You may have heard it by now, but the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense is pretty good. In fact, it is the best offense in all of football at the moment. Led by second-year phenom Patrick Mahomes, the unit scores an average of 33.0 points per game entering championship week — and it will naturally present a huge challenge for a New England Patriots defense that while solid as of late has been inconsistent at times this season.
The first meeting of the season between the group and the Chiefs’ explosive offense was no different: while the Patriots kept Kansas City in check in the first half and limited Mahomes and company to just nine points, it fought back after intermission to score 31 over the final 30 minutes. It was ultimately not enough to win, but it showed just how powerful the quick-striking attack can be even against a defense that played very well earlier during the game.
“Something that we learned in the second half was that we’ve got to play a full 60,” said linebacker Dont’a Hightower during a press conference earlier this week. So what happened when New England’s defense ran into the Chiefs in week six? Let’s take a look at the film to find out more about the game that the Patriots ultimately won 43-40.
Drive #1: Field goal
Let’s start right at the beginning with Kansas City’s second offensive play of the day, a 17-yard connection from Mahomes to tight end Travis Kelce:
KC likes to get the ball in Kelce's hands with stick routes against zone coverage.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Here, the play fake gets Hightower to shift just enough to give Mahomes a clear throwing window. pic.twitter.com/WMDKMbXSVf
New England was in a zone look on the play, granting Kelce a free release off the line of scrimmage. However, that might have not proved to be a problem had linebacker Dont’a Hightower not slightly moved towards the middle of the field on a faked handoff to running back Kareem Hunt: the movement opened a throwing lane for Mahomes between Hightower and 9-technique defensive edge Kyle Van Noy.
While throwing in zone looks can prove to be an effective way of throwing a quarterback off balance and keeping the defense fresh through 60 minutes of game time, the Chiefs have been able to adapt tremendously:
KC's offense does a great job of creating and exploiting mismatches when defenses sit back in zone coverage.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Tyreek Hill's route in the slot occupies curl-flat defender Jon Jones, leaving Hightower to cover Kelce running full sprint across the formation to the flat. pic.twitter.com/h8EdVk4gr5
On this particular play, a 9-yard pass from Mahomes to Kelce, the Chiefs were able to clear the way with speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill running off slot cornerback Jonathan Jones. This, in turn, forced Hightower to hang with Kelce on a crossing pattern — a mismatch from the Patriots’ perspective considering that the linebacker was initially drawn inwards before breaking out to follow one of the NFL’s most dangerous tight ends.
A free release was also a problem on the following play:
Hill (slot) gets a free release and blows by Jon Jones, the Patriots' fastest DB, with a speed release for what should've been an easy score.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Think Devin McCourty was supposed to provide help over the top, but he hesitates for some reason. pic.twitter.com/znbUItdPiv
Again aligning in the slot, this time on the right side, Tyreek Hill was matched up against Jonathan Jones. At the snap, Hill was able to get inside leverage while Jones went into a trail technique. However, deep safety Devin McCourty did not try to go into a bracket coverage deep and instead remained in the middle of the field until it was too late. Luckily for the Patriots, however, Mahomes failed to connect with the wide receiver on 3rd and 8.
After settling for a field goal, the Chiefs allowed New England to tie the game one series later.
Drive #2: Interception
Kansas City’s second possession of the day lasted just one play thanks to an interception by the aforementioned Hightower:
Good coverage pretty much across the board on this play.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Think DMac allows a bit too much separation w o/s leverage on the crosser, but Hightower does a great job as the hole defender helping him inside.
High fakes the blitz, drops back, and reads Mahomes' eyes for the INT. pic.twitter.com/8lratZoVGA
With New England in a cover 1 man-to-man look, Hightower originally fakes a blitz before dropping back into coverage. His original forward trajectory, however, gave Mahomes confidence to target Kelce on a crossing pattern in the underneath area of the defense. He never saw the Patriots’ defensive signal caller, who was able to pick off the pass and return it to the 4-yard line. One play later, New England was up 10-3.
What made this play tough on the quarterback is not the rather basic man coverage look but the front-line defenders: who will drop into coverage, who will attack the pocket? Ultimately, Mahomes was fooled into thinking Hightower was in the latter group instead of the former — one of many instances of the team trying to confuse the second-year man.
Drive #3: Field goal
Kansas City’s next play was more successful one and resulted in a 30-yard gain off a misdirection screen pass to Kareem Hunt:
Pats fans will recognize this screen play.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Play-fake to Hunt, another fake to Hill to freeze the defense and allow linemen to get into space, and dump it back to the RB leaking out. pic.twitter.com/SYYPKnIAJZ
Kansas City set the play up well, feeding off New England’s aggressiveness: they attacked the pocked but allowed the linemen to get to second level and pave a way for Hunt who took perfect advantage. While Hightower reacted correctly and quickly, he was unable to get to the ball carrier because of the blockers he had in front of him.
The Patriots’ aggressiveness is nothing negative per se, however, as this next play shows:
NE wasn't afraid to dial up pressure against Mahomes in week 6, and I expect to see a decent amount on Sunday, tho not as much as we saw against LA.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Kelce gets on top of Chung with a nice crossover on the corner route, but Clayborn and Harmon get home and force a bad throw pic.twitter.com/QBqkmiRJ7J
On a 3rd and 4, New England attacked the pocket with six rushers of which the interior three dropped out again. Two of the remaining three — Adrian Clayborn and Duron Harmon — were able to get through the line to the quarterback, forcing an incomplete throw to set up a field goal.
Drive #4: Field goal
New England used zone coverage quite a bit against the Chiefs, and while it might have helped rest Mahomes’ mental capabilities it also allowed some big plays like the following.
This us just a ridiculous throw from Mahomes. Shelton and Guy flush the QB from the pocket, which would normally be a win given the lack of options flowing that way.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
But he rolls right and delivers a laser across his body into the Cover 4 void where only Conley can reach it pic.twitter.com/qc8eEWlEyG
Being in a cover 4 defense, New England actually played the down well by forcing the quarterback to buy extra time by moving out of the pocket. However, Mahomes is the likely league MVP for a reason: he threw the football almost across his body to a spot where only his intended target good get it. Had Jason McCourty played a little deeper, he might have gotten a hand on the football but as things were Mahomes made a ridiculous throw for a 19-yard gain.
With New England primarily being a man coverage team, the Chiefs also saw plenty of man-to-man looks like the following cover 1 defense:
NE is playing cover 1 robber with DMac dropping down to prevent anything in the intermediate middle of the field.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Kelce runs a shallow crosser, the perfect route with Chung in o/s leverage and having to bubble over to avoid unwanted contact.
Lots of grass to run, easy 1st. pic.twitter.com/cMPrxK4pfd
Kansas City again used a well-designed play here with the outside receiver to the formation’s week side running off the cornerback to free up space for Kelce on a shallow crossing route. The tight end, meanwhile, was able to shake free of coverage safety Patrick Chung due to a natural pick created by the Chiefs’ two crossing patterns underneath. Given the Patriots’ coverage, there was little to do against the 17-yard gain.
In general, New England has had a hard time defending crossing concepts against the Chiefs in the past. One way to counter that the team used in the past was using more cover 1 looks with a safety serving as a robber in the middle of the field to make the quarterback think twice before throwing there.
While we only looked at passing plays so far, the running game was also a big part of the week six battle between New England and Kansas City — one that saw the visitors gain 5.8 yards per carry in the first half (46 on eight rushes). Three of which came on this play, that was actually well defended by the Patriots:
Another gold star for Roberts in the run game. Pops the pulling guard before he can get to the second level and forces Hunt to hesitate in the backfield.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Strong edge-setting and shed from Flowers, as well as good fills from Chung and Hightower. Discipline, execution, finish. pic.twitter.com/rdLlT6NYYN
The Chiefs used a pulling guard — ex-Patriot Jordan Devey, who will not play on Sunday — but Mike-linebacker Elandon Roberts held his ground which in turn allowed strong safety Patrick Chung together with Dont’a Hightower and Trey Flowers to fill the hole and limit the gain to three yards. Roberts, who is having his best season as a pro, will again play a big role against the run on Sunday.
Drive #5: Interception
One of the things New England needs to do a good job at on Sunday is being physical at the line of scrimmage, to throw off the timing or not allow potential pass catchers to get into their routes as smoothly. When that does not happen or is not properly executed, the Patriots might run into trouble as happened on this 10-yard pass to Travis Kelce:
Kelce made NE pay almost every time they whiffed trying to jam him and throw off the timing of his routes.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Chung misses his attempt here, allowing 87 to fly upfield undeterred. Head fake at the top of the route freezes JMac. Excellent tackle to stop Kelce short of the first. pic.twitter.com/B4dQ2kgwIy
Patrick Chung whiffed on his jam attempt and allowed Kelce to pick up speed right out of his stance. While Jason McCourty was in solid position, the tight end was able to still shake lose due to a slight head fake to the inside. The cornerback recovered nicely, however, and stopped Kelce right after he caught the football. While the play still gained 10 yards, it illustrates one thing the Patriots need to do this week: limit yards after contact. McCourty did it very well right here.
What New England also needs to do is a) getting off the field on third down, b) keeping Mahomes from buying additional time, and c) not losing track of Kansas City’s primary weapons — mostly Hill and Kelce — in key situations. The Patriots failed to do any of those things on this play:
Gotta keep Mahomes in the pocket and try to force him to throw from a tight pocket.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Clayborn loses contain and gives the QB room to escape. Finds Hill downfield behind NE's cover 3 buzz (safety drops into hook zone from 2-high look).
Believe JMac was passing Hill off to Harmon pic.twitter.com/JAVhH02s61
Adrian Clayborn, who has been inconsistent when it comes to keep mobile quarterbacks contained this season, allowed Mahomes to get to the defensive right to extend the 3rd and 15 play while. This, in turn, gave Hill the time to get open against New England’s cover 3 defense — one originally presented as a two-deep look — as he was being passed from underneath cornerback Jason McCourty off to deep safety Duron Harmon.
Kansas City failed to take advantage of its solid fifth drive, however, as Mahomes threw his second pick of the day later on:
Great complimentary defense led to Mahomes' second INT of the game.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 15, 2019
Everyone on the field is blanketed. Mahomes steps up to buy time and avoid pressure from Flowers. Doesn't see Hightower looping around off the Kelce jam. QB forces it to his TE in double-coverage--turnover. pic.twitter.com/YXuuW8baau
While Mahomes was again able to break the pocket — something New England had trouble with all day long — Dont’a Hightower was right there to follow the youngster and force him into a high-risk throw. Hightower in general did another good job of disguising by initially chipping Travis Kelce before looping around to fill the open offensive right-side B-gap and chase the quarterback.
In the secondary, meanwhile, New England played tight man-to-man coverage that made the interception by Duron Harmon off the tip-drill possible.
Drive #6: Touchdown
Coming out of halftime, it took the Chiefs only three plays to score their first touchdown on a 67-yard third down pass to Kareem Hunt:
Not positive what the coverage is here, but both safeties jump the deep in-breaking routes, which usually implies cover 4.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 16, 2019
However, both CBS funnel their receivers inside, indicating cover 2.
Seems miscommunication brokedown somewhere and either DMac should’ve been... pic.twitter.com/FvwcKsPU37
Hunt was able to get behind Jason McCourty on the play after Mahomes once again moved out of the pocket to give his target a chance at getting open. He did just that due to what appears to be a miscommunication in the secondary: either the cornerback should have been dropping deeper, or his twin brother Devin McCourty should have moved more towards the boundary instead of staying in the middle to help bracket Tyreek Hill.
And even though the error led to a long touchdown, the underlying issue seems to be a correctable one — especially considering that the players involved are all multi-year veterans playing very sound football as of late.
Drive #7: Field goal
Kansas City’s second drive of the second half — with the score 27-16 in the Patriots’ favor — featured one of the team’s favorite offensive plays: a faked handoff on a run-pass concept, with Tyreek Hill running a slant route:
This RPO with Hill on a slant from the slot is gonna be one to watch out for. One of the staples or their offense. pic.twitter.com/u4ZlSBeAjd— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 16, 2019
Hill is a tremendous weapon on these intermediate throws due to his ability to get open quickly. Here, he does so after again being allowed a free release off the line. While jamming him and the Chiefs’ other weapons constantly is a dangerous approach, New England needs to be more consistent when it comes to recovering when giving the receivers a free release.
Drive #8: Touchdown
Kansas City ran a similar concept after recovering a Patriots fumble late in the third quarter, with Hill again crossing inwards from the slot:
Patriots send a slot blitz with zone coverage behind it, but the fake sucks up Rivers, who I believe is responsible for the hook to Hill’s side given the hesitation.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 16, 2019
KC leaves another play on the field as Hill drops the ball with no one around him. pic.twitter.com/fLPFolLDWu
While New England is bailed out by a drop, the team did not play the blitz as well as it could have — especially second-year man Derek Rivers, who hesitates of the quickly faked hand-off. The indecision slowed him down just enough to allow Mahomes to put enough on the football for what could have been a completion.
Kansas City was still able to find the end zone on this series, however, after Tyreek Hill was able to beat Devin McCourty one-on-one. This also happened a few plays later.
Drive #9: Touchdown
One of New England’s major problems in week six was giving the Chiefs a short field. First it was the aforementioned fumble on the Patriots’ side of the 50, then came a 97-yard kickoff return by Tremon Smith that set up another score for Kansas City:
This TD came on the heels of KC’s big return.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 16, 2019
Once again, Hill runs a route away from Devin’s leverage. McCourty doesn’t get a good jam on Hill and collides with his brother.
Impressive work from Hill fighting thru traffic, staying focused, and coming back for the ball pic.twitter.com/g9BZjVxmaE
Once again, McCourty was beaten by Hill. And once more an inefficient jam played a key role in this. The veteran failed to properly get his hands on the speedy wideout who shook free after the McCourty twins collided. This, in turn, left him wide open for Mahomes to find and the Chiefs to take a 33-30 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Drive #10: Punt
After New England went up 37-33, the team again used a non-standard pressure package to get after Mahomes on a subsequent 3rd and 7 play:
The safety blitz gives Flowers a free lane to the QB and Clayborn wins his matchup as the two combine to pressure Mahomes.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 16, 2019
Forces the QB to throw off his back foot and almost leads to a JMac INT, who’s in pretty good position against Hill. pic.twitter.com/HGSDetB70C
Devin McCourty attacked the offensive right-side B-gap, which in turn freed up Trey Flowers from the wide-9 alignment to get to Mahomes. on the. other side, meanwhile, Adrian Clayborn was winning his one-on-one matchup to also get into the backfield. With nowhere to go to extend the play, the quarterback decided to heave one up — with near-fatal results: Jason McCourty got inside position on Tyreek Hill and almost picked off the pass.
New England used man-to-man coverage on this play while once again testing the play recognition skills of Mahomes and the offensive line. It would not be a surprise to see a similar approach on Sunday.
Drive #11: Touchdown
Kansas City’s biggest play of the day came right after the Patriots went up 40-33, a 75-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to Hill:
Another correctable mistake that led to a big play.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) January 16, 2019
Unsure if Belichick’s “get the f*** back” rule applief to Jason McCourty here as he’s preoccupied with Kelce.
Regardless, Harmon is left 1-on-1 deep with Hill, takes poor angles to the receiver and surrenders a long TD. pic.twitter.com/Fv8PQO6cDJ
As is the case with plenty of the Patriots’ mistakes in week six — not just on defense but on offense and in the kicking game as well — this one can be corrected by proper diagnosis and film study. Whichever of the McCourty brothers was assigned the deep zone takes too long to get back and instead stays up to focus on Travis Kelce. This, in turn, opened up the underneath zone for Hill to exploit.
The play itself, Kansas City’s final offensive snap of the day as the Patriots won on a walk-off touchdown, could have been stopped before reaching the end zone but Duron Harmon attacks to aggressively and is outrun by Hill for the touchdown. A better angle and better understanding of deep zone responsibilities would likely have helped prevent the score.
All in all, the biggest lessons New England needs to draw from the game are the following:
- Keep Mahomes in the pocket as much as possible
- Be more effective at jamming Travis Kelce at the line of scrimmage
- Pay more diligent attention to Tyreek Hill in the red zone and when using zone concepts
- Communicate better in the secondary
- Stay disciplined against screen passes and run plays
The fifth point was already performed in week six, while the other four have all been on display since that game. While defending Kansas City’s high-octane offense is easier said than done, New England has the tools to do it and just needs to keep its mistakes to a minimum. What also should help is the personnel on the field, especially in the secondary.
J.C. Jackson, who was inactive against the Chiefs in week six, has now taken over the third starting cornerback spot from Jonathan Jones — and he has been outstanding alongside Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty. New England’s defensive back play has been far superior to its pre-bye week levels ever since Jackson entered the equation, and he might allow the Patriots to use their number one cornerback (Gilmore) on the Chiefs’ top receiver (Hill) more often.
All in all, the matchup projects to be an intriguing one yet again.