The New England Patriots pride themselves in playing fundamentally sound football in all three phases of the game. Defensively, this ranges from sound tackling to good communication on all levels, from tightening up in the red zone to prohibiting big plays. And while some of it worked in week one against the Kansas City Chiefs, the latter in particular was a surprising weakness.
Overall, New England's defense gave up three plays of 50+ yards. For comparison, in all of 2016, the unit surrendered only two plays that gained more than 50 yards. Two of those long plays led to scores of 75 and 78 yards apiece. Let's take a closer look at the film to find out what went wrong for Matt Patricia's defense and those particular two scoring plays and how the Patriots could potentially turn the corner moving forward.
1-10-KC 25 (9:28) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass deep right to T.Hill for 75 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Midway through the third quarter, the Patriots were very much still in the game. In fact, when the Chiefs started their second series of the half, New England was on top 17-14. However, the first – and only – offensive play of the drive put the visitors ahead again. It all started with Kansas City in an 11-personnel look with a two-man stack on each side of the formation:
New England countered with a dime package with three cornerbacks on the field alongside three safeties: Jordan Richards (#37), per usual in the game, aligned in the box while Devin McCourty (#32) was split to the defensive left in what appears to be coverage duties and Duron Harmon (#30) as the deep centerfielder. However, even though the team initially looks like it is in some form of a one-deep safety coverage scheme it is not.
At the snap, New England reveals its coverage call: Three players originally aligned at the line of scrimmage drop back to cover the underneath zones while the outside cornerbacks – Stephon Gilmore (#24) on the defensive left and Malcolm Butler (#21) opposite him – try to funnel their receivers to the inside. This indicates a zone coverage and with McCourty moving towards the inside in a two-deep safety look, either cover 2 or cover 4:
Even though NBC color commentator Cris Collinsworth originally interpreted the ensuing coverage breakdown on Gilmore (pinning down the coverage as a 4-cover), it appears as if it was actually McCourty who was out of position which would indicate cover 2. After all, both cornerbacks play the down the same way: Both start to focus on the flat area once they are 15 yards downfield, passing their men to the respective safety behind them.
And while Harmon shaded towards Butler's side immediately after the snap, McCourty was drawn more to the inside and appeared to be fixated on tight end Travis Kelce (#87) working down the seam. Indeed, the seam is one of the weaknesses of cover 2 but New England had linebacker Kyle Van Noy (#53) manning the middle of the field.
The only issue – and which ultimately might have led to McCourty freelancing – was that Van Noy might have been just a bit too slow to turn his body once defensive edge Dont'a Hightower (#54) had passed Kelce off his zone to the middle one. But still, with Harmon in a solid position over the top, McCourty should have known better than to stay on the interior for too long:
This ultimately left wide receiver Tyreek Hill (#10) left wide open behind McCourty's back and quarterback Alex Smith (#11) did a good job of finding for a touchdown. From a defensive standpoint, the result of the play appeared to be a miscommunication and/or McCourty simply playing too aggressively towards Kelce. Ultimately, plays like this one can be avoided by a few simple teaching points: 1) Assess the situation correctly and 2) trust those around you.
1-10-KC 22 (14:19) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass deep right to K.Hunt for 78 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
By the time the fourth quarter started, New England was ahead by six points. However, another big play would soon result in a lead change and put the home team down by one. As has been the case on the first long touchdown, Kansas City played the down out of an 11-personnel group, this time aligned differently, though.
Prior to the snap, wide receiver Tyreek Hill (#10) motioned from the offensive left-side slot across the formation causing an immediate reaction by deep safety Duron Harmon (#30): The single high safety in the Patriots' cover 1 defense quickly moved up the field to potentially prevent any damage done by either a jet sweep or a quick pass to the defensive left-side flat.
In Harmons' place, the player originally assigned to cover Hill, cornerback Eric Rowe (#25) moved back to man the deep center of the field. The Chiefs ultimately did not use Hill on the play but instead were able to take advantage of Rowe playing in a position, he is usually not used to: as the last line of the defense with no help over the top to clean up any potential mistakes. And a mistake, Rowe did make.
When the football was snapped, tight end Travis Kelce (#87) ran a crossing pattern from the right side of the formation with Devin McCourty (#32) in coverage. Kelce did gain some separation but nothing the speedy defensive back would not have been able to make up. However, Rowe reacted to the situation and moved up the field to potentially help out defending the shallow crossing route:
This left the Patriots' defense with nobody covering the deep middle of the field, which in turn led to another problem. On the formation's strong side, rookie running back Kareem Hunt was in a bracket coverage by linebackers Cassius Marsh (#55) and Kyle Van Noy (#53). However, once Van Noy started to turn around – possibly to defend the intermediate area in case of a short pass or a quarterback scramble –, Marsh was left on-on-one:
Playing a trail technique, Marsh was behind the speedy running back from the get-go. And once the window was open due to a) Van Noy vacating his bracket and b) Rowe being out of position, Alex Smith (#11) delivered a perfectly placed pass which allowed Hunt to take it the distance and give his team a 28-27 lead.
Overall, the play was caused by multiple breakdowns. Had Harmon not aggressively pursued Hill, he might have been in a position to help Marsh down the field. Had Rowe not bitten on Kelce's crosser, his presence might have forced Smith to throw the football elsewhere. Had Van Noy not turned upfield a little a bit too soon, Hunt would not have been in single coverage. However, this all happened.
Ultimately, New England's coaching staff likely will see this as a perfect opportunity to teach team defense and how recognizing a situation properly is a key when it comes to stopping big plays. Hopefully for the team, Matt Patricia's unit will listen and be ready to turn the theory into practice once Sunday's week two game against the New Orleans Saints will be kicked off.