In order to improve their record to 3-1 in Week 4, the New England Patriots will have to master their toughest challenge of the young season: the undefeated reigning world champions on the road. The Kansas City Chiefs are quite possibly the best team in the NFL right now, so the Patriots will undoubtably need to bring their A-game in order to stand their chance — and to win their key matchups across the board.
What matchups do stand out? Let’s analyze five of them to see what New England has to do in order to come away victoriously (or at least compete with the high-powered Chiefs).
Bill Belichick vs. Patrick Mahomes
The Patriots went up against Kansas City and its talented quarterback three times since he took over as the team’s starter three years ago, winning the first two games in 2018 before losing 23-16 last season. But despite those two victories, it would be naive to think that New England has figured out how to stop Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense on a consistent basis. The 25-year-old is too good, and seems to only be getting better given his added experience in Andy Reid’s system.
The matchup between the Patriots and Mahomes will therefore be a key to Sunday’s game, especially because of Bill Belichick. New England’s head coach and de facto defensive coordinator has been able to consistently make life hard for opposing passers due to an aggressive scheme in combination with a talented and experienced group of players in the secondary — one that knows how to disguise its looks and throw opponents off rhythm.
Mahomes should expect the same this week, given that the Patriots used that approach with comparative success against him the last three games as well. While he still won his fair share of rounds, the Patriots were able to slow him and the Chiefs’ passing attack down just enough each time to ultimately make the games competitive right down to the final snaps.
If the Patriots can find a way to confuse Mahomes with exotic coverage looks while disguising their intentions, their chances of winning will increase enormously. That said, the reigning Super Bowl MVP has proven himself more than capable of rising to the occasion — both against New England and other teams. The Patriots will therefore also have to find ways to limit the elite supporting cast surrounding the impressive young passer.
Jonathan Jones and Devin McCourty vs. Tyreek Hill
The Chiefs’ number one wide receiver is one of the best players his position has to offer today: his combination of speed, route-running and chemistry with Mahomes poses a challenge for every NFL defense. Hill is a home run threat on every play, something the Patriots will very well know themselves from their last few meetings with the Chiefs.
The best way for New England to counter Hill’s elite speed might be by following a familiar formula: putting their fastest defensive back on him with help over the top. More often than not this might mean that Jonathan Jones will be matched up with the 27-year-old, who already has 15 catches for 222 yards and three scores on his résumé this season. As was the case in the past, however, Jones will likely never be left alone against Hill.
New England will also turn to its deep safety corps, predominately Devin McCourty to help slow down Hill. The Chiefs’ leading wideout, after all, is capable of taking the top off a defense which makes it imperative to keep him in front of you at all times — something the Patriots will hope to achieve by having their speedy slot cornerback on him with help deep.
Patriots defensive backs vs. one-on-one assignments
With Hill likely getting a special treatment once again, the other Patriots defensive backs will find themselves in one-on-one coverage for most of the game. Responsibilities will shift based on formation, personnel and game situation but for the most part it seems that the team will use an approach similar to last year’s.
This means that number one cornerback Stephon Gilmore will primarily go up against Sammy Watkins while also helping out versus tight end Travis Kelce on third downs or other must-have-it situations. J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty, meanwhile, will take over the third and fourth receivers — mostly Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman — with the latter also taking on some deep safety looks. Adrian Phillips, Joejuan Williams and Kyle Dugger will try to slow down Kelce and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
New England’s defensive game plan will rely on the Patriots’ secondary to win its one-on-ones whenever they present themselves, something that was not always the case in past matchups against the Chiefs’ talented group of passing game targets. Just take last year’s game as an example: while the Patriots held Hill to “only” six catches for 62 receiving yards on nine targets, Kelce, Watkins and running back Darwin Thompson also did their fair share of damage versus the coverage they faced.
Shutting down the Chiefs’ plethora of weapons will obviously be impossible, but the goal has to be to make the necessary stops and to hold down the fort on all fronts as consistently as possible.
Patriots interior offensive line vs. Chris Jones
As was mentioned in our film preview on Thursday, the top name the Patriots have to keep an eye on when on offense is defensive tackle Chris Jones:
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 Rams’ Aaron 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.
New England has played against Jones four times since he arrived in the league as a second-round draft pick in 2016, and has kept him in check from time to time. That said, the team obviously knows about his prowess as a pass rusher and his ability to disrupt the offensive rhythm on a play-to-play basis. Slowing him down will therefore be a key for the game — one that is falling on an interior offensive line that has seen some changes since the last time it faced the Chiefs last December.
The starting center from back then, James Ferentz, is back to being a third-stringer, with Joe Thuney now filling the position in place of an injured David Andrews. Thuney will be flanked by Shaq Mason to his right (who was limited during Thursday’s practice because of a calf issue) and rookie Michael Onwenu about to make just his second career start. Stopping Jones falls on all three of them, and it will not be an easy task to handle.
N’Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd vs. single coverage
When the Patriots and Chiefs met last year, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had a simple plan in the passing game: don’t get beat by Julian Edelman and James White. Given that the unit held New England to a mere 16 points, it would not be a surprise if Spagnuolo and company had a similar idea in mind entering this week’s game.
This, in turn, might create opportunities for the Patriots’ other skill position players — especially wide receivers N’Keal Harry and Damiere Byrd. The two may not have lit up the scoreboard so far this season, but with Edelman and White likely to draw away attention they will see plenty of opportunity to win one-on-one matchups.
For the Patriots to successfully move the football through the air, Harry, Byrd and quarterback Cam Newton need to take advantage whenever such opportunities present themselves. Will it be easy? No, but the Chiefs’ cornerback group will be without starters Bashaud Breeland (suspension) and L’Jarius Sneed (injured reserve). The game might therefore very well come down to New England’s second/third/fourth options in the passing game beating Kansas City’s second/third/fourth coverage defenders.