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead combining with returning options Dion Lewis and James White. White leads the team with 38 receptions and is more of an afterthought as a runner. Gillislee leads the team with 87 rushes and four touchdowns, but has a disappointing 3.7-yard average trying to replace Blount as the lead back. Lewis has been the best runner in recent weeks, now averaging 5.3 yards per carry for his 227 yards, while Burkhead returned from a rib injury to chip in with 31 yards on just six attempts in the win over Atlanta.
"They're all capable of making good plays and they're all capable of helping us move the ball and that's the most important thing that we feel about our group of backs," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
In last Sunday's win over Atlanta it all came together for season highs of 36 carries for 162 yards, with all four guys getting between four and 13 carries, the latter leading to Lewis' team season-high 76 yards.
NOTES: LB Harvey Langi was placed on reserve/non-football injury Oct. 25 due to the injuries suffered in a car accident on Oct. 13. The accident left the undrafted rookie and his wife with serious injuries and hospitalized for more than a week. ... LB Trevor Reilly was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster Oct. 25. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound, 29-year-old veteran joined the practice squad Oct. 12. He also spent time on the Patriots practice squad a year ago before joining the Dolphins active roster. Reilly has played in 31 career games with 11 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and 22 special teams stops. ... DL Mike Purcell joined the Patriots practice squad Oct. 25. The 6-foot-3, 328-pounder is a former undrafted rookie out of Wyoming played in 25 games with eight starts the 49ers from 2014-2016, tallying 48 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. After he was cut by San Francisco this spring Purcell spent time with the Rams and then on the practice squad in Chicago and Carolina. ... WR Danny Amendola (knee) did not practice on Wednesday. Amendola, who dealt with a knee injury previously this season, played 38 snaps in Sunday's win over Atlanta, catching three of four balls thrown his way for 17 yards. ... DT Malcom Brown (ankle) did not practice after leaving the first half of Sunday night's win with the injury. The third-year former first-round pick has never missed a game in his two-plus seasons. ... LB Dont'a Hightower (shoulder) did not practice after failing to finish the third quarter against Atlanta. Though he remained on the sideline, the Pro Bowler did not return to the field. Hightower has a history of shoulder and knee issues, missing time earlier this season due to a knee injury. ... CB Eric Rowe (groin) continues to miss practice, having missed the last three games and four of the last five to the injury. ... CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle) returned to practice on a limited basis after missing the last two games to the head injury. ... DE/OLB Cassius Marsh (shoulder) was added to the injury report for the first time after being limited in practice on Wednesday. ... LB Elandon Roberts (ankle) remains limited in practice with the injury that kept him out of action for Sunday's win over the Falcons.