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How the Chiefs defense beats the Patriots offense for the AFC Championship

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Come down to the Lab to find out how the Chiefs defense can stop the Patriots offense and punch a ticket for Atlanta.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs are on the doorstep of an AFC Championship, and they are there — in no small part — due to the efforts of their defense.

Just like we all predicted... right?

The Chiefs face the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game this Sunday night to see who gets to go on to Atlanta. This is what it’s all about. While much has been made of Bill Belichick plotting to stop Patrick Mahomes, the newly revamped Chiefs defense will see a stern test from Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.

Since I previewed and recapped the original matchup in Week 6, I won’t do my normal personnel breakdown. Instead I will focus on the changes both teams have made since then. I’ll look at some more of the Patriots’ tendencies, and we’ll see some of the ways the Chiefs can defend an offense that hung 43 points on them in their first matchup.

The personnel

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots offense are largely the same as the Week 6 matchup — with two exceptions:

Running back Rex Burkhead is healthy and will be the third back in the Patriots backfield. He’s not quite the pass catcher that James White is, and he’s not quite the runner that Sony Michel is, but his versatility can be used to exploit matchups this week.

New England did lose one key component from the first matchup: wide receiver Josh Gordon. He saw a team-high nine targets in Week 6, hauling in five of them for 42 yards. Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Phillip Dorsett will try to make up those targets in the passing game.

On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs defense has undergone a number of changes since the Patriots saw them last. Justin Houston will be on the field in place of Breeland Speaks, who played 97% of the snaps and was targeted regularly by the Patriots offense the last time around. Both Ron Parker and Josh Shaw played significant snaps at safety for the Chiefs, and both are now gone. Daniel Sorensen and Eric Berry look to be joining Jordan Lucas on the field this time around.

Orlando Scandrick has been replaced by Charvarius Ward — a player who has been targeted more than any other cornerback since his entry into the starting lineup three weeks ago. Finally, players like Terrance Smith, Jarvis Jenkins, and Frank Zombo all got multiple snaps against the Patriots, and none have seen snaps in recent weeks due to injuries, depth, or simply not being off the roster.

How to defend

21 personnel

New England will mix some things up, but one of the tells of this offense is the propensity to run when Michel and James Develin are on the field together in 21 personnel. According to Next Gen Stats, this season the Patriots ran the ball on 75.6 percent of Michel’s snaps, and 70.1 percent of Develin’s. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Patriots ran the ball on 90 percent of the snaps when the two were on the field together.

Quite simply, when the Chiefs see this 21 personnel package, they should be expecting the Patriots to run.

With that in mind, the level of hesitance we see in this play shouldn’t happen this week. After identifying the handoff, Reggie Ragland takes an extra lateral step directly into the climbing offensive lineman — despite the gap is open for him to attack.

With the Chiefs inside linebackers have played downhill much more often in recent games, there will be openings for Ragland and Anthony Hitchens to step up into pursuit this week.

The Patriots like to utilize wham blocks — using a tight end or a fullback to block down on an exposed defensive lineman — and both Rob Gronkowski and Develin get opportunities to use them often. It’s a way to let the offensive linemen around the defender to get to the second level quickly, and hope that the smaller blocker can surprise — and sometimes earhole — a bigger defensive lineman.

Derrick Nnadi has been a major contributor for the Chiefs — and has grown throughout the year — but early in the season, one of the spots where he struggled was recognizing these wham blocks; he was getting tagged in the games against the San Francisco 49ers and the Patriots.

Much like last week against the Indianpaolis Colts’ pulling blockers, Nnadi — and the rest of the Chiefs defensive line — needs to beat the blocker to the spot and wreck the blocking scheme. Getting to the back early (and often) with penetration can help eliminate these calls from the Patriots’ playbook.

But the Patriots don’t run only out of 21 personnel for — especially lately.

Here against the Chargers, New England lines up Burkhead and White in the backfield in a split-back formation. The weak side number one runs a fade, followed by a wheel route by the weak side number two. This clears the coverage defenders out of their zones, and White is open in the flat for an easy nine yards.

If the second-level defenders were in man coverage, a back side defender responsible for White would have to cross the entire field of play and sort through the trash to get to White. That’s a tough task. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has been liberal with his use of outside linebackers in coverage against Brady, and this is a prime example of a situation where dropping one can pay dividends.

On this particular play, kicking a coverage defender out against Burkhead on the wheel route — and putting a pass rusher in the flat — would make Brady have to pull this ball and try to hit the back side dig route. Forcing a longer-developing play would give the superior Chiefs pass rush time to get home.

Containing James White

White absolutely destroyed the Chargers zone defense in the divisional round game, and has beaten many a team by getting the best of inferior coverage linebackers with his superior route-running abilities. Sutton and the Chiefs coaching staff understood this in the first matchup, and treated him as a receiver.

By putting a safety on White, the Chiefs were able to help nullify some of the damage White has done to defenses throughout his career. Jordan Lucas and Daniel Sorensen were implemented in this fashion last week against Nyheim Hines and the Colts. It helps to keep a comfortable coverage defender on a strong, dynamic receiving option.

Keeping a safety spied on White would also allow the defensive front to ignore some of the flash motion that the Patriots like to implement.

In this play, a play-action dive and a fake end around are executed to freeze the defenders in the box. This allows the offensive line to pull blockers into space so they can get out in front of White for the screen pass.

By using a safety to spy on White, the Chargers had the ability to ignore the fakes and beat the blocks to the flat. Even though it was a nice play design, thanks to the focus on White, it resulted in a tackle for loss.

White doesn’t get a lot of carries, and while he will run between the tackles, the Patriots like to get the ball to him in space. Their preferred way do this is working out of condensed formations, which compacts the defense. Utilizing jet motion — which New England will use for a running play often enough to keep defenses honest — they are able to toss to the short side of the field with the defense moving away from the play.

Here we see that White’s speed allows him to beat the unblocked defenders left behind by pulling linemen, and let his blockers spring him for big yardage. The New York Jets play this pretty well, swapping coverage responsibilities so that the force defender can turn White back inside, but the late reaction by the linebackers and defensive linemen prevent them from attacking the run successfully.

Bracketing Julian Edelman

As Rob Gronkowski has become less dynamic, Julian Edelman has become the Patriots’ scariest receiving threat. Luckily for the Chiefs, the rest of the Patriots receiving corps shouldn’t strike fear into the hearts of defenses.

In their last meeting, the Chiefs focused on helping Shaw by having the deep safety sit over the top of Gronkowski’s routes on a number of snaps, attempting to deny him the ball. This left both Gordon and Edelman with one-on-one matchups that they could exploit. With Gordon’s absence and Gronkowski’s decline, the Chiefs can shift the scheme to bracket Edelman so they can help Ward, Steven Nelson, and Kendall Fuller.

This would leave Gronkowski, Hogan, Patterson, and Dorsett as the benefactors of single coverage against the Chiefs secondary — a matchup with which Chiefs fans could feel a little more comfortable.

In conclusion

The New England Patriots have a very good offense. Their approach in 21 personnel — against which the Chiefs defense is at its worst, with a just 38 percent success rate — can pound the rock and move the chains. Receivers like White, Edelman — even an older Gronkowski — can take full advantage of a defense caught by play-action to get chunk plays. And despite what Brady says, the offense decidedly doesn’t suck.

But the Patriots offense is not invincible.

Brady hates being hit. That’s why he gets the ball out even faster than Andrew Luck. He throws short and lets players work in space against bad matchups. It’s a great plan, but it’s one that the Chiefs have seen — and rendered ineffective — in the last two games.

The Patriots offensive line is another good one, but we’ve seen this pass rush — and their newfound rush plan — be able to get the best of good offensive lines in Arrowhead. Dee Ford, Houston, and Chris Jones have been monsters to close out the year, and we shouldn’t expect any less this week.

With a good game plan — and by pulling all the tricks out of their sleeves — the Patriots are going to score points this week. But with the defensive additions, a revitalized schematic approach — and the Arrowhead crowd behind the Chiefs defense — it’ll be very difficult for the Patriots to score 40+ points again.

Something tells me that this week, they’re going to need that many.