It’s the AFC Championship game. It’s being played in at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. It’s the Goliath of the NFL for the past two decades coming into the Home of the CHEEEEIFS with a trip to Atlanta — the Super Bowl — on the line.
When these two teams played in Week 6, the Chiefs offense didn’t have a difficult time moving the ball against the Patriots. Even though the Chiefs offense started slowly, it was more about Patrick Mahomes missing a couple of throws — throws he normally hits — rather than a Patriots defense locking down the Chiefs.
As the game progressed — and Mahomes settled in — the Chiefs offense looked as unstoppable against the Patriots as it has against any other team. The Patriots were able to find success with situational football and a few unique looks, but the game was still an offensive showdown.
Let’s get on down to The AP Laboratory and break down how the Chiefs can repeat that success — and improve upon it.
New England Patriots defense
Personnel and scheme
The full advanced scouting report on the Patriots from the first matchup has a deeper breakdown of the Patriots’ personnel usage and scheme.
But there have been a few big changes since then.
As a whole, the Patriots secondary has been playing much better since Week 6. Stephon Gilmore is playing as well as he ever has, J.C. Jackson has emerged as a solid young cornerback, and Jason McCourty has been playing better down the stretch. Having three cornerbacks with different skill sets has allowed the Patriots to match up man to man against nearly every team — and that’s what the Chiefs should expect to see in this game.
Chiefs' WRs are going to be presented with plenty of 1 on 1 opportunities with DBs playing man coverage. More than Kelce and Hill will have to win these matchups as NE will focus on taking them away. This is just "my guys can lock you up" defense here and exactly that happens pic.twitter.com/wZiTeugm25— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 17, 2019
Identify the help coverage
The Patriots’ preferred man coverage is Cover 1, which usually has two free defenders playing in a deep zone and an underneath zone in the middle of the field. Where the Patriots differ than most teams is how they treat those two free defenders in their assignments. They will gladly bracket (or shade) one or both of these free defenders towards the opposing teams’ top target(s).
The Patriots run more man coverage than any other team in the NFL, and often do so with a single high Safety (Cover 1). Where they get unique is in how they use their "free" defenders (2or3). Rather than playing MOF-spot zones, they'll often slide to bracket or read thru the slot pic.twitter.com/GDqesKFWbb— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 16, 2019
This allows the Patriots to play a more stingy coverage and also limit the big play potential from the opposing team’s top targets.
An inside bracket to a wide receiver to either side of the formation moves both free defenders away from the normal location of these two players in Cover 1. The Chiefs can’t expect there to be a single high safety playing in the middle of the field, or a single underneath curl defender playing in the middle of the field. These guys will be moving all over the place.
A good way to attack NE's man heavy approach is with deep crossing, over, and post/corners. With how they use their free defenders to bracket specific players rather than staying 'home" as a priority, guys will come open.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 17, 2019
KC had a fair amount success on deep over routes 1st time pic.twitter.com/twtQA9Y7Bu
Here we see a similar concept. Both the underneath defender and deep free defender are looking to bracket Keenan Allen — the near wide receiver. The far wide receiver runs a matching crossing route — but without either defender playing in the traditional spot zone. So there is no help for the corner as the receivers cross the field.
Man-beating route concepts
Something that was extremely noticeable from the game between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Patriots was a lack of route concepts designed to take advantage of the Patriots’ man coverage. There were a lot of vertical shots, but not nearly the amount of horizontal route concepts you would expect against a heavy man-to-man team — and almost no mesh concepts, or shallow to intermediate crossing concepts.
Downside to the "psycho", amoeba front is it puts guys out of position and adds a ton of traffic. Reid won't go full LAC and throw nonstop verticals against the man, they will run mesh and pick routes all day (again). NE likely adjusts to bump the shallow cross, but Hill 1on1 pic.twitter.com/RIV1ceD6dx— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 17, 2019
In Week 6, the Chiefs found success with running various mesh concepts with both Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins. This pulled multiple defenders into the middle of the field and forced them to work around one another. The Chiefs can make high-low reads out of these crossing concepts — or do what they did on this play: specifically design a play for one player to come open. Notice how Kelce slows down and just kind of drifts into the cornerback’s path, rather than running an actual route?
After they look at the film, the Patriots will likely try to chip some of these shallow crossing routes — but when a team shows this kind of front with all the players standing near the box, there is an opening downfield. If the Patriots want to dedicate a player to hitting a shallow crosser, that will leave someone else in one-on-one coverage downfield.
An answer to the Cover 0 blitz
The area where the Patriots defense gave the Chiefs offense the most difficulty in Week 6 was when they rotated down into a Cover 0 look and blitzed out of it. The Patriots would stack the interior of the offensive line with linebackers and defensive backs, and push their defensive ends out very wide. The confusion caused by all these standing players — not knowing who was blitzing and who was dropping — created problems for Mahomes and the pass-protection calls.
Patriots have unique blitz packages w/ complicated parts— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 17, 2019
-Showing 6 rushers
-Read the protection slide
-2+ players pressuring same OLineman's gap
-If covered by an OL's slide, pop out into shallow zone
Ensures rushers aren't just running into a block + puts numbers in "hot" area pic.twitter.com/wKwlzcQP3r
What makes it so special for the Patriots is how they deploy their blitzing players. Rather than assigning guys a gap to blitz in — or simply tagging them as a rusher — they turn it into a read-and-react type of play.
Here, there are six defenders pressuring six potential gaps with only five blockers to handle them. The basic rule for an offense is to slide the protection and allow the quarterback to beat one free rusher.
The problem comes when the Patriots second-level players all begin to rush, then pop out into shallow zones. There is still a free rusher putting the pressure on Mahomes, but now they are only bringing three guys after the quarterback. The three other players showing — and even beginning — their blitz are dropping back into what would normally be the hot zone against this kind of blitz.
Biggest O series of the game: 1) Misdirection screen that Devey couldn't get to the LB in time (0 yards). 2) Quick hitch to Watkins, 3 yards. 3) NE showing this 6 man pressure only to rush 4 after reading the OL protection again— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 17, 2019
Chiefs need answers vs this C-0 blitz package pic.twitter.com/BzHvQJzYdE
What the Patriots are doing here is having their blitzers read the pass-protection slide. If an offensive linemen flashes towards them — or opens their hips or chest to square up — they are stopping and popping back out into a shallow zone. It’s still resulting in a free rusher that the offense knows about, but the defenders dropping back are causing hesitation and confusion over when (and where) a receiver will be coming open.
Solutions: The first — and obvious — answer is to bring in an extra blocker such as a tight end or running back. When the Chiefs used a running back to help with this protection, the Patriots had the defender dedicated to the running back blitz. This presented the same dilemma because the first defender through could occupy the running back, which still provides a free path to the quarterback.
The second option is using a tight end as an extra blocker. The Chiefs didn’t face this Cover 0 look and counter it with a tight end staying in to block. The Patriots would likely use the same general rules against a tight end as they would against a running back in pass protection. However, it’s easier for a tight end to chip or block — and then slip out into a flat — than it is for a running back.
Rather than adding more players to the protection — and therefore the pass rush — the Chiefs should aim to fix the protection call itself, rather than just adding more bodies.
The top diagram is a combination pass set, something widely used in Air Raid offenses.
The play side is to the left, and both play side offensive linemen are blocking the man in front of them. If the second rusher from the outside is backing out, initially the guard is still dropping vertically and should be in position to help with the A-gap to his side.
The back side linemen are all setting vertically. Rather than looking to engage rushers near the line of scrimmage, they are dropping about three yards almost straight back, playing patiently and forcing the New England rushers to commit one way or another. If all six players end up rushing, the free rusher is still the outside-most player off the back side, Mahomes just has to know that’s where the free rusher will be — and with the depth of the vertical set by the offensive line, this should buy an extra tenth of a second to get the ball out.
The bottom diagram is simply moving the pocket on a sprint-out concept. Normally, limiting the field to only one side isn’t the best move, but when a team is playing Cover-0 it’s completely man-on-man with no help anywhere.
For this to work, there has to be belief in your players to win. Buying Mahomes a few extra seconds by moving the pocket and leaving the free rushers to run across the entire field should accomplish that. The trick is having the offensive tackle either block down or step up aggressively. giving the offensive guard enough space to quickly get outside and handle the edge rusher. The easiest way to ensure that is have the slot wide receiver chip the defensive end.
Beyond adjusting the pass-protection scheme, the Chiefs could also simply throw quick screens and bubbles outside the numbers. As all the interior players are occupied reading the pass protection, there will be no immediate pursuit, and the Chiefs would be a single missed tackle (or bad angle) away from a huge play.
If the pass protection isn’t being adjusted, the quick passing game is the answer. But as we have seen, if the Chiefs opt to adjust their pass protection to buy them just another half a second, there will be guys uncovering deep — as seen in the above plays.
A brief nod to the run game
I don’t mean to stiff the run game in back-to-back weeks, but in the modern NFL, the most creative and important matchups appear in the passing game — especially for the Chiefs. That being said, there is one brief detail that could benefit the Chiefs based on the Patriots’ tendencies to beat up and chip Travis Kelce.
The Pats used their EDGE players to chip Travis Kelce off of the LoS often in the first matchup but that leaves favorable numbers for the O on run plays. Especially with even the possibility of a RPO, chipping Kelce + a player on him in man takes 2 players out of the pursuit pic.twitter.com/APT0PRhY0k— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 18, 2019
As Kelce motions across, the defensive end shifts out over him to chip him on his release. The safety tasked with covering Kelce also has to respect him just in case this isn’t a pure run, but rather an RPO. Two defenders are taken completely out of this run, and they don’t have to be sealed or blocked off from the play. This gives the Chiefs plus numbers in the run game. If it wasn’t for a missed chop by Mitch Morse — and Eric Fisher waiting to seal a slow-pursuing player rather than attacking a safety — this could have been an even bigger gain.
The bottom line
The Chiefs offense and Patriots defense both did things to stress each other throughout the Week 6 game. In multiple instances, both teams were merely inches away from having even more success than they did.
Week 6 was a rare matchup in which two teams schemed up — and successfully executed — much of their game plan at a high level. The rematch should be more of the same.
Whichever team makes the small adjustments to counter the incoming adjustments by their opponent will be the team that moves on to Atlanta.