FOXBORO — The Patriots outlasted the Chiefs 43-40 on Sunday night in an instant-classic at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots were able to out-score one of the league’s most electrifying offense in the NFL.
And although the defense struggled mightily in the second half, it’s performance in the red zone, especially in the first half, allowed the Pats to build their lead.
Below, we’ll go through ten things we learned from a critical Patriots win:
1. Tom Brady’s 43rd Game-Winning Drive Was Vintage Patriots
In the 43rd game-winning drive of his career, quarterback Tom Brady led the Patriots offense on a vintage drive to set up Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winning field goal. The Patriots marched 65 yards in seven plays, and most importantly, left no time on the clock for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to answer. Head coach Bill Belichick said, “we work on that stuff every week. Both ways – if they had had it, if we had it, need a touchdown, need a field goal, so forth. We try to be prepared for that.” The preparation helped Brady and the Pats offense orchestrate a beautiful drive which had the quarterback singing the praises of multiple players on the offense:
“That was great. I was happy we made the third-and-1. You know, that gave us a great opportunity, and then we hit some other plays. James [White] made some great catch-and-runs, then the big play to Gronk – he got a matchup and made a big play. He’s been making a lot of those in his career. I’ll keep throwing to him in the biggest moments.”
The Patriots coaches and players regularly discuss the importance of situational football, and the offense executed perfectly with the game on the line.
2. Patriots Red Zone Defense a Bright Spot in Shaky Performance
Although the Patriots allowed 40 points to the Chiefs offense, the bend-don’t-break mentality was the story of the game for the Pats defense. The Chiefs went two for seven on scoring opportunities from inside the Patriots’ 25-yard line, and one of those scores came after a 97-yard kickoff return. The Chiefs offense could’ve had close to 60 points in this game if they converted in the red area, but luckily for the Patriots, their defense stood tall, and it was the difference in the game.
Patriots safety Duron Harmon, who had a critical interception at the end of the first half said, “we talk about the emphasis red zone, it can really help us…any time you can take points off the board it’s a win for us.”
Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores and head coach Bill Belichick did an excellent job, for the most part, matching up with the Chiefs’ skill players in the red zone and disguised their coverages just enough to confuse quarterback Patrick Mahomes, something we’ll get into more detail about later.
Gronk Comes Up Big Late
The Chiefs defense, as most defenses have this season, centered their game plan on Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday night. However, when the Patriots offense needed him most, the All-Pro tight end reminded the rest of the NFL why he’s the best in the game at his position, and why his quarterback looks to him with the game on the line.
Gronk had two huge catches in the fourth quarter, but on the Patriots’ game-winning drive, he got them into field goal range with a 39-yard reception.
The Pats caught the Chiefs with reserve safety Josh Shaw in single coverage on the outside. Gronk threw a terrific crossover move on Shaw at the line of scrimmage to break free of his jam and was able to fight through contact to get over the top of the Chiefs safety on the seam route. Brady dropped a dime to his tight end, and the Patriots came out with the win.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick praised Gronk’s efforts in both the running game and the passing game on Sunday night saying, “yeah, Rob gave us a lot of big plays blocking and receiving,” and as noted earlier, Brady acknowledged the clutchness of his tight end late in games.
4. Big Plays Burn Patriots Defense In Second Half
The Patriots defense allowed 31 points in the second half, as the Chiefs offense opened the floodgates on two long touchdown catches by wide receiver Tyreek Hill and running back Kareem Hunt. The Hunt touchdown was pretty self-explanatory with cornerback Jason McCourty losing the Chiefs running back in coverage on the wheel route when he got caught peeking into the backfield at Mahomes. However, the 75-yarder to Hill that tied the game in the fourth quarter is in need of a breakdown:
The Chiefs got Hill open twice for touchdowns on deep over routes designed to utilize his speed both horizontally and vertically. Although it appeared like it was a coverage bust, both Jason McCourty and Stephon Gilmore insisted it wasn’t in the locker room after the game. McCourty said, “it wasn’t a busted coverage. We just have to do a better job of recognizing where he is and being able to get him on the ground.”
On the broadcast copy, you can see that the play is well-designed by Andy Reid and the Chiefs coaching staff. Tight end Travis Kelce runs an intermediate route underneath Hill’s deep crosser on the left side of the screen. Both McCourty twins are in the area, and both sit down in their zones to prevent the ball from going to Kelce. That leaves the sidelined on the deep left vacated with nobody there to pinch on Hill to make this a more difficult throw for Mahomes, and Hill’s speed allows him to get on the other side of Harmon quickly. Taking the Patriots’ defensive backs at their word, it appears that the Patriots secondary lost track of Hill when the Chiefs moved him into the slot and didn’t anticipate the possibility of him running the deep that route on the play.
Although the Patriots defense needs to do a better job of limiting big plays, you had to expect the Chiefs offense to make some plays of their own on Sunday night.
5. Sony Michel Keeps Getting Better and Better
Every week now it seems that Patriots rookie Sony Michel takes another step forward after a slow start to his NFL career. Michel rushed for 106 yards on 24 carries (4.4 average) and two touchdowns in the win and gave the Patriots offense some much-needed diversity to keep the Chiefs defense guessing. There are two elements to Michel’s game, isolating him from his blocking, that have stood out over the last three games.
First, it’s clear that Michel’s trust in his blocking and vision has grown tremendously over the last few weeks, and that has allowed his timing and patience to improve.
On this first-quarter run, the Patriots’ offensive line gets a good initial push, but the Chiefs defense shuts down the hole to limit the gain. However, Michel shows tremendous patience to stop his forward momentum and hide behind his blockers and then bounces the run to the outside once Shaq Mason seals the edge. Michel’s willingness to sit back to allow his blocking to develop downfield is something he wasn’t doing in his first two games as a Patriot.
And second, Michel’s elusiveness, and ability to make defenders miss one-on-one has returned to form as he gets comfortable at the NFL level.
On this 15-yard run, Michel gets excellent blocks from center David Andrews, left guard Joe Thuney and fullback James Develin to make this a positive play, but then delivered his best jump-cut of the season to make another defender miss in the secondary to gain some extra yardage.
It’s still early on in Michel’s NFL career, but it’s hard not to see the talent as a potential star is born in New England.
6. Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels Up to Old Tricks
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels deserves some credit for his offense putting up 43 points in this one, and it was some creative pre-snap motion and alignments that created favorable matchups for New England.
Let’s start with a nifty catch-and-run for wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson out of the backfield. The Patriots initially begin in a full-house alignment with running back James White, wide receiver Julian Edelman, and Patterson in the backfield. Edelman motions out pre-snap and then Patterson and White follow him post-snap towards the right sideline. That leaves Patterson with a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker in the flat, and he’s able to run right by him for some extra yardage.
Then there was Julian Edelman’s 17-yard touchdown that was made possible due to the alignment by McDaniels. The Patriots are in a bunch set split inside the hashes. Edelman is furthest inside the bunch and runs a corner route with Gronk running a post and Hogan a curl. First, the bunch set gives Edelman a free release at the line of scrimmage. And second, his inside alignment allows him to gain leverage by coming across the defenders face toward the sideline with the defender holding inside leverage. This is another perfect example of McDaniels making it easier on the Patriots’ receivers to get open with alignment and his understanding of how defenses defend bunch sets.
7. Patriots Defense Confuses Mahomes Early
Although Mahomes got going in a big way in the second half, his first-half struggles stemmed from some terrific disguises by the Patriots’ coaches on the defensive side of the ball. Bill Belichick and Brian Flores threw the kitchen sink at the young quarterback early on, and it looked like the creativity confused the inexperienced Mahomes. The Patriots rotated their safeties post-snap on almost every play and did something unique that I haven’t seen a whole lot of from other teams. The Patriots defense had a defensive back follow Tyreek Hill when he motioned around the formation pre-snap as the Chiefs often have him do, but didn’t always use the motion defender in man coverage on Hill or play man coverage at all. Typically, the pre-snap motion tips off to the quarterback that its man coverage, but the Patriots tried to trick Mahomes into thinking it was man by following Hill regardless of the coverage call, a terrific game-plan specific wrinkle.
Also, the Patriots defense did an excellent job of disguising blitzes against Mahomes, who has struggled at times with diagnosing where blitzes are coming from pre-snap and resetting the protection.
Here, the Patriots walk three blitzers up to the line of scrimmage before the snap and end up having the linebackers drop into coverage on the safety blitz. McCourty’s blitz combined with Clayborn’s edge pressure cause Mahomes to overthrow an open Kelce.
8. Dont’a Hightower is Back
Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower has had a slow start to the season as he works his way back from a torn pec last season, but #54 had his best game of the season on Sunday night. Hightower contributed on two key turnovers for the Patriots defense that we’ll go over now:
Let’s start with one of the plays of the first half, a key interception and return by Hightower. The Chiefs run an RPO here, and Mahomes reads Hightower correctly. The read here for the quarterback is does he see a low hat or a high hat. A low hat signifies that a player is coming downhill to stop the run while a high hat would mean he’s dropping into coverage. Hightower initially plays the run but does a great job of baiting Mahomes into this interception. Hightower makes a quick read as Mahomes keeps it, and changes direction to cut underneath the throw. Mahomes never saw him drop. The change of direction is a welcomed sight for Hightower, who has struggled with movement in coverage this season.
Hightower also played a massive role in Duron Harmon’s interception in the end zone before the half. Hightower holds up tight end Travis Kelce at the line of scrimmage and then joins the rush to chase down Patrick Mahomes and force a throw. That’s a great sequence for Hightower.
The Patriots linebacker, like any player, wasn’t perfect, but this was the first time this season he was a significant factor in the result.
9. Patriots Kickoff Coverage Continues to Haunt Them
The Patriots have been flirting with disaster all season on kickoffs, as they continue to stick with their short kickoff strategy even though the coverage hasn’t been as successful. The Patriots are allowing an alarming 27.4 yards per kick return, the fourth-worst mark in the league through six weeks, and the Chiefs finally made them pay on a 97-yard return on Sunday night. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has said in the past that you cannot assume that the kick will sail out of the back of the end zone, especially with the weather conditions in New England, but after the big return, Gostkowski boomed the next two kickoffs out of the end zone for touchbacks. Even if the coach won’t admit to the poor coaching decisions on kickoffs, the Pats ought to give up on pinning teams with their coverage unit until they get things straightened out in that regard.
10. Josh Gordon a Factor Once Again in Win
Finally, we can’t talk about a Patriots game these days without mentioning Josh Gordon. Gordon led the team with nine targets on Sunday night as his role in the offense continues to grow, and although there were some timing issues on certain plays, his impact cannot be denied. Gordon drew a 37-yard defensive pass interference penalty to set up a score on a go ball that the Chiefs were begging Brady to throw with the safety on the far hash and continues to be a menace for opposing defenses on slant routes.
Gordon’s ability to create separation on slants by pressing the corners inside shoulder and making multiple cuts within his route is impressive, and on this play, he shows off the hands plucking the ball out of the air on a bullet from Brady. Gordon is becoming both a big-play threat and a possession receiver in this offense.
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