Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ 26-10 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs and what appeared to be a sack-fumble-recovery only to be called a simple 7-yard sack on the field by the referees.
The New England Patriots entered their Week 4 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs in a tough situation. Starting quarterback Cam Newton had tested positive for the novel Coronavirus in the days leading up to the contest, which in turn forced a postponement from Sunday to Monday night. The Patriots, meanwhile, had to fly to Kansas City on Monday morning, having only a few hours between their arrival and the eventual 7:05 pm kickoff.
And yet, despite the circumstances, the team competed well against the undefeated world champions before eventually succumbing to its own missed opportunities in the fourth quarter.
Up until that point, the game was primarily a defensive affair: neither team scored a touchdown until the Chiefs went up 13-3 late in the third period, with New England’s defense keeping the team in the game despite the offense — and in particular Newton’s replacement, Brian Hoyer — struggling. It is no surprise, therefore, that one of the biggest moments of the game also came courtesy of the unit. Let’s take a closer look at it.
3-4-KC 42 (6:22) (Shotgun) P.Mahomes sacked at KC 35 for -7 yards (C.Winovich).
After the Patriots had scored a field goal to turn the score to 6-3 in the Chiefs’ favor midway through the second quarter, the home team’s offense started at its own 25-yard line but was able to march just 17 yards in the first five plays of the series. Facing a 3rd-and-4, Kansas City therefore tried to do what it does best: create mismatches in the passing game and move the football through the air.
Approaching the third down, the team aligned in an 11-personnel set aligned in a 2x2 formation with quarterback Patrick Mahomes in shotgun. The Patriots defense countered with what appeared to be a single-high safety look when the ball was snapped:
While Devin McCourty (#32) was originally the only deep safety, fellow defensive back Jason McCourty (#30) actually dropped back into the deep zone as well. The Patriots’ defense was therefore running a Cover 2 man variation also known as Cover 5: while the deep parts of the field were split by the safeties, as is the case in the traditional Cover 2, the five underneath defenders were not in a zone alignment but had to follow their assignments by playing a so-called trail technique.
This coverage, plus the fact that middle linebacker Shilique Calhoun (#90) dropped back to help man the middle zone and serve as a spy against mobile quarterback Patrick Mahomes (#15), made it difficult for the Chiefs to get a play out quickly. This became relevant considering that the Patriots, despite only rushing three players, were able to get to Kansas City’s uber-talented passer and force him into what was eventually ruled a sack:
As can be seen, the Patriots’ secondary is tightly covering Mahomes’ weapons across the board.
On the field side of the play, slot cornerback Jonathan Jones (#31) is on wide receiver Sammy Watkins (#14) while field cornerback J.C. Jackson (#27) is following Tyreek Hill (#10) over the top on his crosser. Mahomes’ initial reads on the boundary side, in the meantime, also had a hard time getting open. Demarcus Robinson (#11) was being blanketed by Stephon Gilmore (#24) with Travis Kelce (#87) incapable of shaking Joejuan Williams (#33) and Darrel Williams (#31) failing to get open against Adrian Phillips (#21) on his wheel route.
Mahomes might have found an opening with Hill underneath, but by the time the quarterback appeared to set up his pass either to him via the no-look variety or to Watkins deeper down the field, the pass rush was already on him — forcing Mahomes to eventually tuck the football back in:
What followed was the controversial part of the play. Chase Winovich (#50) and Deatrich Wise Jr. (#91) came crashing down on Mahomes, with the quarterback panicking and trying to keep the play alive. This resulted in him losing the football, with the aforementioned Calhoun coming in to scoop it up for what would have been either an interception or fumble. At that point, however, the play was already ruled dead — even though Mahomes was still very much alive and fighting to get off the pass.
Controversy aside, the play still illustrates how well the Patriots defense played not just in the backend but up front as well.
Winovich, originally aligning in a wide-9 spot outside Eric Fisher (#72) was able to get into the backfield quickly by engaging the Chiefs’ left tackle but being able to get around him with his speed and tremendous hand technique. This allowed the second-year defender to get to the quarterback in only 2.7 seconds. Combined with the strong coverage in the secondary, this helped destroy the play from the Chiefs’ perspective.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Wise Jr. was also able to hold his own against right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (#71). While Schwartz was not beaten like Fisher, the Patriots’ pass rusher successfully used his long arms to keep him at bay and move him back to collapse the pocket and get to Mahomes as he was trying to climb up through the A-gap.
Even though the play could have ended in a much more favorable way for the Patriots — Calhoun at the very least would have had the football — it was a strong one for their defense across the board: with the coverage unit and the pass rush working in perfect unison, New England was able to decisively win this down against arguably the most talented offense in all of football. This certainly was an encouraging sight to see, and a good building block for the rest of the season.