The Kansas City Chiefs are coming to town to play the New England Patriots on Thursday night and they are going to look different than they have in recent years. The Patriots faced the Chiefs in 2014 and in the playoffs after the 2015 season. Those Chiefs offenses look much different than what the Patriots will see this week.
Dating back to the 2014 season, the Chiefs top gainer for yards is TE Travis Kelce, who is an outstanding tight end and the reigning first team all pro at the position. He’s gained 2,857 yards and scored 14 touchdowns over the past three seasons.
The next three players? RB Jamaal Charles (1,919 yards, 20 touchdowns) is on the Denver Broncos. RB Spencer Ware (1,776 yards, 11 touchdowns) is on the injured reserve. WR Jeremy Maclin (1,637 yards, 10 touchdowns) is on the Baltimore Ravens.
The Chiefs are going to ask a bunch of new faces to step up against the Patriots this week. Here’s who they are.
With Ware on the injured reserve, the Chiefs are going to hand the ball off to third round rookie Kareem Hunt.
“Hunt may have been destined for the starting job anyway,” ArrowheadPride.com’s Joel Thorman told us, “but he offers a little more explosion and athleticism than Ware and has his hands coming out of the backfield too. Look for Charcandrick West to fill in a little and CJ Spiller, who is new this year, could be used in a few ways. I'll be honest, I'm not completely sure what to expect out of these backs with Hunt and Spiller being new additions.”
Hunt is a triple threat at the position, capable of running, blocking, and receiving. West actually ranks fifth on the team in yards from scrimmage over the past three seasons (1,329 yards, 8 touchdowns) as a spot starter when others are injured.
Kelce is one of the top three tight ends in the league, along with Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen. He’s the Chiefs biggest offensive weapon and the Patriots will need SS Patrick Chung to have an encore performance of their 2015-16 playoff match-up, where Chung prevented Kelce from doing anything.
“Just about every third down I got doubled or some type of bracket coverage, Kelce said about the playoff game. “They tried to hammer me off the line and do whatever they can to get in my head. But it’s football, I know it’s coming and it’s going to be fun to see all the other guys when they’re singled up, and I’m getting bracketed, have some success.”
“I couldn’t really tell you if there’s a trick [to beating the Patriots coverage] other than just working your tail off,” Kelce added. “Certain routes obviously you’ll be able to stem a certain way, but for the most part it’s just being on the same page with Alex (Smith), knowing where I need to be when he’s at the end of his drops or when he’s ready to let the ball go.”
The Patriots will likely ask Chung to cover Kelce in man coverage with a linebacker taking away any inside leverage and safety Duron Harmon adding some support over the top (more on fellow safety Devin McCourty in a bit).
Gronkowski had nothing but praise for Kelce.
“He’s a great player,” Gronkowski said this past week. “He can get open very well and he’s fast. As a player, you try to look at every tight end in the league throughout the league and try to take what you can from other tight ends. He’s one of them that’s up there that you want to look at.
“[I learn] just how he gets open out on the field,” Gronkowski added. “I mean, the way he can break off defenders and get that separation. That’s one thing that is huge as a receiver, as a tight end, as a running back running a route, you want that separation. He’s good at the top of that route breaking out and getting that separation that you need.”
The Chiefs will turn to WR Tyreek Hill to carry the offense, with his 860 yards from scrimmage as a rookie (593 receiving, 267 rushing). WR Chris Conley (729 receiving yards over the past two years) is the big target on the outside and WR Albert Wilson (1,066 yards over the past three years) is the option in the slot.
Those are the three Chiefs receivers of note, but it’s Hill that will be the player to stop.
“He can attack the defense on all three levels,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about Hill. “He’s a tough guy to defend. Tackling is an issue when he gets the ball. Sometimes they throw it to him, sometimes they hand it to him, sometimes he gets it on a kick return. He can get it in a lot of different ways and it involves a lot of different players that might have to deal with him in one way or another.
“It’s a lot of stress on your team. It’s not like you just matchup one guy on him. Every guy on the team basically in the kicking game or on defense might have to deal with this player. Yeah, he’s fast, he’s quick and he’s a big playmaker.”
Hill is a homerun threat to score every time he touches the ball, with five touchdowns of 30+ yards in 2016. The Patriots would be best off pairing Stephon Gilmore in man coverage of Hill, with Devin McCourty providing help over the top, while Eric Rowe defends Chris Conley and Malcolm Butler covers Albert Wilson.
The best way to slow Hill is to make QB Alex Smith afraid of turning the ball over and dedicating multiple defenders to take away the big play should be effective.
“Alex Smith does have a good enough arm [to throw deep],” Thorman explains. “I go back to the Chiefs first play of the preseason when Hill had single coverage and Smith flung it up to for a 30-plus yard gain. That's the type of deep pass you should expect to see in Kansas City.”
But there’s a reason why the Chiefs ranked last in the NFL in passes going more than 15 yards down the field in 2016 and a league-last 192 attempts over the past three seasons- 65 fewer than the next lowest team. Just because Smith can theoretically make all the throws doesn’t mean that he will.
Still, Hill and the other Chiefs receivers can make a lot of yards after the catch, ranking in the top five in yards after the catch per reception for 2016.
“Hill can be used in so many different ways,” Thorman adds. “He's come out of the backfield before, he's lined up on the outside and run a straight go route, he's come underneath, he has the screens. There are a lot of options for him and Andy Reid is a pretty creative offensive mind so I think you'll see all the ways Hill can be used in this game.”
The Chiefs offensive line will be the same as it was in 2016 with one change at left guard.
Eric Fisher, whom the Patriots scouting team consider to be the standard for athletic tackles (36 minutes into Do Your Job 2), is a “good not great left tackle” according to Thorman and is entering his fifth season as a Chiefs starter.
Mitch Morse, the player the Patriots wanted to draft instead of Jordan Richards in the 2015 draft, is “solid...super athletic and can move really well which makes him a problem when the Chiefs get in space,” according to Thorman. He is entering his third season as the Chiefs starting center.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is entering his third year as the Chiefs starting right guard and is “also studying to become a doctor,” Thorman writes. “Oh yeah, he's also one of the strongest guys on the line and will maul you.”
Mitch Schwartz is entering his second season as the Chiefs starting right tackle after starting his career with the Cleveland Browns. He was named Second Team All Pro with Marcus Cannon at the position in 2016.
“That leaves the weakness at left guard which has been a competition this summer,” Thorman writes. “Bryan Witzmann, whom the Chiefs brought in as a swing tackle last year, looks to be the guy. He's more of an unknown.”
The Patriots have question marks at how they’ll generate pressure, but look for Trey Flowers to try and isolate the left tackle and left guard to split into the backfield. Also look for a solid battle between the two sides in the run game.
Other than Kelce and Hill, “it'd be stretch to say there are any others you should be worried about,” Thorman writes. “The truth is this group is super young so I'm not really sure what to expect. Chris Conley has the size and speed you want and has pretty strong hands to go up and get it. I see him more of a possession type receiver. If he converts a couple of third downs in this game, I'll be happy with his contributions.
“Albert Wilson, De'Anthony Thomas and rookie Jehu Chesson round out the receivers. They all have their strengths but none of them are a player you would game plan for. He's not a receiver but rookie running back Kareem Hunt has some ability to catch it out of the backfield so that will be another receiving option for the Chiefs.”
If the Patriots can limit Kelce and Hill, then the depth of the Patriots defense should be able to handle the depth of the Chiefs offense.
“Andy’s a west-coast offense disciple and that’s a very extensive system,” Belichick said about Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. “I think it’s going to be within the west-coast family of what he does. I don’t think he’s going to come in and run the wish-bone. That being said, there’s a lot of ways to dress it up. There’s a lot of ways to make it look different but it’s really the same to force different defensive adjustments or different personnel groups or run the same play but it’s on a different guy so the same player can’t really repeat his read on the play, things like that. He does a great job of that. It’s not like he comes in with a new offense every week. But it’s tough to defend because it’s sound. It’s well-balanced.”
The Patriots are expecting a lot of misdirection with Tyreek Hill as the Chiefs try to both get him the ball on the move, and also use Hill to move coverage away from the other players.
The Chiefs ranked 13th in the league in points scored in 2016 and they look to be roughly the same in 2017. They’re a fairly average offense led by a fairly average quarterback, protected by a fairly average offensive line with one elite tight end, one wide receiver with a lot of upside, and not much else.