The last time the New England Patriots went up against the Kansas City Chiefs defense, the unit gained 500 yards of offense and scored 43 points — a very good outing, and one that was necessary considering that the Chiefs’ very own offense put 40 up on the scoreboard. On Sunday, the two units will meet once again and the Patriots’ abilities to again find success will be crucial to the team punching its third Super Bowl ticket in a row.
In order to get a clearer view of the upcoming matchup between New England’s offense and the Kansas City defense, we spoke with Kent Swanson who covers the Chiefs as a film analyst our sister site Arrowhead Pride. And one thing that jumped out fairly quickly is that the unit coordinated by Bob Sutton is not quite as bad as some of the rankings or its week six outing might indicate — especially against the run.
“The struggles against the run have not been quite as true the last few weeks,” said Kent about a group that is ranked as the worst in the NFL against the run by advanced analytics website Football Outsiders. “They simplified some things schematically for both defensive line and linebackers. It’s been night and day, especially for linebacker Anthony Hitchens who looks more like the guy the Chiefs thought they were signing when he came over from Dallas in March.”
Hitchens, who leads the Kansas City defense in tackles and is on the field for around 80% of the team’s defensive snaps, is not the only defender worth keeping an eye on this weekend: the Chiefs are also getting back linebacker Justin Houston, who missed the week six game due to a hamstring injury, and will also have talented pass rushers Chris Jones and Dee Ford available. So far this season, the trio combined to sack opposing quarterbacks 40.5 times.
“The best, most consistent aspect of the Chiefs’ defense has been their ability to affect and bring down the quarterback,” said Kent as well. The Chiefs defense as a whole led the NFL in sacks during the regular season by taking passers down a combined 52 times, and Jones, Ford and Houston have carried the load. “Jones and edge defender Dee Ford are having career years, and Justin Houston has 11 sacks including the divisional round.”
“Chris Jones has quietly been one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. He recorded a sack in an NFL record eleven straight games,” continued Kent, singling out the league’s seventh best interior defender according to Pro Football Focus. But as talented as the Chiefs defense is up front, particularly when it a position to pin back its ears and attack the pocket while playing with a lead, the group is not without its weaknesses.
“A player we expect the Patriots to attack frequently is undrafted rookie cornerback Charvarius Ward,” said Kent when asked the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady might opt to target on Sunday. “[Ward] went from special teams contributor through the first 14 games of the season to starter since week 16. He’ll be worth keeping an eye on, but for reasons that could be good for the Patriots.”
Overall, though, the Chiefs defense certainly poses a challenge this week not just when it comes to keeping defenders away from Brady: the unit improved against the run as of late and also solidified its secondary over the last few weeks. While still not to be confused with one of the league’s better groups it is capable of making game-changing plays particularly when put into a comfortable position by Kansas City’s offense.