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Patriots vs Chiefs preview: How New England’s offense will find success against Kansas City

Related: Patriots opponent preview: Kansas City Chiefs

NFL: SEP 27 Raiders at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs’ offense makes most of the headlines, and for good reason: led by perennial MVP-candidate Patrick Mahomes and an elite assortment of weapons, the unit is among the most explosive in recent NFL memory and has helped the team win the Super Bowl last year. For as good as Mahomes and company are, however, the Chiefs’ defense cannot be ignored either — both because of the role it played during the organization’s championship run and for how it has played so far this season.

The numbers illustrate the success the unit coordinated by veteran play caller Steve Spagnuolo has had. Kansas City as a whole ranks sixth in points allowed per game with 20.0, but the defense itself is responsible for only 17.7 points a contest. Only two defenses — the Indianapolis Colts’ (15.0) and the San Francisco 49ers’ (15.3) — have given up fewer points on average over the first three weeks of the regular season.

The sample size may be small, but the statistics still paint a clear picture: the Chiefs’ defense is an impressive unit in its own right, and one the New England Patriots will not easily be able to move the ball and score points against when the two teams meet on Sunday. That said, there are still some key points the Patriots should try to follow to put themselves in a comfortable position to at least compete against the reigning champs if not spoil their perfect 3-0 record.

Follow a familiar recipe

Through the years, the Chiefs’ defense has had one obvious weakness: stopping the run. While Kansas City’s run defense was seldom exploited over the last three years due to the team’s firepower on offense — opponents tend to throw the football to keep up — it is still an area the Patriots have repeatedly targeted in order to establish a rhythm and simultaneously limit the opportunities that Mahomes and his colleagues get.

The three matchups since Mahomes took over as Kansas City’s starter in 2018 show this approach:

Patriots vs Chiefs: Time of possession (2018-19)

Game Result Patriots run offense Patriots TOP Chiefs TOP
Game Result Patriots run offense Patriots TOP Chiefs TOP
2018 regular season 43-40 Patriots 37 runs, 174 yds, 3 TDs 36:09 23:51
2018 playoffs 37-31 Patriots (OT) 47 runs, 177 yds, 4 TDs 43:59 20:53
2019 regular season 23-16 Chiefs 22 runs, 94 yds, 1 TD 25:39 34:21

As can be seen, the Patriots were able to successfully move the football on the ground during both meetings in 2018 — averaging 4.2 yards per rushing attempt while finding the end zone a combined seven times. While the efficiency on an average carry was actually higher in 2019, New England’s attack was less balanced compared to the previous two matchups with the Chiefs leading to a negative time of possession.

Heading into this week’s game, the Patriots should return to their familiar style of playing the Chiefs by trying to establish a consistent presence on the ground. Kansas City’s defense once again invites such an approach.

Not only are the Chiefs ranked 28th in the NFL by giving up an average of 5.4 yards per non-kneel down carry — for comparison, New England is currently gaining 5.4 yards per rush — the team is also near the bottom in DVOA (30th, +12.2%), EPA (29th, 0.15 per run) and success rate (27th, 48.7%) when it comes to stopping the run. Needless to say that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely again turn to his backfield and quarterback Cam Newton’s abilities as a ball carrier to get the job done.

The Baltimore Ravens, who lost 34-20 against the Chiefs on Monday night, showed some examples of how such an attack could look like. Before and even after moving away from a run-centered as the game went along, the Ravens found plenty of success by playing fundamentally sound football up front and taking advantage of a strong offensive line as well as a dual-threat passer in Lamar Jackson.

Jackson’s first run of the day, for example, went for 30 yards by incorporating both those elements:

NFL GamePass

With Jackson (#8) in a shotgun formation, the offense attacked with a designed quarterback run disguised as an option play. The fake hand-off to running back J.K. Dobbins (#27) froze edge rusher Tanoh Kpassagnon (#92) just long enough for the ball-carrier to pick up steam towards the right side of the formation. Accompanied by Ronnie Stanley (#79) and Bradley Bozeman (#77) pulling from their left tackle and left guard spots, respectively, Jackson was able to get to the perimeter and into the open field.

All in all, the play was well-designed and perfectly executed. From the defensive linemen being caught out of position to the strong vision displayed by Stanley and Bozeman on their pulls, Baltimore was able to simply out-execute the defense on this play. The Patriots will will also need to do this on Sunday.

Having Cam Newton under center as opposed to Tom Brady, who did not pose a threat with his feet, certainly adds another dimension to the Patriots’ running game. At the very least it will have to keep the defense on its heels, similar to the run-fake that was employed on the play above: the Chiefs’ defenders will have to respect both the hand-off and the quarterback himself on running plays — something that was never the case when Brady was still around.

Of course, the Patriots will also rely on their traditional running backs to carry the load against Kansas City. Whether it is Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor, Rex Burkhead or James White (or possibly even Damien Harris), New England’s backfield is expected to see plenty of action. Along the way, the team also might unveil some comparatively unconventional formations such as this one used by Baltimore on Monday night:

NFL GamePass

Once again, the Ravens executed the play very well in part because of the running threat that Lamar Jackson poses: Chiefs edge rusher Frank Clark (#55) was caught hesitating just enough for him to come in late. The rest is just some tremendous blocking up front — from Bozeman quickly getting off his combo block on Derrick Nnadi (#91), to tight end Nick Boyle (#86) being able to move to the second level to take on his assignment and clear the edge, to the interior line winning its one-on-ones.

Luckily for the Patriots, their own blocking personnel has shown an ability to do just that as well. Even with center David Andrews sidelined due to a finger injury, the unit was impressive on Sunday versus the Las Vegas Raiders en route to the team gaining 235 yards on the ground on 35 carries. The Raiders’ run defense, by the way, was in a similar sphere as the Chiefs: heading into Week 3, it ranked 28th in DVOA (+9.4%) and 24th in yards per carry (4.9).

With all that being said, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had a rather pragmatic concept in mind when speaking about how his offense would tackle the game.

“Ultimately, the game is going to be decided by which team has the most points, not who has more first downs or who has more time of possession or whatever other stats you want,” he said during a media conference call on Wednesday. “You know, all that plays into it, but scoring is really the name of the game. So, our goal is to move the ball and score points offensively, same as it is every week.”

Isolate Kansas City’s linebackers

A run-based game plan is great as long as it works or you don’t fall too far behind an offense as explosive as the Chiefs’. Sooner or later, however, the Patriots will to take to the air to get the job done — if only to keep drives alive or improve the field position when playing from behind the sticks.

This also rings true simply due to the fact that passing the football is more efficient than running it: while New England averaged an EPA of 0.1 per run play during the aforementioned two victories over the Chiefs in 2018, the team posted an EPA of 0.25 per passing play. Even against a defense that is struggling to consistently stop the run, passing has proven to be the most efficient way of moving the ball down the field.

So with that said, how can the Patriots challenge a pass defense that is ranked fifth in the league in DVOA (-10.2%), fifth in EPA (-0.01) and 14th in success rate (48.3%)? Looking at the title of this subsegment, it is pretty obvious: go after the linebackers if possible.

Yes, the Chiefs are missing cornerbacks Breshaun Breeland and L’Jarius Sneed due to suspension and broken collarbone, respectively, but the secondary has still proven itself rather efficient when challenged via the secondary. The linebackers, meanwhile, have been rather up and down as their coverage numbers illustrate (via Pro Football Focus):

Chiefs linebackers: Coverage statistics

Linebacker Defensive snaps Targets Completions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Pass Breakups Passer Rating
Linebacker Defensive snaps Targets Completions Yards Touchdowns Interceptions Pass Breakups Passer Rating
Anthony Hitchens 127 5 4 56 0 0 1 113.3
Damien Wilson 112 5 4 48 0 0 1 106.7
Ben Niemann 106 12 8 124 1 0 0 128.5

The team’s top three linebackers in terms of playing time — Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson and Ben Niemann — have not necessarily been targeted a lot in the passing game, but they shown some inconsistencies when isolated in coverage. This is what the Patriots need to try to accomplish as well, and something they have the personnel to achieve when looking at their offensive roster and play design over the first three weeks of the season.

The running backs in particular will play a crucial role in this, either when it comes to using them on screen or swing passes or when flexed out wide or moved to the slot. Luckily for New England, its backs have shown an ability to perform well as receiving options.

Just last week against the Raiders and with top receiving/third down back James White still out, Rex Burkhead and even Sony Michel showed that they can be dangerous weapons when on the receiving end of pass plays: Burkhead led the Patriots with seven catches and 49 receiving yards, while Michel added two receptions for 23 yards. Most of the production came on short passes or designed screens that often time had them go against linebackers as the first line of defense.

When it comes to the Chiefs game, more of that should be expected. Simultaneously, the Patriots could try to use shifty slot receivers Julian Edelman and Gunner Olszewski, if activated off injured reserve, or shallow crossers to challenge the linebackers whenever they drop into their coverage zones or find themselves in one-on-one man looks.

Throwing to the perimeter and the Chiefs’ cornerbacks cannot be avoided, of course, and the loss of Sneed as well as Breeland’s suspension could create opportunities for New England to attack the depth behind them. That said, attacking the linebacker corps especially off play-action or other misdirection concepts might be the most reliable way to pass the ball come Sunday.

Contain Chris Jones

As the numbers posted above show, the Chiefs’ defense is pretty good against the pass. One reason for that is the team’s ability to generate relentless pressure with its front-line defenders: Kansas City is ranked fourth in the league with a pressure rate of 32.7 percent. While pass rushers like Frank Clark and Tanoh Kpassagnon have both played a role in this, as have a handful of second-level blitzes, the Chiefs’ main man in the pass rushing department remains Chris Jones.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick also acknowledged this during his recent media sessions.

“Jones is a very disruptive player up front,” New England’s head coach said. “We have to be ready for multiple looks on defense, as well as offense. That’s what they do. I’m sure they’ll try to create positive matchups for Kansas City on defense, just like they do on offense, and they have some very disruptive players. Jones is right at the top of that list.”

The Patriots have some experience going up against Jones — they saw him four time since he arrived in the league as a second-round draft pick in 2016 — and have kept him in check from time to time, but they surely know that keeping the pass rush at bay starts with trying to slow him down. The team experienced this just last year, when he registered a sack and a quarterback hit against Tom Brady.

His sack is a good example of how dangerous a player he can be from the interior of the line:

NFL GamePass

On this play, which resulted in a 10-yard sack, Jones (#95) was lining up in a 2i-technique over the inside shoulder of right guard Shaq Mason (#69). At the snap, he quickly penetrated the A-gap between Mason and center James Ferentz (#66) with the latter unable to contain him despite getting his hands in his chest quickly: Jones’ length and power simply allowed him to out-leverage the Patriots’ third-string center — David Andrews was on injured reserve, Ted Karras out with a knee injury — to get into the backfield and to the quarterback.

Plays like this are just a small sample size of what Jones brings to the table. He also is a capable run defender, and versatile enough to be moved all over the defensive formation. In short, he is a tricky player to defend no matter where he lines up.

On Sunday, the Patriots’ offensive line will need to find a way to limit his impact on the game in order to give Cam Newton time and space to operate in the pocket. The pass rush in general will be tough to deal with, but it all starts with Jones: he is leading the team with 3.5 sacks, a pair of quarterback hits and six additional hurries, and has also forced two fumbles along the way.

So, what can be done against him?

First of all, the communication up front needs to be perfect. Furthermore, limiting his one-on-one opportunities also could help: the Patriots employed a similar plan against the Los Angeles RamsAaron Donald in Super Bowl 53, and it allowed them to wear down the talented interior rusher to a point where he was unable to finish his one-on-ones late in the game. Investing resources in one player creates opportunities elsewhere, but unless he lines up opposite Joe Thuney or Shaq Mason on every snap, doubling him more often than not might be a smart way to move forward.

Be smart with the football

Taking care of the football and not wasting possessions is obviously important every week, but even more so against a team like the Chiefs that has the offensive firepower to strike quickly whenever given an added opportunity. The Patriots, therefore, have to be smart with the ball in their hands — something that was not always the case against the Raiders: quarterback Cam Newton made some questionable decisions in the passing game that came back to bite him when a pass intended for Rex Burkhead was intercepted.

Unforced errors like this cannot happen in a game against the Chiefs. While the team has forced just three turnovers this season, it has capitalized on them: the team turned its two interceptions this season — both by the now-injured L’Jarius Sneed — into touchdowns, and also would have scored following its lone fumble recovery by linebacker Ben Niemann had kicker Harrison Butker not missed a 42-yard field goal attempt on the ensuing series.

Needless to say that holding onto the football and making good decisions will be paramount this week. It starts at the quarterback position, obviously, but extends beyond that to the receivers and ball-carriers as well. New England has turned the football over during each game so far this season — N’Keal Harry lost a fumble in Week 1, Newton had one interception each in Weeks 2 and 3 — and now would be the perfect time to end this streak.