The last time the New England Patriots played against the Kansas City Chiefs, we saw their offense convert three third-and-longs in overtime en route to scoring the game-winning touchdown and advance to Super Bowl 53. A lot has changed since then, however, with both units looking quite different today when compared to January. New England, for example, saw the departures of Rob Gronkowski and Trent Brown during the offseason and also had to place David Andrews and James Develin on injured reserve since.
Kansas City, meanwhile, parted ways with a substantial part of its starting defense from a year ago: defensive tackle Allen Bailey, linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford, and defensive backs Eric Berry, Orlando Scandrick and Steven Nelson are no longer with the team. But despite the personnel turnover, the biggest change for the Chiefs’ defense might have come on the sidelines as coordinator Bob Sutton was fired after last year’s AFC Championship debacle against the Patriots.
In order to fill the void, Kansas City brought veteran coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on board and he has been able to get the struggling defense back on track — at least according to Arrowhead Pride’s John Dixon. John spoke with Pats Pulpit earlier this week about the upcoming game between the two clubs, and Spagnuolo’s name naturally came up as well. And for good reason considering how he has transformed the Chiefs’ defense since coming aboard during the offseason.
“Under the previous regime, defenders had to spend too much time thinking and not enough time playing,” said John about a unit that currently ranks 18th in the NFL in scoring, surrendering 21.5 points per game. “Spagnuolo utilizes a simpler one-gap defensive scheme that allows players to get back to relying on their natural instincts. This has resulted in a more downhill (and aggressive) style of play; it has certainly been more fun to watch.”
“That isn’t to say Spagnuolo just sends them out there and watches what happens. He likes to mix up coverages and employ exotic blitzes. He isn’t afraid to take risks. That sometimes means that opponents can make big plays. But a bit more often, the defense is able to make big plays,” he continued. So far this season, Kansas City has certainly been able to do that as the team ranks seventh in the league with 19 turnovers and 11th with 34 sacks.
“The defense is far from perfect; it would have been nearly impossible to turn it into a league-leading unit in one season,” John added when speaking about the impact Spagnuolo’s arrival had on the unit. “But while a year-to-year comparison of some defensive statistics might give you a different impression, this is a much better defense than it was — one that can make plays when it counts.”
Despite that, there are still some shortcomings Kansas City needs to overcome defensively in order to play successful football. For starters, the run defense is still not up to par: while the Chiefs as a whole rank 15th in the NFL with a DVOA of -2.1% — meaning that the team is above-average when analyzed on a play-to-play basis — they check in as only the 30th best unit in the league when it comes to slowing down opposing ground games (+7.2%).
Last year, the Patriots were able to successfully run the ball against Kansas City and a repeat performance is not out of the question. However, according to John, the Patriots should also be able to find success throwing the football — even though not all areas of the field are necessarily the right ones to target. The secondary, for example, has played well and the team as a whole ranks sixth against the pass with a DVOA of -9.9%.
“I wouldn’t attack the secondary deep; we’ve been pleasantly surprised that they’ve proven themselves to be up to that challenge,” said John about the Chiefs’ defensive backfield — one that has seen major contributions from three players added over the course of the offseason: free agency signing Tyrann Mathieu and second-round rookie Juan Thornhill are now the team’s starting safety tandem, while Rashad Fenton has seen plenty of action as a rotational cornerback and core special teamer.
“Thornhill is coming into his own alongside Tyrann Mathieu, whom the Chiefs acquired in free agency. Both had interceptions against Derek Carr in the 40-9 defeat of the Oakland Raiders in Week 13,” John said. “Rookie cornerback Rashad Fenton has to be an honorable mention on defense; he performed admirably while slot cornerback Kendall Fuller was injured — and has been really good on special teams, too. Fenton, however, might miss Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury.”
Kansas City’s secondary has performed admirably, but it is not the only unit to play well. According to John, the defensive line — led by stalwart tackle Chris Jones and offseason trade acquisition Frank Clark — has also had some solid stretches of play: “It’s taken a little time for them to get it together — and they’ve had to deal with a lot of injuries, too — but I’d be wary of the Chiefs defensive line. They’re playing much better than they did early in the season.”
“That leaves the linebackers,” John continued when breaking down the Chiefs’ defense and which areas the Patriots should attack. “As a group, they are less than ideal in coverage. Opposing teams have been able to find success with underneath routes and the use of running backs as receivers. The Chiefs have sometimes been able to make in-game adjustments to contain this approach — but not always.”
With the linebacker group having its fair share of inconsistencies in coverage, the Patriots could attempt to get its running backs and tight ends matched up on them — with one player standing out in particular: James White, who combined to catch nine passes for 102 yards against the Chiefs last year. With New England’s recent struggles moving the football through the air, the ever-reliable White could become a key piece to put pressure on an an improved Kansas City defense.