Patriots’ secondary faces litmus test game against the Chargers

FOXBORO — The Patriots were able to survive a depleted secondary playing the Jets last week. clearly, seeing a backup quarterback for more than half the game didn’t hurt the cause.

But the Chargers?

They’re a whole different can of worms, and how the Patriots fare against Justin Herbert & Co. should show quite a bit about the team, and where it’s headed this season.

Herbert is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and the last player any team wants to confront missing starters in the defensive backfield.

Having a depleted secondary against the Chargers is like bringing a slingshot to a gunfight.

But there’s no avoiding it. Herbert & Co. are on the Patriots dance card this Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

So Bill Belichick and the defensive braintrust are going to have to find a way to slow Herbert down if they want to keep the candle burning on a possible playoff bid.

“They just have so much talent all over the field,” said Patriots defensive captain Devin McCourty, who missed part of the Jets game with an abdomen injury but is on course to play Sunday. “It’s just a lot of skill players. That makes it tough on a defense because you can’t meaningful in on one guy, there’s so many good players out there. I think we all have to do our job and play well Sunday.”

While the Patriots did a good job against Tom Brady and his vaunted arsenal with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, they didn’t fare quite in addition against Dak Prescott and his elite group of receivers with CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson.

The Cowboys put up the most yards of any offense (567) against a Belichick-coached defense in New England. Prescott also threw for 445 yards, the most for any quarterback against the Hoodie.

Since then, slot corner Jonathan Jones has been deleted from the backfield equation, done for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery Monday.

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Stephon Gilmore, the only in-house shutdown corner, was traded to Carolina.

How are the Patriots going to deal with Herbert and his great menu of weapons, which includes Keenan Allen (39 catches) and Mike Williams (6 TDs)?

One information comes to mind: Pray!

“They’re definitely a group you should be concerned about and we need to bring our ‘A’ game, just like you do every week,” Pats cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino said Tuesday. “You gotta prepare. Each quarterback possesses a different skill set that’s dangerous.

“Justin is definitely a principal quarterback and he’s really developing into one of the better players around the league. It’s his job to score and our job to stop him. I hope we’re up for the challenge.”

Let’s confront it, with an offense that’s nevertheless developing with rookie quarterback Mac Jones, the defense has to deliver against the high-octane offenses on the schedule.

If the unit, and the secondary in particular, can’t keep up up against the better offenses and quarterbacks, making a run towards a playoff berth remains a pipe dream.

No doubt Belichick will want to see how the unit fares against a group he referred to Wednesday as “The Big Four” with Allen, Williams, tight end Jared Cook and running back Austin Ekeler, who catches passes coming out of the backfield.

Can he get by with J.C. Jackson, Jalen Mills, Myles Bryant, JoeJuan Williams and Justin Bethel, who’s chiefly a special teams player?

D’Angelo Ross is with the practice squad and could be elevated for the game to provide some thoroughness. Shaun Wade has however to suit up since being acquired from the Ravens. He’s been dealing with concussion issues.

While Jackson has played decently, Mills has struggled against the opposing team’s No. 2 receiver on event. Most recently, Lamb lit him up Cowboys week.

During last year’s 45-0 rout of the Chargers, Gilmore basically took Allen out of the game, and that had a huge impact on Herbert.

Perhaps Jackson will mark Allen this time out, and Mills will draw Williams with secondary help. Bryant will likely manager the slot. The Chargers also have Jalen Guyton, another receiver with blazing speed, in their arsenal.

The loss of Jones, who injured a shoulder against the Cowboys, then returned to play later in the game, making a meaningful breakup to keep the Patriots in the game, is more meaningful than one might assume.

“You lose a whole lot more than a football player,” Pellegrino said of Jones. “You lose a leader, you lose a veteran, you lose a guy that’s really a Swiss army knife within our defense. Jon Jones, for me, is like my second coach down there on the field. The guy’s a great guy, works hard. He’s everything you look for in a Patriot. He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s dependable.

“Last year I said he’d go out there and play with one arm, and honestly, he did in that game,” he went on. “The guy defines toughness for me … I appreciate him. He puts a lot in. We get every ounce of him out. He’ll definitely be missed.”

In any case, it will be a last look at the secondary before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline.

There doesn’t appear much out on the market for corners, so chances are, what you see is what you get, given the Pats additional a associate of corners (Brian Poole, De’Vante Bausby) to the practice squad Wednesday.

If the secondary can somehow survive Herbert & Co., with a little help from a pass rush, it will bode well for the Patriots going forward.

“Everybody’s ready to go,” said Pellegrino. “Next man up mentality.”

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