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

Patrick Mahomes is an MVP lock and first team All-Pro as a sophomore. How can the Patriots stop him on defense?

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. Both times, New England surrendered 40+ points — just like they did during their 43-40 victory earlier this season.

So what can be done to limit Kansas City’s offensive success this time around? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.

What we can learn from the last matchup

The Patriots actually held up really well in the first half of their week six matchup with the Chiefs. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes struggled to the tune of two interceptions and the New England defense locked down in the red zone, holding Kansas City to only 9 points on three field goals. However, where the Patriots really struggled is with the big plays and the running backs out of the backfield.

Contrary to what Stephen A. Smith said on Friday, Kareem Hunt won’t play this week. But his replacement, Damien Williams, was a former third down back in Miami and should be capable of the same route tree.

Once a team that was regularly burned by vertical routes by running backs, the Patriots (and Kyle Van Noy specifically) have been much improved this year. That 67-yard touchdown catch by Hunt was the longest pass New England allowed to a running back this season, with the second highest being “only” 24 yards. But that route is a staple of the Chiefs offense and the Patriots should expect at least one or two shots deep.

In terms of personnel, the Patriots should be able to stick with their sub defense throughout the entire game, barring heavy goal-line personnel situations. The Patriots never had to play base in week six as the Pats lined up in either dime, nickel or 3-safety nickel against 11, 12, and 21 personnel, which make up about 93% of the Chiefs’ offensive formations.

Linebacker Elandon Roberts is honestly a terrible matchup for this Chiefs offense because he can’t really cover tight end Travis Kelce or the running back. I would expect a heavy dose of 4-2-5 nickel and 3-2-6 dime on Sunday.

Spy Mahomes in man and disguise pressure

Patrick Mahomes, a lock to win the MVP this season, is a second year player and first year starter that already looks like a complete player. If there’s a weakness in Mahomes’ game at this point in his career, the only glaring one that I can pinpoint right now is his inexperience when dealing with disguised pressure and Cover 0 blitzes.

The Patriots have featured their “amoeba” front with one or even zero lineman with their hand in the ground in obvious passing situations. Mahomes struggled to identify the pressure in their earlier matchup.

Even when not in their amoeba front, fake linebacker blitzes confounded Mahomes and his decision making was poor throughout the 1st half.

The Cover 0 blitz was also a major part of the game plan. With Stephon Gilmore eliminating Sammy Watkins, and therefore half of the field, the Patriots were able to send all-out pressure at times and force inaccurate throws.

Mixing fake pressures and real all-out pressures should keep the Chiefs offense and protection scheme off balance for most of the game. With J.C. Jackson in for Eric Rowe, the secondary is also undoubtably better than the group that the Patriots trotted out in October.

Every game, Mahomes makes a few insane throws that no one else can make. And most of the time, these are throws from outside the pocket or after he buys more time with his legs. Fellow Pulpiteer Brian Phillips has already extolled the positives of utilizing press-man coverage, but I would like to add that the Patriots should spy him whenever they don’t blitz.

I believe in Gilmore, Jackson, Jason McCourty and Patrick Chung in man coverage, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to cover the receivers for an extensive period of time. The Patriots need to have a guy that can meet Mahomes immediately if he leaves the pocket. The Chiefs were forced to start Jordan Devey for the week six matchup, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, fresh off of IR, is a massive upgrade.

Trail/bracket Tyreek Hill and play specific matchups based on pressure

I’m seen many different ideas suggested about how to combat the dangerous Chiefs receiving group. While man-coverage usually means that a receiver shadows a guy for the entire game, I think that the Patriots should consider changing up matchups based on the pressure for the play.

For example, when the Patriots are only planning on rushing four in a vanilla man defense, I would recommend Gilmore on Hill in trail technique with a guy over top and man defense by J.C. Jackson on Watkins and Jason McCourty on Chris Conley, as well as by Chung and Devin McCourty. However, when the Patriots plan to either blitz or disguise pressure, I would put Gilmore on Watkins, Jackson on Conley and the McCourty brothers on Hill in press-man.

My rationale is largely based on the play that I highlighted before in the previous section. Let’s take a look at it again:

If pressure comes quickly, either through a blitz or a disguised pressure, Mahomes isn’t going to be able to allow a deep route to develop and would have to get the ball out early. That pretty much eliminates the most dangerous part of Hill’s route tree, and Gilmore can eliminate Watkins’ half of the field, who remains an incredibly overrated wide receiver despite President Trump’s approval. When Watkins was healthy this year, him and Hill very rarely lined up on the same half of the field.

External factors: make Andy Reid mess up the clock

For the most part, Andy Reid is an excellent coach who also has an excellent coaching tree. But he’s still an absolutely terrible coach when it comes to managing timeouts and the clock in general. For the life of me, I cannot understand why he has never hired a clock expert or special consultant to eliminate pretty much the only glaring weakness in his coaching. Mahomes is excellent, but still inexperienced. The Patriots must confuse him with defensive looks at the line of scrimmage and force Andy Reid to burn stupid timeouts.

In terms of the weather, since I wrote my offensive writeup on Thursday, the forecast has improved to the point where the temperature will be merely “cold” instead of arctic blast. If the 20-something projected temperature really does hold up, the biggest factor would be the wind, not the temperature. Wind greatly impacts the passing game, and at the moment it’s projected for gusts up to 10-15 mph. This favors the Patriots, who have a more reliable running game to lean on if the passing is impacted.

Overall, I think that this Patriots defense is far and away better than the unit that they put out in week six when J.C. Jackson was a healthy scratch. The defensive line has improved and gained confidence, while the Chiefs lost a top-5 three-down running back in Kareem Hunt. I’ll mark the Chiefs down for 30 points. That puts my final score prediction at 34-30 Patriots.