The New England Patriots played a thriller on Sunday night that rightfully will take its place among the greatest regular season contests ever to take place at Gillette Stadium. The team’s 43-40 victory over the visiting Kansas City Chiefs produced not only plenty of points but also plenty of memorable plays. One of which was a first quarter interception by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower that set up the first touchdown of the night.
Let’s take a look at the tape to find out how the Patriots were able to force the quarterback of the undefeated Chiefs into throwing the pick – and thus to lay the groundwork for a strong defensive performance in the first half.
1-10-KC 23 (5:12) (Shotgun) P.Mahomes pass short middle intended for T.Kelce INTERCEPTED by D.Hightower at KC 31. D.Hightower to KC 4 for 27 yards (D.Harris).
Dont’a Hightower intercepting Patrick Mahomes came right after a Patriots field goal made it a 3-3 game. With Kansas City deep in its own territory after the kickoff, New England did what it tried to do all night long to attack the Chiefs’ first-year starter: force him to set the correct protections and make the right reads pre-snap and follow it up with sound decisions afterwards. While the results were a mixed bag for the Patriots later on, the plan worked well in the first half.
It starts with the defense giving Mahomes only limited information before the snap:
The Patriots have a 2-4-5 nickel package on the field, showing a cover 1 look with the deep defensive back – Duron Harmon (#21) – aligning outside the weak-side numbers to serve as a safety net against speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill (#10). What makes this look hard to decipher from Mahomes’ perspective is not the coverage, though, but the front-line defenders: who is dropping back into coverage, who is going to attack the pocket?
Mahomes sees two down-linemen and four standup linebackers, two of which aligning off the ball as potential blitzers. Futhermore, strong safety Patrick Chung (#23) also lines up close to the box:
The Chiefs use a play action call against this defensive alignment, with Mahomes faking a hand-off to running back Kareem Hunt (#27). Meanwhile, the blockers in front – the five offensive linemen plus tight end Demetrius Harris (#84) – pick up New England’s four on-the-line players: Harris is assigned to account for one of the linebackers or either Chung or Trey Flowers (#98), while right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (#71) picks up Kyle Van Noy (#53).
The other linemen use combo-blocks on defensive tackles Danny Shelton (#71) and Lawrence Guy (#93). With Elandon Roberts (#52) covering Hunt out of the backfield, Dont’a Hightower (#54) initially also attacks the pocket. This makes center Mitch Morse (#61) peel off his double-team on Guy to pick up the linebacker. However, instead of taking on Morse, Hightower drops out and back into the underneath zone:
Mahomes, however, does not see Hightower moving back into the hole in the middle of the field. Instead, he turns his attention to tight end Travis Kelce (#87) after his first read(s) on the weak side of the formation are not open. Kelce originally aligned in the X-spot on the left side of the offense and, following an attempted chip by Flowers, runs a crossing pattern about seven yards deep.
Covering Kelce is Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty (#32), who gave up the inside release and plays a trail technique. With the big tight end a step ahead of the defender, Mahomes decides to make him the target on the first down throw. What he does not see, however, is Hightower doing an excellent job to adjust to the trajectory of the football and thus take away the passing lane. The result is the game’s first turnover:
Hightower returns the interception 27 yards to the Kansas City 4. One play later, running back Sony Michel reaches the end zone to give New England a 10-3 lead and some momentum early in the contest.
Overall, the play illustrates how the Patriots planned to challenge the rather inexperienced Mahomes’ reaction and decision making early in the contest. Kansas City was still able to do plenty of damage through tremendous scheme and execution, but the different pressure packages remained a problem for them all game long. While the result was not always as perfect as it was on the Hightower pick, the unit actually had some success with its original plan.