The New England Patriots will face their toughest challenge of the year tonight when the Kansas City Chiefs visit Foxboro. The Chiefs currently own an unblemished record, thanks in large part to a big-play offense that seemingly scores at will and has hung an average of 35.0 points on its first five opponents this year. With the Patriots defense not always being up to the challenge this season, the team’s offense will play a special role today.
After all, the game is expected to become a shootout that could very well be decided by whichever offense makes the most plays or has the football last. The last time New England found itself in this kind of game – Super Bowl 52 – the team was defeated. In order to ensure that today’s result, if the game indeed goes as is expected, is a different one than in February, the Patriots need to bring their A-game and make sure the following things are accomplished.
Stick to the ground game
The best way to limit a potent offense is to keep it on the sidelines, which is why playing a ball-control game is imperative for New England and its offense tonight. The preconditions for that appear to be good from the Patriots’ perspective: Kansas City’s defense – a unit that has played some opportunistic but not always consistent football through the first five weeks – has had its fair share of issues when it comes to defending the run.
During their last five games, the Chiefs gave up an average of 118.8 yards on the ground. The numbers, of course, cannot fully be taken at face value: Kansas City typically played from ahead, which forced opponents to focus more on the pass. With the defense reacting, this naturally opened up lanes for running backs to create yardage. That being said, teams were able to run on the Chiefs even when the games were still close.
The issues start up front with Kansas City’s defensive line often failing to take proper angles especially against zone blocking schemes. Behind the front-line defenders, the linebacker corps is not quick enough to make up for the ground given up and also prone to react too slowly to movements or pre-snap motion. While the unit has had its moments, it has shown little consistency to string together plays.
Trying to establish and stick to a presence on the ground should therefore be high up on the list of priorities for coordinator Josh McDaniels. This also is something that should play to New England’s strengths: the offensive line has improved when it comes to run blocking over the last two weeks no matter when it comes to using a man or zone approach, with first-round rookie Sony Michel showing tremendous patience and vision to find open space and get to the second level.
Isolate the Chiefs’ linebackers in coverage
New England’s linebackers have had their fair share of trouble this season when it comes to defending crossing routes and underneath zones. In this regard, the Chiefs’ group is similar: Kansas City’ linebackers have not done a particularly good job when it comes to coverage – and tonight they will have to go against the best team in the NFL when it comes to finding and exploiting mismatches. Targeting the linebackers should be one of them today.
The Patriots have plenty of weapons to stress linebackers and box safeties one-on-one, with two of them expected to play particularly big roles today: running back James White and wide receiver Julian Edelman. Both have made a living out of catching passes in the flat or the underneath areas of the field against players that lack their moving abilities – and Kansas City’s linebackers do just that.
Edge defender Dee Ford is more of a downhill pass rusher than a coverage linebacker, while interior players Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland and Terrance Smith have had some problems sticking with running backs, slot receivers and also tight ends (of which the Patriots have a pretty good one as well in Rob Gronkowski) due to their athletic limitations and up-and-down reaction time and decision making.
A key for New England will therefore be to try to isolate them in coverage with a player fit to win the battle. To do that, pre-snap motion will play a big role. With Tom Brady a master at identifying coverages and personnel groupings used to run them, he should be able to single out defenders to target or make necessary adjustments at the line to create favorable matchups. Seeing New England regularly go empty and use James White on the perimeter or in the slot would therefore not be a surprise.
Take care of the football
Earlier this week, we argued that New England needs to take better care of the football: while the Patriots offense gave away the ball on just 1.2% of its plays between 2013 and 2017, the unit is currently turning it over on 2.5% of its plays. Going against a defense that is ranked tenth in the NFL in turnovers, this percentage needs improvement today if the team wants to put itself in the best position to win.
As noted above, the game is expected to turn into a shootout with neither defense particularly well equipped to properly handle the speed and concepts the opposing offenses like to run. One turnover could therefore very well make the difference between winning and losing tonight: every single possession is precious and cannot be given away – something the Jacksonville Jaguars experienced first-hand last week.
Down 10-0 in the second quarter, the Jaguars were in a position to get on the board multiple times. However, self-inflicted errors made the difference: after recording an interception following a missed 4th down attempt, Jacksonville gave the football right back on the very next play to set up a field goal. One offensive play by the Jaguars later, they were down 20-0 thanks to a pick-six. Within a few minutes, the game was blown wide open.
Against a team as explosive as the Chiefs, mistakes like these simply cannot happen. The Patriots therefore have to make sure they don’t waste opportunities like Jacksonville did and to keep the game a close one if the defense fails to rise to the challenge.