It’s Friday at Arrowhead Pride, so we’re leaving a good defensive performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the rear view so we can look ahead to this Sunday night’s matchup versus the *gulp* New England Patriots!
The Patriots offense is a well-oiled machine that now has all their weapons healthy — and back from suspension. Despite missing key players at skill positions, the Pats offense has managed to average 34.3 points per game at home, and 38 in each of their last two games.
So what do the Patriots do well, and what can the Chiefs do to stop them? Follow me down to The Laboratory and let’s take a deeper look at some of the X’s and O’s behind the New England Patriots.
The Patriots offense
Everybody and their dog knows who Tom Brady is, and while he’s not been particularly great going deep this season, he’s still a highly efficient quarterback that gets the ball out on time and accurately. He has thrown six interceptions this year, which is a bit uncharacteristic for Brady.
At running back, the Patriots pack a killer 1-2 punch. Fifth-year player James White is an excellent pass-catching back that is a matchup nightmare for most defenses — the Chiefs included. The Patriots also drafted a running back in the first round this season. Sony Michel has been integrated into the offense more and more, and is a big-play threat whenever he touches the ball.
Wide receiver is a major strength for this offense, too. New England got Julian Edelman back from a four-game suspension last week, and he returned to his role as Brady’s security blanket in the slot. They also scooped up Josh Gordon for a fifth round pick from the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago after Cleveland was reportedly going to release him. While he’s still getting the playbook down, Gordon has shown the ability to be a game-breaking receiver.
The Patriots also get to mix and match Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, and Chris Hogan into their three and four wide receiver sets. These three guys would be contributors for a lot of teams in the league.
While running back and wide receiver have some marquee names, the star weapon of the Patriots offense is tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is a great pass catcher, great in the open field, and really is the only player tight end in the league who is regularly mentioned in the same breath as our very own Travis Kelce. Backup tight end Dwayne Allen hasn’t been a factor in the passing game this year.
The Patriots let stalwart offensive lineman Nate Solder walk in free agency this offseason, and to take his place, acquired Trent Brown in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. He starts at left tackle, opposite eight-year veteran Marcus Cannon.
The interior offensive line is the same as it has been for the most of the last three years, with Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney at right and left guard, and David Andrews at center. The group as a whole does well — and when they’re coupled with Brady’s quick passing game — rank third in the league in pressure rate, according to Football Outsiders.
How to defend
New England likes to go empty, something the Chiefs are not good at defending. By spreading out the defense, the Patriots are able to run mirrored routes underneath and force hook defenders to commit, then throw to the open receiver for easy 8-9 yard gains. pic.twitter.com/K1fwm3Li1S— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 11, 2018
With all of the stellar weapons the Patriots possess, they like to force bad matchups by going empty and forcing a linebacker or a safety out of the middle of the field. These empty formations stretch the defense horizontally, and the Patriots offense likes to run mirrored routes with their number three receiver out of the passing strong side, and the number two on the weak side.
Above, the Patriots motion White out of the backfield, and the Indianapolis Colts motion one of their three safeties out to cover him at the bottom of the screen. The strong side number one (White) runs a 9 route while the strong side number two Gronkowski) runs a post route. The weak side number one runs a dig route, while the two underneath routes are mirrored curls from Edelman and Hogan.
The strong-side linebacker drops to carry Gronkowski to the safety, and Edelman’s curl is wide open. The Colts try to drop a defensive lineman into coverage, but the play succeeds because of the stressed linebackers.
This is a situation where the Chiefs can utilize some of their match coverages to simulate man coverages against those mirrored routes but still protect their linebackers in coverage.
Rather than a Nick Saban-esque Cover 3 match where the linebackers would be in man coverage against vertical stems, Bob Sutton could have his hook defenders in man coverage for every underneath route — crossers, curls, and slants. The strong corner can drop into the deep third and key off of the receivers — inside to out — while the defense implements a safety shading the number three and a cloud safety to the weak side of the formation.
While this likely means that crossing routes would force the Chiefs linebackers into a trail position against a quicker player, the three deep defenders — keying inside to out — would be able to identify these routes early and spin down in support for short gains.
With the Chiefs defense giving up over nine yards per play — and holding a 31% success rate against empty formations — holding the Patriots to four yards on a crossing route would be a major improvement.
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski loves to mix it up, and NE likes to get him involved with wham blocks to blow the play wide open. Gronk coming across the formation for the wham allows the RB to get straight to the second level while the OC combos and climbs, creating a giant hole. pic.twitter.com/prWHCKKlif— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 11, 2018
As my good friend and fellow Nerd Squad member Kent Swanson discussed on The AP Laboratory podcast two weeks ago, a well-timed wham block sets the tone for an offense, and is absolutely demoralizing for a defense. The Chiefs interior defensive linemen have been caught a couple of times this year — most notably against San Fransisco, when nose tackle Derrick Nnadi was blown out of the gap by a fullback.
The Patriots love to use these with Gronkowski. He’s an excellent blocker as it is, and a dense enough athlete to hold his own against most interior defensive linemen. By pulling Gronkowski across the formation to block a 1-tech in a nickel defense, the right guard and center are free to climb to the second level to swallow up the linebackers, creating a massive hole for the running back to hit all the way to the third level.
Wham blocks are difficult for defensive linemen to defend. While the Chiefs — with their 1-gapping scheme — are constantly trying to get penetration, when a defensive lineman is unblocked, it usually means something else is happening that needs to be diagnosed. It could be a screen, a pulling guard on a sweep or a wham block, so the unblocked defender has to keep his head on a swivel to diagnose the play.
If the running back appears to be attacking the nearby gap, the defender needs to find the wham block and purposefully engage it to clog the running lane. Most defensive linemen — especially nose tackles — aren’t quick enough to beat the block with speed. So getting appropriate leverage and driving the tight end back takes away the running lane and allows the lineman an opportunity to make a play himself — or give the rest of the defense a chance to beat a block and make a play.
James White catching the ball
NE RB James White is an absolutely terrible matchup for the KC ILB's. Here, the Patriots run two curls to the boundary, and one to the field with the slot WR running a clearout. This leaves White 1v1 with the weakest coverage linebacker, and he's into the flat for chunk yardage. pic.twitter.com/7u9fWbAh8x— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) October 11, 2018
I know it. You know it. Sutton knows it. James White is going to be force-fed into the Patriots passing offense this week.
New England targeted White fourteen times against the Colts defense. If I were a betting man, I’d guess that the Chiefs defense will see at least that many targets to White this week.
The Patriots do an excellent job at consistently getting White on their opposition’s weakest coverage linebacker. In this example, New England runs three curl routes and a clear-out post from the slot receiver, with White running a flat. If the Colts are in a Cover 2 zone, the post attacks the seam over the top of the underneath defenders. If they’re in a Cover 3 zone, the curl routes on the outside are open, with the corners bailing to the deep third. Finally, if it’s man coverage, White is one on one against a slower linebacker in the flat — with space to run because of the post route.
Since the Chiefs have struggled in coverage with their linebackers, it’s almost certain that Anthony Hitchens, Terrance Smith, or Reggie Ragland will be in major mismatches against White in the passing game.
Unless the Chiefs are planning to utilize a safety — which is unlikely given to the current depth at that position — or stick a player like Dorian O’Daniel on the field for his coverage abilities, we can expect Sutton will drop outside linebackers into coverage to rob flat routes, or be able to stop these receptions for minimal gain.
The bottom line
The Patriots are going to force the Chiefs defense into poor matchups, and they’re going to move the ball fairly effortlessly. For the yards matter crowd, this week’s game will almost certainly push their narrative further.
This is the best set of weapons that the Chiefs have seen thus far this season — and with the Los Angeles Chargers and the Pittsburgh Steelers among the teams the Chiefs have played, that’s saying something. Very few defenses match up well with the skill players the Patriots have, and no quarterback on the Chiefs schedule this season will rival the schematic advantage that Brady gives New England.
The Patriots are going to get the ball out quick, nullifying a Chiefs pass rush that has found some rhythm over the past two weeks. The interior rush will still be able to disrupt Brady, but as we’ve seen in previous matchups between these two teams, the Chiefs edge rushers will practically have to teleport into the backfield to get pressure.
Expect a healthy dose of linebackers in coverage this week, with some hesitant or delayed rushes to make sure the defense keeps White in check underneath. If Kansas City can match to minimize damage out of the Patriots empty formations — and actually get to third down a little more often this week — we might see some more drives stall out.
I’d expect the Chiefs offense to hang points on the Patriots defense this week, so getting a stalled drive or two early — maybe even tightening up and forcing red zone field goals — is a big win for the defense. Forcing the Patriots to play from behind will force longer developing routes — and the elimination of the running game — allowing the pass rush to bear down and kill off a good offense.