Compared to its historic start in 2019, the New England Patriots’ defense has taken a step back this year: through three games it is ranked only 11th in the league in points surrendered (22.0 per game), 12th in EPA (0.03), 25th in DVOA (9.1%) and dead last in success rate (53.8%). It had its moments against the Miami Dolphins and Las Vegas Raiders in Weeks 1 and 3, but struggled mightily to contain the Seattle Seahawks in between both on the ground and through the air.
Now an even bigger challenge awaits in the Kansas City Chiefs’ high-octane defense — a unit that ranks fourth in the NFL with 30.3 points per game and is also impressive in the other statistics mentioned above: the group, led by head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy off the field, and outstanding quarterback Patrick Mahomes on it, is third in EPA per play (0.22), fifth in DVOA (25.2%) and seventh in success rate (50.5%).
Needless to say that the Patriots’ defense will have to bring its A-game, especially considering that it will need to support an offense that will be without quarterback Cam Newton (Covid-19) and running back Sony Michel (quad). So, how can the unit do that? It will obviously not be easy, but here are some potential ways New England’s defense might be able to at least slow down Kansas City’s offense.
Mix up your coverages
The Chiefs feature arguably the best assortment of receiving talent in the entire NFL, but the Patriots are actually well constructed to go up against it: their secondary is one of the best and most experienced in football, and certainly capable of successfully playing man coverage — something they will likely also again do quite a bit on Monday night. How the Patriots use their players remains to be seen, but based on past matchups it seems likely that this will be the main coverage battles we will see:
- Jonathan Jones plus safety help vs. Tyreek Hill
- Stephon Gilmore vs. Sammy Watkins
- J.C. Jackson/Jason McCourty vs. Demarcus Robinson/Mecole Hardman
- Adrian Phillips/Kyle Dugger vs. Travis Kelce/Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Personnel matchups that will certainly not be exclusive — expect Gilmore to come off Watkins on select downs — aside, the main question for the Patriots will be a schematic one: How will the defense align and what coverages will it throw at the Chiefs in order to throw Mahomes and company off rhythm?
We know the Patriots will play their fair share of man-to-man across the board, but they will likely also implement some zone or mixed concepts to help challenge Mahomes’ play dissection and decision making. Last year, for example, they used a lot of two-deep looks in a Cover 2 alignment. New England did disguise its intentions well, though, like the following play resulting in an incomplete pass illustrates:
The Patriots originally aligned with one deep safety at the snap, but moved their coverage to turn it into a two-deep shell with five covering the underneath zones once the play starts rolling. This plus the unclear pressure situation up front — New England shows a potential blitz but backs out — forced Mahomes (#15) to hold onto the ball longer as he would normally like. He eventually had to scramble from the pocket before firing incomplete as John Simon (#55) made contact with him from behind.
Cover 2 is just one of the schemes the Patriots have at their disposal. Another, as was mentioned by Mark Schofield on the latest episode of The Scho Show, is using 1 Cross. The coverage is a variation of Cover 1, New England’s base coverage, if you will. In its most basic form, it looks like this:
1 Cross follows Cover 1 principles but looks like a two-deep defense at the get-go. The difference is that one of the safeties will play a robber role and move closer to sticks in order to give the defense a numbers advantage in the middle of the field and the otherwise vulnerable underneath coverages areas. This is essentially the reverse from what the Patriots did on the play above, when the second safety only dropped back right at the snap.
Long story short, mixing up coverages and throwing exotic look at Mahomes will be important.
Win the leverage game
What makes the Chiefs’ weapons so good, among other traits, is their ability to get open in the hurry and challenge a defense with their straight-line speed across the board. While Tyreek Hill obviously stands out, players such as Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are speedsters in their own right. Every one of them is capable of getting open in a hurry and of challenging a defense deep if it doesn’t play a disciplined game.
Bill Belichick knows this, of course, and pointed out that winning the leverage battle against them is paramount.
“They can out-leverage you in a hurry, and once they get behind you, there’s not too many guys on that offense that you can catch,” the Patriots’ head coach said during a media conference call leading up to the game. “We’re going to have to do a great job of maintaining our leverage and our discipline and respect them. We play against fast guys every week, but I would say they have a lot of them on the field at the same time, and that just puts more stress on the defense and the quarterback is very good at getting them the ball.
“The offensive coordinator and Andy [Reid] do a great job of stressing the defense and putting them in spaces that force the defense to stretch and create openings for other guys if you don’t let them get behind you. They do all those things well. They’re very well-balanced and the execution is outstanding. They really know what they’re doing and they have a lot of good players and good coaches that can put the defense in a lot of compromising spots.”
New England has an experienced secondary capable of playing a disciplined game, but the Chiefs’ weapons will repeatedly make it hard on the unit and challenge its technique.
Generate pressure with three or four
Last Monday night, the Baltimore Ravens tried to do something not a lot of teams were capable of achieving since Patrick Mahomes took over as the Chiefs’ starter in 2018: successfully disrupt him by using more than the standard four rushers. Their plan failed in spectacular fashion, as the reigning Super Bowl MVP carved them up while completing 15 of 19 pass attempts against the blitz for 191 yards and three touchdowns.
The Ravens blitzed Mahomes on 45 percent of his dropbacks, but were able to generate pressure on a mere two of 19 blitz attempts — without sacking him even once. The direction is therefore clear for the Patriots heading into Monday night’s game: generate pressure without having to rely on extra pass rushers to get the job done.
This approach would not be a new one for New England’s defense and would also play to strengths of the unit, the secondary.
During last year’s game against the Chiefs, the Patriots would have sacked Kansas City’s talented quarterback twice if one had not been called back due to a holding penalty in the secondary. Both those takedowns came on a four-man rush, with the first — the one called back — a good illustration of how New England can use four defenders and still put pressure on Mahomes:
As can be seen, the Patriots approached the down with six defenders in the box — two on the second level and four down-linemen. The movements up front from New England’s pass rushers are relatively unspectacular, with Deatrich Wise Jr. (#91) and Kyle Van Noy (#53) running a stunt on the offensive right side and Adam Butler (#70) and Chase Winovich (#50) simply attacking the blockers in front of them one-on-one.
New England being able to drop seven into coverage, however, forced Mahomes to hold onto the ball for a considerable time — just like he did on the four-man rush illustrated above. The Patriots being able to get a numbers advantage in the secondary allowed them to keep the quarterback’s potential receivers contained while simultaneously being able to work against the offensive line to get into the backfield.
The plan will not always be successful considering that Mahomes and the blockers in front of him are simply too good to be beat on a semi-regular basis, but it does give the Patriots the best chance to create favorable matchups in coverage while still possibly disrupting the timing and the quarterback’s space to operate up front.
Don’t let Mahomes beat you with his feet
The no-look pass attempts and ridiculous off-platform throws may steal most of the headlines, but they are only one reason why Mahomes is arguably the best quarterback in football right now. The fourth-year passer is also a credible threat as a ball-carrier — be it on designed quarterback runs or scrambles from a collapsing pocket. This season alone, he has carried the football 10 times for a combined 80 yards and one touchdown.
Mahomes is as good as any quarterback in the NFL when it comes to exploiting an undisciplined pass rush or finding gaps in the defensive line if they present themselves. Just ask the Baltimore Ravens, who gave up 26 yards and a touchdown on four carries on the ground against Mahomes — including this 7-yard run in the late second quarter:
Baltimore does something the Patriots also should do: the potential fifth rusher backs out at the last second with four going after Mahomes. Left-side end Matthew Judon (#99), however, is pushed too far up field to give the quarterback an opening to burst through. With the coverage players being occupied deep on the first down play, The Chiefs’ QB has plenty of green in front of him on his scramble.
Mahomes does not take off as often as Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, for example, but when he does he has proven that he has both the speed to hurt defenses — let alone the arm to throw on the run when moving out of the pocket.