The comparisons between the Belichick-Brady era Patriots and the current Kansas City Chiefs are already beginning ahead of Sunday’s clash.
Although they couldn’t be more different stylistically, the Chiefs’ 12-game winning streak that began last season resembles the 2007 Pats or even the 2003-04 NFL record win-streak (21 games). Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes feel inevitable, even for Belichick.
Last week, Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale tried testing Mahomes by using Belichick’s strategy in Mahomes’ first season as a starter that worked at times.
Martindale blitzed Mahomes by cycling through simulated pressures and fire zones, similar to the Pats’ zero pressures and bluffs.
However, Mahomes now shreds blitzes, and the Ravens went to the well too many times, with the Chiefs quarterback going 15-of-19 with three touchdowns against the blitz on Monday night.
Mahomes buys himself more time by fading away in the pocket like a basketball player on a jump-shot. The reigning Super Bowl MVP sees the free blitzer coming at him above, backpedals, and throws an in-stride bomb to Mecole Hardman for a long touchdown. Retreating in the pocket is usually a no-no, but Mahomes gets away with it because of his arm strength.
Along with fadeaway jumpers, Mahomes is also finding his “hot” receivers with more regularity, as he does here when he goes to the running back in the flat against the blitz.
The inevitable Chiefs offense with Reid’s adjustments and Mahomes’s magic eventually breakthrough against Belichick, but the Pats have the most success against them.
We’ll get into more detail in Friday’s game-plan, but with sending blitzes at Mahomes out, and the dangers of zone coverage against speedy skill players, what do you do besides pray?
The short answer: play man coverage with as much safety help as possible against their biggest threats and do everything you can schematically to get home with four or five pass rushers.
Luckily, the Patriots defense is built to defend a receiving corps like this one, with versatility and talent to match up with the various types of receivers the Chiefs have on their roster. Plus, they held Kansas City to 23 points in last year’s loss.
New England’s pass defense isn’t off to a great start in an incredibly small sample, ranking 27th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric and 13th in expected points added per drop-back.
The Patriots secondary will need to return to its 2019 form to have any chance against the Chiefs offense on Sunday.
Here are some leftover thoughts upon film review from the Patriots’ 36-20 win over the Raiders last week, including an all-22 breakdown of Cam Newton’s performance as a passer:
1. Cam Newton’s Struggles on Decision Making, Not Receiver Separation
After reviewing the tape, the Patriots’ struggles through the air were mostly on Newton.
The good news is that his receivers were open, and one would expect Newton to bounce-back more consistently than if a lousy defense blanketed his pass-catchers.
Newton’s poor completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) from Week 3 was more to do with the decisions he made than actual ball placement. The Pats QB completed 60.7 percent of his passes when CPOE says he should’ve been closer to 68.6 percent.
Pats quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch told me that sound decision making, along with proper mechanics, leads to good accuracy. Most of Newton’s misses were bad reads or over-aggressive passes.
The Patriots want Newton to be an aggressive downfield passer. He’s one of the best throwers over the last decade into tight windows, but there’s a line that he crossed at times on Sunday.
Let’s start with his first-quarter interception. The Patriots ran a levels concept over the middle with Julian Edelman as the primary read on the shorter dig route and N’Keal Harry as the second option in the progression on the deep dig against a single-high coverage.
Newton will throw to Edelman if he wins on his route, but if Edelman takes the coverage with him, it’ll open up Harry. As the image above shows, the low hole defender and Edelman’s man essentially bracket him, vacating the middle for Harry.
As we roll the play, there are few possibilities that led to Newton missing Harry. First, the second image also circles two defensive linemen in the passing lane. It’s possible that Newton couldn’t get a clear view of Harry. It’s also possible that Newton wasn’t confident in Harry breaking correctly on his pattern and was worried he’d get undercut coming across. Still, Harry is open, and Cam opts for a scramble drill and throws a bad pick in the process.
Some point to rookie tight end Devin Asiasi behind the defense on the right sideline after Newton breaks the pocket. Still, it’s a bigger issue that he didn’t operate within structure properly.
Here’s another example where Newton makes the wrong decision leading to a hospital ball to Edelman. The Patriots are running their high-low crosser concept again, with Harry working the combination pattern with Edelman. Newton was hard on himself for missing Byrd on the post, but the open receiver is Harry on the short crosser. Edelman is the only receiver out of the three options covered tightly, but Newton passes up an easy completion and YAC opportunity to Harry for a bigger play to Edelman, and we see how it went.
There are several other examples of Newton getting too greedy down the field instead of taking what the defense gave him, which resulted in dangerous throws to Edelman and incompletions.
On this throw, Edelman is running a middle-read route where he’s splitting the two-high safety structure. The Raiders are in cover-two, meaning the MIKE is carrying Edelman vertical, and Edelman puts his hand up thinking he’s winning on the route, which he is initially. Newton tries to force a pass between three defenders as the two safeties converge on Edelman, and it’s nearly intercepted. Based on the defensive structure, the ball should go to Asiasi in the right flat.
Lastly, here’s Newton forcing a ball to Harry on a slant route in a slant-flat combination. In the still image above, the defender on the tight end in the flat goes over Harry’s man, with Trayvon Mullen running underneath his teammate to stick with Harry.
As we roll it, the defenders’ movement gives Cam a “flat” read, meaning the ball should go to Asiasi in the right flat, but Cam forces it to Harry. The throw is behind him, and Mullen breaks it up. Asiasi likely has equal to potentially better yardage if Newton throws his direction, assuming the rookie tight end can break a tackle or drive forward for extra yards.
The Patriots need to live with Newton’s aggressiveness since it often produces explosive plays when he threads the needle. According to NextGen Stats, Newton ranks eighth among all quarterbacks in the percentage of throws into tight windows at 19.8 percent.
However, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s scheme produces clearly defined reads and easy completions; they make life simple for Newton while still producing big plays.
The Patriots quarterback needs to take what’s there rather than forcing the ball into tight windows, or his overall consistency as a passer will look like it did on Sunday.
1B. Devin Asiasi’s Targets Are Coming
Although Asiasi’s 11 routes were mostly shorter patterns, the Newton section’s plays show that the rookie is getting opportunities, but the Pats QB isn’t throwing him the ball. As is the case with any first-year player, Asiasi is still gaining trust in his quarterback. Still, he’s getting to his spots just fine, and it’s on Newton to make Asiasi a viable weapon within the scheme. The lack of targets for Asiasi last week was on Newton, trying to be too aggressive downfield.
2. Audio Breakdown of Patriots Man-Match Coverage
The Patriots played a handful of coverage snaps in their man-match coverage, combining both man and zone coverage principles depending on the receivers’ routes.
Here’s an audio breakdown of an excellent man-match coverage play that forced the Raiders to kick a field goal in the red zone. Expect plenty of man-match this week against the Chiefs.
3. Examining Stephon Gilmore’s Struggles on Coaches Tape
Patriots All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore isn’t playing to his potential through three games.
Gilmore is allowing a 66.7 completion rate into his coverage with three penalties, including a 28-yard defensive pass interference in the second quarter on Sunday. For comparison, Gilmore only allowed a 49.5 completion percentage into his coverage and had six penalties in 2019.
The one area of Gilmore’s game that isn’t as sharp as last season is his work at the catch point. Gilmore is either in-phase or using proper out of phase techniques, but he’s either clumsy or not strong enough when it comes to contesting catches.
On his DPI last week, Raiders wideout Nelson Agholor beat Gilmore on a slant-and-go double move. Agholor runs mostly underneath patterns, so the last thing on Gilmore’s mind there was a double move, and Agholor knew the film junkie corner would be ready for his quick breaks.
Gilmore, bottom, bites on the slant but immediately corrects his mistake by flipping his hips and opening up his strides to get back into the play. He’s actually in a pretty good position to play Agholor’s hands from out of phase and contest, but instead, he grabs him. Maybe he was having flashbacks to the D.K. Metcalf touchdown, but Agholor is nowhere near as strong as Metcalf.
We’d see Gilmore recover at the catch point in the previous two seasons and knock the ball out when it arrives. This season, we are seeing him panic a little.
Without going all sports radio about Gilmore’s contract, if he wants to maximize his value, whether it’s in New England or elsewhere, he needs to play better. The market for a 31-year-old corner that showed a little bit of a decline isn’t as robust.
4. N’Keal Harry Making Improvements to Route Running
Patriots observers understandably want more out of 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry to get excited about his development.
Although he produced in Seattle, Harry’s two catches for 34 yards against Vegas, even though it could’ve been more if Newton was sharper, isn’t enough to “wow” anyone. Plus, a slight improvement from a first-round pick isn’t exactly exciting.
Still, Harry’s route-running is improving, and there’s no sense in comparing him to others in his draft class anymore. He didn’t draft himself in the first round, and there’s no going back now for Belichick.
I know everyone wants more out of N'Keal Harry but his route running is improving. Suddenness in his releases night and day. Attacks Arnette's leverage, gets free release to the outside, pushes vertical, stops down in two steps, picks up YAC. Lost Arnette in the break. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/EGqzG9EFnl
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 29, 2020
The best thing the Patriots and Harry can do is maximize his skill set while continuing to develop his weaknesses, and Harry’s releases at the line are getting better. The clip above shows significantly better suddenness at the line, proper technique to attack leverage, and a nice break at the top of the route to create separation with added yards after the catch.
Again, I’m not here to tell you that Harry was the right pick or is blossoming into a superstar. But let’s give him credit for improving his route running and making himself a viable NFL receiver.
5. Michael Onwenu Significantly Better Than Advertised in Pass Protection
Patriots rookie sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu is bursting onto the scene as one of the best players in his draft in the first month of the season, let alone the Pats rookie class.
Onwenu’s 87.6 overall grade from Pro Football Focus makes him the highest-graded rookie on offense in the entire league, ranking only behind Chase Young among rookies overall.
Draftniks like myself saw Onwenu’s run-blocking, mainly his immense play strength, translating immediately to the NFL level. Plus, he’s a smart and experienced player.
However, anyone that saw him protecting the passer at this level is lying. His feet were always quick for 350-plus pounds, but there were legitimate concerns about his athletic profile. Onwenu’s ability to mirror pass rushers, pick up line stunts, play with proper footwork technique, and climb to the second level were reasons he went in the sixth round.
Really liked the Onwenu pick back in April but he's doing things that are really surprising us all. Look at him move his feet/change direction to pick up the looper on the stunt. The draft narratives gave him no shot at moving this well. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/PE4ucc7WQI
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 29, 2020
Well, Onwenu has allowed only two hurries on 61 pass-blocking snaps. His weight loss could be a major reason, along with coaching and the types of blocks he’s asked to execute, but that’s a fluid mover for a big dude. The Patriots found a gem late on day three.