The NFL is providing “Next Gen Stats” this year that are far more helpful than “how fast is a player running!” I was looking at the receiving statistics and it’s incredibly apparent how both the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs decided to defend against the pass.
There is a stat called “cushion” which looks at how much space the defender gives the opposing receiver prior to the snap. Players with speed generally receive more space at the snap so the defender can adjust and not fall behind too quickly.
The Chiefs decided to give the Patriots no cushion at all, with Danny Amendola (2.8 yards of cushion, 2nd), Rob Gronkowski (2.9, 3rd), and Brandin Cooks (3.5, 6th) ranking at the bottom of the league in space. Kansas City didn’t want to give any of these players a free release out of the snap and their decision to provide zero cushion prevented the Patriots from throwing any quick passes.
Chris Hogan received 5.2 yards of cushion, but he was shadowed by All Pro CB Marcus Peters and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick didn’t want to challenge Peters and risk a turnover.
The result is that Brady was targeting receivers extremely far down the field. Hogan (20.3 yards down the field) and Cooks (20.3) were tied for the second-deepest average target, with Gronkowski (19.1) ranking fifth. The Chiefs accomplished exactly what they wanted to do by taking away the easy and quick throws and by forcing Tom Brady to hold on to the football.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots decided to give the Chiefs receivers a ton of cushion. Tyreek Hill averaged 7.1 yards of cushion, tied for the 11th-most in the league. Albert Wilson had 6.5 yards of cushion and Travis Kelce had 5.3 yards of cushion.
Wilson also saw the shortest depth of target in the entire league, averaging just 3.3 yards down the field. The fact that his cushion was 6.5 yards at the snap means that the Patriots weren’t even trying to remove those quick throws to Wilson. Both Hill (4.7 yards of separation) and Wilson (4.4) ranked in the top three of separation at the time of the catch.
Both Cooks and Gronkowski managed just 1.4 yards of separation, tied for the eighth-least in the league. Hogan wasn’t much better at 1.8 yards of separation.
Danny Amendola actually generated 3.4 yards of separation, tied for eighth-best, which just serves to highlight how much of a positive impact he had on the game, and just how much the Patriots were in trouble when he was lost to injury.
In fact, Amendola was one of two receivers (other: Sammy Watkins) all week to increase their distance from the defender from the snap to the reception. All other receivers had their separation at the time of the catch smaller than the cushion provided at the snap.
The Patriots and Chiefs ended up playing two extremely different styles of defense, with the Patriots hoping to keep all the targets in front of the defensive backs and the Chiefs hoping to eliminate any quick or short passes. Kansas City was clearly more effective at accomplishing their goal.