The Patriots were facing a third and ten from their own 35-yard line, 65 yards away from a trip to the franchises 11th Super Bowl.
Former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady signaled for Julian Edelman to start his motion into a stack alignment, and then immediately snapped the ball. The Chiefs defense was unprepared to guard the stack out of their two-man coverage. Edelman ran into the defense with the middle of the field open and was uncovered due to a bust at the line of scrimmage. First down.
After two incompletions, the Patriots found themselves in the same situation this time on Kansas City’s 45-yard line, and they went to the same motion but on the other side of the formation.
The Chiefs decide to lock their man coverage matchups to avoid a second bust while still playing a two-deep coverage with the middle of the field open. Edelman runs the same over route, with Phillip Dorsett getting enough of Charvarius Ward at the line to make life easier on him. First down.
The Patriots now face third and ten at the Chiefs 30-yard line, 30 yards away from a trip to Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams.
Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton finally decides to rotate safety Daniel Sorensen into the box to close the middle of the field. However, the move leaves Rob Gronkowski one-on-one against Eric Berry. Gronk runs a slant for another third-down conversion.
Rex Burkhead plunged into the end zone three plays later to send the Patriots to Atlanta. One day later, the Chiefs fired Sutton for failing to stop Tom Brady on the game’s final drive.
Kansas City’s offense was a juggernaut the second Patrick Mahomes took over at quarterback. Mahomes won league MVP with 50 touchdown passes in his first year as the starter in 2018, with Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s scheme a perfect marriage between player and coach.
However, Kansas City its first Super Bowl since 1969 after the 2018 AFC Championship Game led Andy Reid to Steve Spagnuolo. Even one of the most dominant offenses in NFL history needs support from its defense, so Reid replaced Sutton with the now two-time Super Bowl champ.
Patriots fans might remember Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as the former coordinator of the 2007 New York Giants defense that upset the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
The Chiefs are far from a dominant defense like the Giants were that season, but Spagnuolo brought respectability, and along with personnel upgrades, created a game-plan unit with a more complex coverage system.
Paired with Mahomes and the Kansas City offense, the defensive turnaround helped Reid finally win his first-ever Super Bowl title in 22 seasons as a head coach.
Kansas City has won its first three games and is riding a 12-game winning streak that dates back to their Super Bowl-winning campaign.
Mahomes, with the help of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins, and new rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, feels inevitable. The group is stacked.
Still, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s defense has done better against Mahomes than any other team since he took over as the starter.
Offensively, quarterback Cam Newton presents a new challenge for Spagnuolo. Last season, he forced Brady to beat him by throwing to someone other than Julian Edelman, and the Pats wasted a great defensive performance by losing 23-16 (N’keal Harry scored, we know).
Below, we’ll craft a game plan that will hopefully resemble what Belichick and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have in store for the defending Super Bowl champs on Sunday:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears didn’t hide the basics of New England’s game-plan because it’s obvious: “ball control and points,” Fears said.
Possessing the football to keep Mahomes on the sideline is a great strategy that Belichick used both against KC and the likes of Peyton Manning in the past.
However, the Patriots’ ball control strategy that led to 43 minutes of possession in the 2018 AFC title game also led to 19 third-downs, and that’s not something we want for Newton this Sunday.
Last year’s matchup saw a much different game-script thanks to Spagnuolo’s game-plan of doubling Julian Edelman in key passing situations to force the ball elsewhere.
The question is, will Spagnuolo go with the same plan against similar skill players but a significantly different quarterback? If the goal is to eliminate Edelman, Newton has a trump card.
Newton’s trump card is to exploit Kansas City’s run defense, where they rank 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric through three weeks.
Spagnuolo typically runs a 4-3 alignment, although he’ll sprinkle in some odd fronts, and it’s a one-gapping system for the defensive linemen.
Usually, the way to defeat one-gapping fronts is to run zone schemes as the Patriots did against the Raiders’ aggressive 4-3 system under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
The rushes from under center we saw last week are an option for New England this week and would attack the weakest part of the Cheifs defense, their off-ball linebacker group. But Baltimore and Lamar Jackson had plenty of success with read-option runs against the Chiefs front.
The Ravens ran power-read concepts with Jackson reading no. 55 Frank Clark to his right. Clark, and superstar defensive tackle Chris Jones, are penetrating forces. By making Clark the read defender, he’s unable to make it into the backfield, and the Ravens land an aggressive double-team on Jones to the play side to erase his disruption. Clark eventually crashes down to the running back, giving the edge to Jackson for an explosive play.
Here’s another example of the Ravens running their version of fullback lead with a read element. This time, the Chiefs are in an odd front with ten defenders within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. Baltimore gets the numbers back by running a cross-lead play to the weak side of the formation. Another solid double-team on the left side gets an early push, while the H-back clears out no. 56 Ben Niemann at the second level. Clark stays outside this time, so Jackson hands the ball off to Ingram, who goes up the middle for 11 yards.
In their two wins this season, the Patriots found ways to move the ball on the ground either with option runs or under center schemes, pacing the league in EPA per attempt through three weeks.
Although their passing attack lost them the game, the Ravens showed that the Chiefs front wasn’t up to the task against a physical run-blocking offensive line.
The Patriots should have similar success, either option style or traditional under-center runs, and that’ll go a long way to killing the clock.
As we mentioned earlier, Spagnuolo’s strategy last season against Brady was to bracket Edelman in the slot while also committing multiple defenders to cover James White.
Spagnuolo knew that Edelman and White were the Patriots’ only two threats in the passing game, and forcing Brady to throw to his other weapons limited the Pats to 16 points.
Spagnuolo’s go-to coverage against the Patriots, which is quickly becoming Kansas City’s primary scheme, is a Belichick staple called cover-7. Essentially, cover-7 is cover-one man, but with seven defenders in coverage, it allows the defense to double or bracket receivers.
On the first third-down in 2019, the Chiefs are running cover-7 with a “slice” call on Edelman (bracket) and a deuce call on White (double). The coverage forces Brady to throw to Mohamed Sanu on the outside, and although he draws a holding call for a first down, you can see how Brady’s weapons are blanketed.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 10, 2019
Here’s another example of a cover-7 call in the red zone. This time, two dedicated doubles on Edelman and White. Brady finds the best option of Matt LaCosse up the seam against single coverage, but LaCosse is no Gronk and can’t make the catch in the end zone.
For the Chiefs, cover-7 is becoming their staple coverage under Spags, and they dialed it up plenty against Lamar Jackson in their win over the Ravens on Monday night.
The best way for the Pats to get the Chiefs out of their sophisticated man coverages is to either make them pay with matchups in single coverage or have Newton take off, as Jackson did here.
Tight ends Ryan Izzo and Devin Asiasi need to make the plays that LaCosse couldn’t, while N’Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd need to win on the outside, unlike Sanu and Harry in 2019.
And if those players fail to win their matchups, cover-7 usually leaves the defense without a spy on the quarterback, so that’s when Newton, unlike Brady, can scramble or extend plays outside the pocket.
Eventually, Newton, or the Pats winning one-on-ones, could force the Chiefs out of man coverage where New England’s receivers are better against zone schemes.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Although Mahomes has excellent numbers against the Patriots, averaging 310 passing yards (8.7 average) and eight touchdowns in three games, the tape tells a slightly different story.
The Chiefs quarterback’s Pro Football Focus grade of 63.8 against Belichick makes him look human compared to his grade against all other opponents (95.0).
Still, we are talking about holding the Chiefs to a reasonable amount of points, not shutting them down altogether.
Last season, the Pats played nearly 80 percent of snaps with six or more defensive backs, forgoing their off-ball linebackers to get as much speed on the field as possible in coverage.
With the state of their linebacking corps and the overwhelming strength of Kansas City’s passing attack, the Pats will likely lean on their secondary once again.
The Pats made life difficult on Mahomes in their last two games against him by primarily playing man coverage with safety help on their speedsters, a corner on Kelce, and a five-man rush.
Playing zone against the Chiefs and Mahomes is a dangerous proposition. Here, the Ravens run a fire blitz zone and fail to properly pass off Hill and Hardman, who are too fast for zone once they’re running at full speed. Baltimore is cycling into cover-three, and when Hardman breaks out, the boundary corner starts rallying to Hill’s deep crosser. However, Hardman runs an out-and-up, and because Mahomes is a cyborg, he somehow hits him in stride for a touchdown. Reid, Mahomes and the KC receivers are zone busters, and Reid now schemes it into his play designs.
If the Patriots go with man coverage again, the critical piece is cornerback Stephon Gilmore, whose struggles through three games this season will need to end on Sunday afternoon.
Gilmore’s role is to cover Chiefs “X” receiver Sammy Watkins on an island while the rest of the coverage is on Hill, Kelce, and Hardman.
On this third-down stop, former Pats safety Duron Harmon is on the far hash over the trips side of the formation that features both Hill and Hardman. The other safety, Devin McCourty, is either playing “robber” or preparing to bracket Kelce with Terrence Brooks. Either way, the coverage, and rush, funnels a low-percentage throw to Watkins that Gilmore swats away with ease.
Another strategy the Patriots used in the 2018 AFC Championship Game on nearly half their coverage snaps were “one-double” calls on Hill.
Belichick is famous for this coverage, which brackets Hill with two defenders with man-to-man coverage on the rest of the receivers.
Here, the full play call is “dime odd magic-zero” in Belichick’s terminology. Dime is the personnel grouping (six DBs). Odd is the front, which puts five defenders on the line of scrimmage, and then the “magic” call is a stunt scheme where the rushers read the protection. In this case, the wrap player, Kyle Van Noy, wraps opposite the slide of the offensive line. The Pats double Tyreek Hill along the left sideline with Jon Jones and Devin McCourty, taking him out in the secondary. JC Jackson is on Travis Kelce in the #3 position (inside slot) and gets a good jam to slow the All-Pro tight end. Van Noy comes through unblocked, and with good coverage in the secondary, sacks Mahomes.
The Patriots were at their best against Mahomes in man coverage, but Andy Reid is good at dialing up man beaters that expose both coverage rules and weaker coverage players.
One of those beaters is the Chiefs “wasp” route, which only a few receivers in the league can run in enough time for the quarterback to avoid the rush, but KC happens to have two of them.
On Mecole Hardman’s 48-yard touchdown, he runs the “wasp” route against Jon Jones with post safety help. The post-corner pattern makes Jones think Hardman is running into the post safety, but then he breaks it off on the corner route, a great call against New England’s divider leverage principles.
As another example, D.K. Metcalf also ran a post-corner (wasp) route against Stephon Gilmore on his 54-yard touchdown in Week 2.
Another option for the Patriots is Belichick and Nick Saban’s creation of man-match coverage, which is zone coverage with man principles.
Belichick and Saban crafted the system when they combined their schemes while Saban was Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Browns. The idea is to pass off crossers while playing straight vertical routes like its man coverage.
Here’s an audio breakdown of the Patriots playing a down of man-match coverage in the win over the Raiders last week.
The coverage could be a good way for New England’s defense to pass off deep crossing routes that the Chiefs like to run to Hill and Hardman.
THE PEYTON METHOD
If the Chiefs start shredding the Patriots’ man coverages or have something different up their sleeve for Belichick, the Patriots could dust off their old strategy against Peyton Manning.
Belichick used to force Manning to hand the ball off to his running backs by playing two-deep safeties to defend the vertical passing game.
In their matchup the 2013 regular season, the Pats showed two-deep safeties pre-snap with only six defenders in the box. Denver ran for 280 yards on 48 carries but were held to only 31 points, seven below their season average, and the Pats won in a tremendous second-half comeback with a Gostkowski field goal in overtime.
New England played 16 snaps in cover-two shells against Mahomes last season. Along with inviting the run, it’s also a good early-down defense against the Chiefs because they are among the league-leaders in run-pass options.
Defending RPOs out of cover-two gives the defense five short zone defenders to cover quick-hitting routes while allowing them to fill against the run with the outside corners in run support.
The Patriots sat in man coverage for 76 percent of their snaps in the 2018 title game, and it worked until the dam broke in the fourth quarter thanks to Reid’s pick plays.
But the best way to defend Mahomes, other than keeping him on the sideline, might be to beg him to hand the ball off to Clyde Edwards-Helaire rather than throw it to his receivers.
1. Devin McCourty vs. Chiefs Pre-Snap Motion: the Chiefs are one of the best offenses in the league at utilizing pre-snap motion, something Belichick spoke about this week. They’ll motion receivers to get favorable leverage, coverage indicators, or add another player into the route on one side of the formation.
The most challenging aspect of KC’s motion-heavy offense is how they’ll release the motion man into an all verticals concept, or as Reid calls it, “all go special.” Above, the Chiefs bring Hill in motion and then release the running back vertically up the seam. The formation goes from a 2×1 to a 4×1 look, making the defense adjust on the fly, resulting in a coverage bust. Devin McCourty will need to lead the charge in communicating through the motions.
2. Patriots DBs vs. Travis Kelce: the Patriots’ success against the Chiefs offense has a lot to do with their ability to limit Kelce. The Pats will jam him at the line of scrimmage, much like they did with Darren Waller last week, and then defend him with a corner or safety. JC Jackson, Joejuan Williams, Kyle Dugger, and even Gilmore are candidates to line up over Kelce. But the Pats never throw just one guy at him.
3. Patriots Interior OL vs. Chris Jones: Jones is an absolute game wrecker. He’ll blow up an entire game plan with his length, fluidity, and explosiveness, and Spags is good at getting him one-on-one matchups. The Chiefs will probably try to isolate Jones on rookie guard Michael Onwenu, so it’ll be on Joe Thuney to be the pivot man that helps both of his guards on Sunday.
4. N’Keal Harry vs. Charvarius Ward: one of the game’s key hidden matchups will be Kansas City’s outside corners on Harry or even Damiere Byrd. Spagnolo will have something in the game plan for Edelman, putting the onus on one of Cam’s other weapons to make some plays. Harry, who will likely see a lot of the banged-up Ward, needs to be a factor.
5. Patriots Box Safeties vs. Clyde Edwards-Helaire: we already spoke about how the Chiefs will get their running backs involved in their vertical passing concepts. Edwards-Helaire was that guy in a few critical situations on Monday night. He’s a tough matchup in space and adjusts well to the football in the air for a running back. The rookie is too much to handle for the Pats linebackers. It’ll be a safety on Edwards-Helaire in coverage.