The Patriots fell to the Kansas City Chiefs 26-10 because of several self-inflicted wounds.
Between four turnovers and two red-zone sacks (one fumble), the Patriots offense lost 25.2 expected points on Monday night, a losing formula against any opponent.
But from an enjoyability standpoint, the NFL did Patriots fans a disservice from the second news of Cam Newton’s positive test for coronavirus broke to the end of Monday night’s game.
Bill Belichick isn’t one for excuses, so we’ll make them for him: the one-day travel schedule, several blown calls by the referees, and a terrible broadcast made the product on Monday night nearly unwatchable.
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense managed 20 points in the win, 14 points fewer than their season-average, yet we wouldn’t know that based on the footage we saw from CBS.
The Pats defense limited big plays with a combination of man, zone, and man-match coverages, forcing the Chiefs offense to beat them on long drives rather than one explosive play.
Mahomes, who is terrific, didn’t play well on Monday night. Why? Well, Tony Romo didn’t tell you, neither did Jim Nantz, who was too busy lauding Andy Reid’s jet sweeps to educate us.
Again, New England didn’t lose because of the CBS broadcast, the refs, or the travel schedule. But we want to have fun watching football, and a great effort by the Patriots in a whirlwind week was glossed over tonight.
Below, we’ll get into all the details of the game that cost the Patriots a win on a night where they battled with backup quarterbacks against the defending champs.
Still, it’s hard not to be frustrated about the dumpster fire we just went through in New England.
1. Patriots Coverage Plan Slows Down Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
The explosive Kansas City offense managed only three plays over 20 yards in the win, a testament to the Patriots’ excellent coverage.
Everything New England did was designed to help their coverage players stay leveraged on the KC receivers. Instead of chasing them around the field, they forced them to run into defenders.
New England’s most successful coverage, and luckily it was the one birds-eye view we have of the field (thanks CBS), was their man-match coverage schemes.
The Patriots are playing what looks like cover-two man, but the coverage system has some options. The Pats have two deep safeties cutting deep crossing routes, while Jon Jones is dropping into the field to take away an intermediate over route. JC Jackson matches Mecole Hardman’s vertical release, but then passes him off to Devin McCourty when he cuts across the field, and rallies back to the middle to become Stephon Gilmore’s help on Tyreek Hill. The Pats perfectly pass off the deep routes, giving Mahomes no options, and Ja’Wahun Bentley eventually breaks up the pass.
Here’s another example of the Pats leveraging routes on a crucial red-zone step on the Chiefs opening drive. This time, the running back comes in motion to get a head-start to the flat, assuming one of the off-ball defenders has Clyde Edwards-Helaire in man coverage. Instead of running through traffic from an out-leveraged position, Jason McCourty and Adrian Phillips exchange assignments. Phillips cuts off Edwards-Helaire in the flat, and McCourty joins the rush. The result is a McCourty pressure on Mahomes, whose first read, Edwards-Helaire, is covered, forcing a low-percentage throw with Stephon Gilmore covering Sammy Watkins.
Outside of two dropped interceptions, the Patriots played a flawless game in coverage against arguably the most challenging pass offense to defend in NFL history.
2. Brian Hoyer Is Anything But a Game Manager
All the Patriots defense needed out of backup Brian Hoyer, who was starting in Newton’s place, was not to lose the game.
The term “game manager” is thrown around as an indictment on quarterbacks, but that’s all New England was asking out of Hoyer, and the veteran cost the Pats points on several occasions.
Hoyer sailed three of his first five throws, missing an open Ryan Izzo on his first attempt and then throwing an interception to Izzo by forcing a seam route against cover-four.
Hoyer tried to hit Izzo off play-action up the seam on a staple concept for New England on the interception. However, Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens made a nice read on the play to drop underneath Izzo’s route. There was also a safety over the top, essentially bracketing the Pats tight end. Unless Hoyer fits the ball in there perfectly, that’s an interception, and a bad decision given Hoyer’s limitations and the coverage.
Then, there were two red-zone sacks that should never happen. First, the Pats ran a four verticals concept before the half to take a shot at the end zone. Four verticals is a good call there because it hits quickly, either a receiver gets body positioning for a play or doesn’t, allowing the quarterback to throw the ball away to set up a field if nothing is there. Instead, Hoyer holds onto the ball and gets sacked without a timeout to stop the clock. Yuck.
Hoyer eventually got himself benched after Taco Charlton stripped the ball from him when he once again held on for too long in the pocket, costing the Pats another three points.
The Pats backup appeared to find a rhythm before the strip-sack, completing a dart up the seam to Damiere Byrd on his best throw.
Still, he didn’t give the Patriots a chance due to his decision making and erratic ball placement. There’s no sugarcoating it; he was a liability on Monday night.
3. Jarrett Stidham Nearly Saves the Day, Leads Touchdown Drive
After the red-zone strip-sack, the Patriots finally pulled the plug on Hoyer, giving second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham a chance.
Stidham only made two throws on the drive, with Damien Harris picking up most of the 75 yards on the ground, but his touchdown pass to N’Keal Harry was a thing of beauty.
On the throw, Stidham works Harry on a fade at the bottom of the screen. With the defender in a press technique, Stidham gives Harry a chance by lofting the ball to the back pylon with just the right amount of touch. The ball falls into the bucket for Harry, who makes a great diving catch.
Stidham made a few nice plays with his legs to scramble for a first down and extend until Damiere Byrd got open. Plus, he made a nice timing throw on fourth down to Julian Edelman.
However, his late-game interception on a post route was one Stidham would like to have back.
On the pick, Stidham was expecting to throw to Edelman underneath the defense. But the post-safety stays in the middle of the field with Damiere Byrd beating his man inside without help. If Stidham sees Byrd sooner or puts more air under it to lead his receiver, that’s six.
Stidham wasn’t perfect, and the box score wasn’t too friendly to him either, but he gave the Patriots a spark offensively and challenged coverage downfield in a way Hoyer cannot.
If Newton is out for Week 5, roll with Stidham, who at least stresses the defense and couldn’t possibly make more bone-headed decisions than Hoyer did against the Chiefs.
4. Damien Harris, Pats Backup OL Rushes for 185 Yards
Despite multiple injuries along the offensive line, the Patriots running game did its part by averaging 5.3 yards per rush on 35 carries.
Finally leading the way in the Pats backfield was second-year running back Damien Harris, something we’ve been waiting to see since the Pats drafted him in the third round in 2019.
Harris had a few instances of tunnel vision early on, following fullback Jakob Johnson even if the open space wasn’t behind his lead blocker.
But then we saw Harris’s vision and acceleration on his 41-yard run that was the big play on New England’s only touchdown drive of the night.
The Patriots ran a cross-lead play with Johnson again in the backfield. Instead of leading straight ahead, Johnson crosses from his backfield alignment to the far linebacker. The cross-action, coupled with Harris’s rush path to sell the point of attack, opens up the hole. The cross-lead design wants to set up a lane out of the backside for Harris, and he sees it and shows off the juice through the hole for the big gainer.
New England also got some good runs from Rex Burkhead and James White out of their lighter personnel groupings, running one-back power with rookie guard Michael Onwenu pulling in front of Burkhead in the example above.
Until the turnover barrage buried them late, the game-script went exactly as planned for Bill Belichick’s crew, and an effective run game was a big part of keeping this one close.
5. Patriots’ Front Disruptive Despite Coverage-Heavy Game Plan
Schematically, the Patriots left their defensive front out to dry on several occasions, committing four or fewer to the pass rush most of the night.
Thanks to great efforts from Chase Winovich (sack, two TFLs), Lawrence Guy (three tackles, TFL), Deatrich Wise (three hurries, run stop), and Adam Butler, the Pats still got to Mahomes and held the Chiefs to 3.8 yards per rush.
In the pass rush, Winovich is becoming a disruptive force, ranking second among all edge rushers in pass-rush win rate, per Pro Football Focus.
On one of the most controversial plays of the season, Winovich beat Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher with an excellent rip move for a strip-sack. Winovich sets up a power rush by speeding off the ball and lands a firm punch on Fisher’s chest. When Fisher goes to recover, Wino rips through his hands and turns the corner to get to Mahomes.
In a post-game pool report, referee Tony Corrente said the ruling on the field was forward progress as Mahomes was in the grasp, and Belichick can’t challenge a forward progress ruling.
Although it was clearly an interception by Shilique Calhoun forced by Winovich, the play was blown dead, and the Chiefs were able to flip field position with a punt.
As is often the case, the Patriots were led by defensive tackle Lawrence Guy against the run.
Here, the Chiefs try to single-block Guy on a split-zone action, which was a bad idea. Guy tosses right guard Andrew Wylie to the side and tackles the ball carrier for a loss.
Belichick decided to limit the Chiefs offense by dropping extra bodies into coverage rather than blitzing and begged Mahomes to hand the ball off against a dime defense.
Even with that strategy, the Patriots’ defensive front was still impactful. Again, a testament to the players tasked with rushing Mahomes and stopping the run against a stacked deck.
6. Julian Edelman’s Struggles With the Drops Prove Costly
Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman is still the only wideout on the roster that consistently beats man and zone coverage every week.
Although it was hard to tell at times, the Chiefs game-plan defensively focused on eliminating Edelman in the middle of the field.
Edelman still managed to make a few plays despite the extra attention, including a well-timed seam route off a fake screen action that gained 19 yards. Edelman runs the route with perfect tempo, selling the screen in the flat before releasing upfield.
Edelman also caught two other balls on his patented options routes, reading the defenders’ leverage to break away from the coverage for third and fourth-down conversions.
However, Edelman had two drops, one of which deflected off his hands and into the lap of Tyrann Matthieu, who then ran the interception back for a touchdown.
Last season, Edelman’s league-leading 14 drops were chalked up to several injuries limiting him down the stretch, and he’s still dealing with a lingering knee issue this season.
But the Matthieu interception showed a clear lack of focus, which are the types of miscues that are inexcusable. Edelman is still a dynamic route runner, but the drops are adding up.
7. James White Returns After Tragedy With Terrific Performance
After his father tragically passed in a car accident last week, James White returned after missing only two games.
Fighting off tears in his post-game press conference, White, whose mother is still in critical condition, said he was “just trying to push through” after his father’s death.
On the field, he was as good as ever, running the ball effectively on his three carries, factoring into the passing game with a team-high seven receptions, and expertly picking up blitzes.
One of those catches was also a great design by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The Pats motioned White out wide in their “pony” set and cleared out an underneath slant with two vertical releases from the inside receivers.
Later on, the Pats dialed up a similar play to hit Damiere Byrd on the seam route with the defense overreacting to White after the earlier play.
The Patriots offense is better with James White in the lineup, and the locker room is ten times better with him on the team.
8. N’Keal Harry Flashes on Touchdown Grab
Patriots second-year wideout N’Keal Harry is showing us a little something each week, even if it’s not enough to silence his haters.
#Patriots film: don't think this was an overthrow by Brady. Harry looks for the ball too early. Shows his chest and goes into a backpedal rather than running hard through the pylon. Get physical, don't turn until the last second. Ball was thrown in a good spot. pic.twitter.com/p8D0T593xj
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 1, 2020
On his touchdown catch, Harry’s development as a receiver was on full display. Last season, Brady targeted Harry on a similar fade ball in the corner of the end zone. Harry looks back for the ball too early, backpedals, and doesn’t get to his spot to give himself a chance.
On Monday night, Harry battled through contact at the line, worked to the back pylon, and made a late adjustment to Stidham’s pass.
Baby steps for a first-round pick might not be enough for some, but Harry is showing signs of improvement with his route-running and feel for the NFL game.
9. Patriots “Pony” Package Returns With Good Results
New England ran 13 of its 74 offensive plays out of their two running back “pony” package, mostly with James White and Rex Burkhead on the field together. White’s ability to line up as an “F” receiver, running routes both outside and in the slot, allows them to effectively use the package. In the past, the “pony” sets have yielded mixed results. But the Pats got good plays all night out of the package, including six successful plays in a row on the drive that ended with Hoyer’s strip-sack. Belichick hinted at playing with multiple running backs on the field due to their depth there, and we saw that come to fruition against the Chiefs.
10. Play of the Game: Shilique Calhoun Lights Up Travis Kelce
Kelce’s team got the win, and he had their biggest play of the day on a 45-yard catch and run. However, watching the Pats defense light him up every chance they get never gets old. Belichick limits Kelce by getting physical with him, telling his on the line defenders to pop the Chiefs tight end every chance they get while they play tight man coverage off the line. Above, Kelce tries to get into his crossing route, but Shilique Calhoun levels him before getting into his route. Kelce is a great player, but he must hate going up against the Patriots defense.