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2019 AFC Championship Game: Offensive keys to victory for the Patriots against the Chiefs

The Chargers and Chiefs defenses couldn’t be more different, but they are just as vulnerable

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

The New England Patriots face a familiar foe in the AFC Championship game this Sunday when they travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Kansas City Chiefs. While the Patriots have been very good against AFC teams over the Bill Belichick era, the Andy Reid-led Chiefs have proven to be a worthy matchup.

Including the playoffs, the Patriots are 2-2 against the Chiefs since Reid took over as head coach in 2013, handing the Patriots a couple of embarrassing blowout losses in the “Dynasty is done” game, as well as the 2017 season opener.

Overall, the Patriots haven’t struggled to score over the four total games (27.8 ppg) and the Chiefs have had the same defensive coordinator and system with Bob Sutton in all four matchups. There are many ways that the Patriots can take advantage of a weak Chiefs defensive unit this week — let’s take a look at them.

What can the Patriots learn from the last matchup?

The Patriots put up 43 points against the Chiefs in their week 6 matchup, but they were EASY points. Most of the time when a team puts up those kind of offensive numbers there’s some kind of external factor that inflates the score, like a big special teams play or a defensive score. But the Patriots really only benefitted from a single play, a Dont’a Hightower interception that led to a 1-play touchdown drive.

Everything else was domination. 500 total yards. 54% on third downs. Zero punts. Only a single hit on Tom Brady. It almost felt like the Patriots left points on the board with their five field goals and two turnovers, one on a fumble and one on downs, which is crazy to say about a team that put up 43 against an NFL defense.

Of course, week 6 was a Patriots home game and the Chiefs play drastically better when they’re at Arrowhead. But Kansas City still has the much-maligned Bob Sutton at defensive coordinator, and the Patriots have had schematic success against his defenses even back to his days with the New York Jets in the 2000s.

The above video shows the Patriots’ first three plays from scrimmage in their last matchup. These play sequences will be open ALL AFTERNOON. Play-action quick slant against man defense, followed by back-to-back power runs, the first behind James Develin and the second behind Shaq Mason and Rob Gronkowski pulling. The Chiefs cannot stop the run at all (more on that later) and this will open up weaknesses in the secondary off play-action.

In terms of personnel, the Chiefs have made some changes, most notably adding a healthy Justin Houston, but the rest of their secondary personnel changes have been minor moves. It seems weird to label the return of Eric Berry as such a minor move, but he has not looked the same coming off of a torn Achilles and has missed the last two games with a calf injury. While a full participant in practice, Berry would be about a month removed from his last game action if he were to play on Sunday.

At safety, former multi-year starter Ron Parker has gone from demoted... to backup... to straight up released in rapid time. His replacement is Daniel Sorensen, who was injured in week 6, and he has consistently graded out as one of the worst safeties in the NFL over the past few years, while Jordan Lucas fills the other safety spot. If Berry makes his return this week, look for him and Lucas to share snaps.

Second-year undrafted free agent Charvarius Ward has soaked up all of a washed up Orlando Scandrick’s snaps at outside cornerback and Steven Nelson and Kendall Fuller remain the other starters. On paper, this is a poor secondary that the Patriots should still be able to exploit in man or zone coverage.

Man coverage beaters

Unlike what the Patriots saw out of Gus Bradley and his heavy Cover 1/Cover 3 scheme, the Chiefs incorporate heavy man concepts to their defense. It was very hard to find man vs zone coverage statistics that weren’t behind a paywall, but I was able to find the statistics through week 16, which should be a solid representation of the season-long trends.

As you can see, the Chiefs played the sixth most man defense in the NFL, and they relied on it heavily in their game against the Colts before garbage time.

So while last week focused on the zone beaters, this week is all about beating man. And on the Patriots roster, they employ the best man-beater in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski... until this year.

While Gronkowski has been mostly a decoy and de-facto offensive lineman for the second half of the season, I had a potential rematch against Kansas City circled as a game where we finally figure out for sure if Gronk is done or he’s being sheltered for the playoffs, the top two theories on why his production has dropped this year. Kansas City was the 25th ranked team by DVOA against tight ends, and they struggled mightily to defend Gronk in the matchup earlier in the season.

On just five targets, Gronk caught three balls for 97 yards and drew a pass interference. All of which came against man-coverage:

After dropping his first target, Gronk’s second of the game is against Ron Parker, and the play call is a staple in the Patriots’ playbook for his entire career. Off of hard play action out of 21 personnel, the Patriots leave seven in to block and give Brady a wide open lane to isolate the tight end on a post. Parker is beat to the spot and is forced to interfere with the big guy.

The Patriots have Gronk run the same exact route later in the first quarter, just out of a different formation. Julian Edelman’s pre-snap motion reveals that it is man coverage (#23 Kendall Fuller follows him) and this time Gronk beats Parker clean.

In the fourth quarter, with the Patriots looking for the dagger, they scheme Gronk open in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before:

The blocking scheme is similar to an RPO, at least with with left tackle Trent Brown and Gronkowski. #24 Jordan Lucas has him in man coverage, but Brown steps out to block him. In the eye of the NFL rule book, this is a borderline illegal man down field, but as I’ve written before, if they flag ineligible players downfield by more than a yard, almost every RPO would be flagged. Brown’s retreat towards the line of scrimmage right before Brady releases the ball is crucial and the Patriots would have likely been penalized if he hadn’t done it. As for the result of the play, it’s vintage Gronk in the open field, throwing guys out of the club.

For the most important play of the game, Brady finds Gronk up the right sideline for victory:

While Gronkowski won’t be matched up against Josh Shaw on Sunday, no one other than a healthy, prime Eric Berry can cover this route on the Chiefs roster. It’s really a perfect play call to isolate Gronk, with Edelman running a clear-out slant to take away the slot cornerback and single-high safety and Chris Hogan sucking in the outside cornerback with a shallow dig.

Between Gronkowski’s always dominant blocking, as well as glimpses of his old form during his only catch against Los Angeles last week, I really do believe that the 29-year old has one more vintage game left in his rickety body. And if he does, Kansas City should be terrified because they don’t have a single player that can defend him in man coverage.

The other way the Patriots have schemed successful plays against man in the past is through route combos in stack or bunch formations. Often times this results in players open through legal pick plays, but sometimes just the presence of multiple playmakers on the same side of the field can lead to a wide open receiver.

Gronkowski is a decoy here, carrying Ron Parker and the single high safety out of the play. Edelman is a such a great route runner, stuttering slightly to make Kendall Fuller, a pretty damn good slot corner, feel a post route before beating him clean to the corner. In many ways, this play is similar to the one that the Patriots used against the Los Angeles Chargers last week on one of the few snaps where they played man coverage:

Phillip Dorsett plays the role of Edelman and Desmond King fills in as the slot cornerback that can’t believe how badly he got burned. Although there is no Gronk clearing out the left seam, Jahleel Addae is playing the robber here which puts him in the exact position where he would be if he was guarding a seam or crossing route. Poetic.

Run the ball

What the Patriots did last week against the Chargers was, simply put, emasculating. This was especially true in the running game, where they were picking up huge chunks on the ground at will. While the Chiefs will not be forced into dime formations because of their dire lack of depth due to injuries, they were never good at stopping the run to begin with. According to DVOA, they were dead last in rushing defense. In a statistic where positive values represent a worse team, they finished at +9.7%, while the 31st ranked Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished at +3.0%.

Despite the Patriots scoring 43 points in an all-out shootout in week 6, the Patriots played James Develin 42% of offensive snaps and inserted Dwayne Allen as a second tight end for an additional 14% of snaps. Sony Michel rushed for over 100 yards in the game, and the Chiefs never stopped him for a loss.

To demonstrate how much faith the Patriots had in their ability to run the ball with success against KC, look no further than the final drive of the game. After Tyreek Hill tied the game with a 75-yard touchdown with 3:03 left in the fourth quarter, the Patriots immediately went to their heavy formation. The first three plays of the drive were run for 7 yards (21 formation), a run for 2 (22 formation), and another run for 2 (22 formation):

In a game where having the last possession meant victory, they were able to milk the clock down past the two-minute warning with classic smashmouth football. From there, they ran their typical two-minute hurry up offense and easily made it into field goal range with no time remaining.

The Indianapolis Colts were unable to establish the run last week because they immediately found themselves down three scores in the first quarter and a half. But if the Patriots are able to match the Kansas City offense punch for punch in the first half, the running game and the play-action passing game will be a huge mismatch for the rest of the game. While both Justin Houston and Dee Ford are accomplished edge rushers, they are much worse comparatively against the run. The Chiefs’ third edge rusher in their rotation, day two rookie Breeland Speaks, was dominated by Gronkowski in the run game in October.

Take some deep shots on the boundary

The Patriots have not needed to take many deep shots in the second half of the season. Some of that is the absence of Josh Gordon, some of it is the heavy Cover 2 and Cover 3 defenses that the Patriots have faced, and some of it is just the success the Patriots have always had when Tom Brady gets the ball out early to the short and intermediate routes, avoiding hits and sacks. Kansas City, on the other hand, was the 20th best team by DVOA against the deep ball, and playing heavy man coverage will mean that there will be deep boundary shots available at times.

The first requirement that must happen for these deep shots to develop starts with the big five up front. Brady must be given the time to wait for these routes to develop. While the Patriots nullified Dee Ford to the tune of just a single pressure during their earlier matchup, personally, I’m a little more concerned with Chris Jones, who had a breakout year in the interior. Jones can leave interior linemen in the dust with his quick jump off the ball. This strip sack of Brady was the only sack that David Andrews gave up this season.

But if Jones can be nullified, there are opportunities for deep shots, particularly against Steven Nelson and Kendall Fuller. Both cornerbacks stand at 5’11 and their overall athleticism has them best suited as slot corners. But because of the trade of Marcus Peters and the outstanding failure of Orlando Scandrick, they have been forced to the boundary this season more than they have had to in any other year.

While Josh Gordon won’t be running any go routes on Sunday, I can envision Phillip Dorsett running many of the same routes on the outside. Nelson gets very, very grabby when he’s beat. In 2018, he’s been called for an astounding five pass interference calls, including three that went for more than 25 yards. Add in an additional five penalties for either holding or hands to the face and Nelson should have a huge target on his back for double moves and go routes when he’s on the boundary.

On the other side, Kendall Fuller made his reputation with the Washington Redskins as a borderline elite slot cornerback. Shipped to Kansas City in the Alex Smith trade, Fuller had an up and down season, especially when he was on the boundary. He also played a pretty handsy game this year, being penalized for three pass interferences and three defensive holdings, including this and-one by Chris Hogan in man coverage:

While Hogan has been severely underutilized this year, he had a productive game against Kansas City (4/4 on targets for 78 yards) and has shown in the past that he can put up huge numbers on mediocre cornerbacks on the boundary, like he did in the Super Bowl against Jalen Mills.

The addition of a healthy Justin Houston and the opposing team’s crowd factor will make it harder for the Patriots to look deep this time, but a quality run game and play-action should help in slowing down the pass rush. The Patriots eliminated an even stronger edge duo in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram last weekend, and if they can repeat their success, the big plays will be available.

External factors

The biggest external factors are the crowd noise and the temperature, and both are expected to be at extreme levels compared to the typical NFL game. Arrowhead Stadium has a raucous crowd. When you get a bunch of drunk midwesterners together, you better believe that there will be crowd noise. That kind of record-breaking noise is why I don’t expect the Patriots to repeat their dominating offensive performance. The Chiefs become a different team defensively when they are at home, averaging only 17.4 points per game compared to 32.3 on the road.

In terms of the cold temperatures, I’m much less worried about how that would affect the overall New England offense. Cold bitter temperatures might actually improve the already potent Patriots run game. When temperatures reach the levels that we’ll see Sunday afternoon (forecast calling for single digits and negative wind chills at the time of this writing) you don’t want to do anything, let alone try to tackle 200+ lb running backs and shed blocks of 300+ lb linemen. I’ve lived in Chicago for five years now and I can say that you never really get used to the cold. In terms of pure numbers, Tom Brady is 24-4 in games below 30 degrees and 5-1 in games below 20 degrees.

I don’t expect the Patriots to put up the same gaudy numbers, but between the similar personnel and their re-discovered power run game, I expect the Patriots to put up a very strong performance offensively. I’ll mark them down for 34 points.

Of course defense is a whole different story, and Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense can put up points just as effortlessly. Look for my defensive breakdown closer to kickoff.