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FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ game plan against the Los Angeles Chargers was another stroke of genius by Bill Belichick and his staff.
And it will be fascinating to see what Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores have up their sleeve for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
The Chiefs offense is as advertised and needs no introduction in these parts after Patrick Mahomes and company hung 31 second-half points on the Pats defense in October.
No, there’s no Kareem Hunt this time, but Mahomes has plenty of weapons and a skill set that can only be replicated by a few players in NFL history.
However, on the defensive side of the ball, things look different in KC although still shaky.
Veteran defensive backs Orlando Scandrick and Rob Parker are no longer in the picture, and Parker was released by the team altogether, clearing the way for rookie Charvarius Ward and second-year safety Jordan Lucas to take on larger roles.
And in the front seven, Chiefs star pass rusher Justin Houston is healthy after sitting out in Week 6.
The emergence of Ward, who comes on the field as Kansas City’s third cornerback, and a pass rush that leads the league in sacks this season stifled Andrew Luck and the Colts offense last week.
There are still vulnerabilities in the Chiefs defense, but coordinator Bob Sutton has done his best with some personnel changes and an uptick in blitzing to make the unit passable.
When you pair an acceptable defense with an all-time great offense, you get a team that’s playing its first home AFC Championship Game in its 59-year history.
Below, we’ll put together the ultimate game plan for the Patriots to punch their ticket to Atlanta:
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has a long history in the NFL with some notable gurus on that side of the ball.
Sutton spent over a decade with the New York Jets coaching under former general manager Bill Parcells and Parcells disciple Al Groh who had a short stint in New England when Parcells was the coach of the Patriots.
Then, Sutton stayed for the next regime as defensive coordinator for head coach Eric Mangini and even carried over into the Rex Ryan years before Andy Reid brought him to Kansas City.
As a result, the Chiefs are a man-heavy team playing 48 percent of their snaps in man coverage.
But unlike Ryan, Kansas City doesn’t blitz very often, and only blitzed Brady four times in October.
Due to their man tendencies, and inability to stop the run (32nd in run DVOA), teams such as the Patriots have been hugely successful against the KC defense out of heavy personnel groupings.
This season, the Chiefs allowed an average of 6.7 yards per play against either 12 (two tight ends) or 21 personnel (two running backs or fullback).
Against 12 personnel, the Kansas City defense surrendered a league-worst 6.6 yards per play.
The Chiefs also allowed 6.8 yards per play against 21 personnel which is the second-worst average in the NFL in 2018.
The New England staff saw this trend forming months ago and had fullback James Develin on the field for 33 snaps en route to 173 rushing yards on 38 carries (4.6 average).
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Despite Kansas City matching the Patriots’ heavy personnel with stacked boxes and multiple linebackers, the Pats still gashed the Chiefs run defense with their power running game featuring a heavy dosage of “counter” and fullback power schemes.
And when the Patriots went to the air, Brady threw for 340 yards with 53 of those going to running back James White who had favorable matchups against the Chiefs run-stuffing linebackers.
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Even when the Patriots spread them out, the Chiefs kept linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland on the field which was easy pickings for White and Brady and should be again if that’s the case on Sunday.
The Kansas City pass rush is the biggest obstacle standing between the Patriots offense and Atlanta, but New England can diminish its impact by running the football and getting the ball out quickly like they did last week against the Chargers.
JULIAN EDELMAN VS. KENDALL FULLER
Another matchup in the passing game that favors the Patriots is Julian Edelman versus the Chiefs top cornerback, Kendall Fuller.
Over the last few years, Fuller has been one of the league’s best slot cornerbacks, but he took a step back in a new system in Kansas City, and Edelman is in a zone.
This season, slot wideouts had a 77 percent catch rate and a 110.5 passer rating with Fuller in coverage.
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In Week 6, Edelman caught his first touchdown of the season on Fuller on a corner route out of the slot.
With rookie Charvarius Ward in the lineup, the Chiefs bump Fuller inside when they’re in their nickel defense, and that’s when Edelman can go to work.
From a big-picture standpoint, the most important thing for the Patriots defense in this matchup is to survive the first quarter.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is terrific at scripting the first 15 plays or so of the game, and the Kansas City offense can bury you before you even know what hit you early in the game.
During the regular season, the Chiefs were an NFL best plus-91 in the first quarter with the Dallas Cowboys nearly 40 points behind them with the second-best point differential in the opening frame (plus-52).
Against the Colts last week, the Chiefs were up 14-zip after the first quarter and Indianapolis never recovered.
“There is I think historically no better fast-starting team than the Chiefs,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “Coach [Andy] Reid’s always done a great job of that, and they’ve outscored their opponents by I think it’s about 100 points or so this year. That’s a big advantage to play the last three quarters with.”
In October, the Patriots held the Chiefs offense to six points in the first quarter and intercepted quarterback Patrick Mahomes on Kansas City’s second possession.
Belichick and defensive play-caller Brian Flores weathered the first quarter storm by forcing Mahomes into some mistakes and throwing disguised blitzes at the second-year quarterback.
Mahomes shredded blitzes this season to the tune of a 13:1 touchdown to interception ratio, 9.0 yards per attempt, and a 121.1 passer rating.
However, against ten Belichick blitzes, Mahomes averaged only 3.9 yards per attempt with a 99.6 rating that was inflated by two touchdown passes.
Against the young Chiefs quarterback, Belichick and Flores unveiled the first iteration of the “playground” defense that has nearly the entire front seven moving around before the snap to disguise the rush and coverage.
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On this second down play near the red zone, the Patriots ran a cover-0 blitz (no deep safety) at Mahomes with six rushers lined up across the line of scrimmage against only five blockers with the Chiefs in an empty formation. Then, the Pats did something very cool; at the snap, they had five players engage the Chiefs offensive line, but three of them backed off after initial contact into underneath zones. Even though those players didn’t rush, they accomplished what they wanted to which was to get Trey Flowers a free run at Mahomes off the right side. With the pressure in his face, Mahomes has to dump the ball off to Tyreek Hill for a short gain.
On the very next play, the Patriots forced the Chiefs to kick a field goal with another blitz.
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This time, the Patriots run a more traditional inside linebacker blitz out of a man coverage pressure scheme in cover-1, and they also add a defensive end/tackle stunt on the interior. The running back is forced to step up to Van Noy with the three interior linemen dealing with the stunt giving Flowers a one-on-one matchup with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Schwartz was an All-Pro this season, but Flowers beats him with a bull rush and two-hand swipe finisher and is in Mahomes’ face again. In the secondary, Tyreek Hill burns Jonathan Jones with a speed release on the over route and has a touchdown with a good throw, but the pressure from Flowers causes Mahomes to throw behind his speedy wideout.
The Patriots generated pressure all season long with similar blitz schemes and limited and confused Mahomes with some of those looks.
Surviving the first quarter will be vital for New England as keeping the game close or playing with a lead will allow them to stay balanced on the offensive side of the ball.
DEFENDING TYREEK HILL
Nothing that Bill Belichick has devised over the last two years has worked when it comes to slowing down Tyreek Hill.
In two career games against New England, Hill has 14 catches for 275 yards and four touchdowns.
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Earlier this season, Hill had 142 yards and three touchdowns, and the Patriots tried everything to slow him down; they played zone, they played man, they jammed him, they backed off, and he out-ran the coverage every single time.
With his size (5-10, 185 pounds) and speed, jamming the smaller Hill at the line of scrimmage with safety help over the top seems like a winning formula.
But Hill destroys press coverage averaging 4.1 yards per route run against press coverage this season, the best mark in a season by any player since 2016, according to NextGen Stats.
Hill has developed a tremendous release at the line of scrimmage against press coverage and is stronger than you’d think because of his explosiveness and power in his lower body.
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Here he is beating Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey clean when Ramsey tries to jam him.
After reviewing the tape of the Chiefs offense, while also keeping the Patriots’ tendencies in mind, one coverage stood out above the rest, and that’s to play man-to-man across the board with a cornerback in a “trail” technique against Hill.
In Week 6, Mahomes went 11-22 for 91 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 53.4 passer rating against the Patriots’ man coverages.
Doing some quick math, that means Mahomes was 12-14 for 261 yards, two touchdowns, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
That’s also a difference of 4.1 yards per attempt against man coverage versus 18.6 against zone.
Before you think I’m crazy for suggesting that the Pats play man against one of the fastest receivers in NFL history, let me explain what “trail’ technique means.
During his time with the Patriots, cornerback Malcolm Butler held his own against the similarly albeit not quite as explosive Antonio Brown using this technique.
Butler will “open his gate” which means he’ll allow Brown to release at the line of scrimmage upfield, and then run right behind him in his hip pocket while the safety rotates over the top to defend the deep ball. That allows Butler to sit underneath the receiver if Brown cuts this route off or over the middle, and with the safety, the two defensive backs form a high-low bracket of sorts on the receiver.
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Here’s Butler playing this technique against Brown in last year’s matchup with the Steelers. Brown is at the top of the screen.
This season, the Patriots have used this technique at times with all of their corners, and here are a few examples:
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Jason McCourty and Duron Harmon on Chargers wide receiver Tyrell Williams.
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JC Jackson trails JuJu Smith-Schuster and Duron Harmon comes up with the interception against Pittsburgh.
It seems like a risky proposition to play man against the Chiefs, but the Patriots have the talent in the secondary to hold up if they play as a unit against Hill and Kelce.
DEFENDING TRAVIS KELCE
Since I began studying Patriots film in 2014, there’s no offensive player that Bill Belichick respects more on tape than Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
Not Antonio Brown, not DeAndre Hopkins, not Julio Jones, not Le’Veon Bell; Kelce.
And I have a two-point theory as to why Belichick puts such an onus on taking Kelce out of the game:
One, Kelce’s skill set as a route running machine at 6-5, 260-pounds makes it difficult for one defender to match up against him in coverage.
Reid does a fantastic job of moving Kelce around, and the All-Pro tight ends savviness and incredible moves at the top of his route make him a matchup nightmare.
In October, I watched the Chiefs warm up on the field to get a feel for their team speed up close; Hill was electric, but Kelce was physical and fast, and I wondered to myself how anyone tackles him in the open field when he gets up to top speed.
Two, Kelce is often Mahomes’ security blanket on third down and is the chains mover for the Chiefs leading the team with 68 first downs (Hill had 60).
And my theory is that Belichick would rather force an incredible downfield play by Mahomes and Hill against his veteran safeties than allow Kelce to keep the Chiefs offense on the field all night long.
In four career games against Belichick, Kelce’s averaging a modest 54.3 receiving yards per game and only has one touchdown.
Duron Harmon’s interception before the half perfectly illustrates how the Patriots have held Kelce in check over the years, and just how many bodies they commit to him on any given play.
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Linebacker Dont’a Hightower redirects Kelce with a jam at the line of scrimmage. Then, the Pats bracket Kelce with both Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. New England also bracketed Hill on this play out of the backfield, and Mahomes forces a pass to Kelce in double coverage that’s tipped then intercepted by Harmon.
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If you need more than one play to make the point, here’s Hightower lined up across from Kelce at the top of the screen jamming him before Kelce releases downfield with Jason McCourty in coverage. Mahomes makes one of the throws of the game to Hill, but you can see how forcing that kind of “wow” play from those two is better than giving the easy stuff to Kelce.
The Patriots have been successful in limiting Kelce by being physical with him at the line of scrimmage and committing multiple defenders to him in coverage, and you can expect that to continue until it stops working.
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