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What the Patriots defense has to do to beat the Chiefs

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Three keys to the game for New England’s defense.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Each week in practice, the New England Patriots defense faces one of the best offensive units in all of football. Tonight against the Kansas City Chiefs, the unit needs to take advantage of this experience to make sure not to be overwhelmed by what currently is the NFL’s second highest-scoring team: the Chiefs have scored more than 27 points in each of their five games and on average hang 35 of them on their opponents.

Kansas City has been able to do that by using a highly efficient running game, a rushing attack that is able to control the tempo of the game, and play calling that has been able to play to the strengths of the unit’s personnel. Led by second-year quarterback and MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have therefore been able to cruise to a 5-0 record despite a defense that has not always been up to the challenge.

In this sense, Kansas City is similar to New England: the offense has enormous firepower but oftentimes needs to carry the defense at least this early during the season. Maybe today is the day that this changes for the Patriots, but in order for that to happen Brian Flores’ unit needs to be on top of its game and take especial care of the following three things.

Be disciplined against RPO concepts

As Patriots head coach Bill Belichick noted in his film breakdown of the upcoming matchup, Kansas City uses the run-pass option at a higher rate than other teams in the league. The concept, which allows the quarterback to either hand the football off or keep it to pass depending on the movements of the defense, allows the Chiefs to put their ultra-athletic players in a tremendous position to be successful.

Running back Kareem Hunt, who torched New England for 246 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns the last time the two teams met, is as dangerous as any running back in the league in space – no matter if he is handed the football or serving as a target in the passing game. The same goes for wide receiver Tyreek Hill: the speedster plays a huge role in the Chiefs’ offense due to his versatility and athletic traits.

Kansas City’s coaching staff has done a tremendous job this season to put them and thd aforementioned Mahomes in a position to be successful. Using the run-pass option as a weapon of choice is a big reason why as it takes advantage of all three players’ abilities: Hill and Hunt are nearly unstoppable in the open field, while Mahomes has shown a knack for making the right decisions when it comes to keeping the football or handing it off.

New England’s defense needs to be on high alert when such looks are presented, with the linebackers in particular playing a key role: Dont’a Hightower and company need to stay disciplined and not tip their hand too soon in order to make life as difficult as possible for Mahomes.

Keep Patrick Mahomes in the pocket

Speaking of Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback’s quality when it comes to running the option play is not the only thing that makes him a dangerous player. The former first-round draft pick also is one of the NFL’s most athletic passers and as such able to maneuver around pressure to create additional space and time to deliver passes – all while keeping his poise and his eyes down the field.

Unlike other young passers, Mahomes does not have a tendency to try advancing the football himself. Instead, he oftentimes breaks the pocket to buy more time for his receiving options to get open. He and his teammates are typically successful in such situations, which speaks for both the quarterback’s targets and himself. This ability to make plays outside of the pocket is what makes the 23-year old as dangerous a player as he is.

The plan for New England’s pass rush therefore has to be clear: stay disciplined. The unit looks improved in this area when compared to last year but still has its inconsistent moments of rushing around the passer to allow him to step up (one player in particular: Adrian Clayborn). Tonight, it is imperative that the Patriots don’t open up lanes for Mahomes to step into or break outside of the pocket. The edge rushers in particular are a key when it comes to this.

Take away the big play

Tied for fourth in the NFL at 6.5 yards per play, the Chiefs offense is a big play waiting to happen – and a look at the personnel shows why: Tyreek Hill is an elite deep threat wideout, Travis Kelce one of the league’s best receiving tight ends, and Kareem Hunt one of its premier backfield pass catchers. While Hill averages 15.7 yards per reception, Kelce and Hunt gain 14.5 and 13.2, respectively.

In short: Kansas City’s top three give Mahomes an impressive set of targets able to challenge all areas of a defense particularly in the passing game. New England has to be ready for this and try to set up its matchups accordingly – especially considering that Sammy Watkins and Chris Conley are no slouches either. It would therefore not be a surprise to see the team mix in some more cover 2 looks alongside its usual mix of cover 1 and cover 3.

Using a mix of coverages – with Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon as the deep centerfielders – might help New England defend the deep portions of the field and also force Kansas City to take a patient approach to drive down the field. The Patriots are no strangers to playing this kind of football: the team is willing to give up yards but forces its opponent to string together successful plays to earn points.

Oftentimes, this approach works well as plenty of NFL offenses don’t have the consistency to take advantage of this. Based on the quality of its players, Kansas City might – but the only way to find it out is to take away the deep passing game as well as possible.