The Kansas City Chiefs defense is coming off back-to-back quality performances, but on Sunday, it faces another test against perennial Super Bowl-contenders: the New England Patriots.
While the Patriots haven’t moved the ball particularly well on offense this year, they are still a threat through several bad matchups for the Chiefs defense.
As we do every week, we’ll take a look at the Patriots personnel and a concept they might use. We’ll then break down what the Chiefs defense can do to slow down the New England offense.
Tom Brady is in his 20th year in the league — and he’s had some up-and-down performances this season. He is lacking some of his vertical ability but still has enough zip on the ball to fit it into tight windows. He’s had to hold on to the ball longer because his receivers have struggled to gain separation. As a result, Brady has already taken as many sacks this year than he did in all of 2018.
The two-headed monster of Sony Michel and James White will line up at running back for the Patriots. Michel is definitely a “run-first” option out of the backfield, carrying the ball 184 times at 3.5 yards per carry — compared to just 9 receptions for 74 yards. White is their pass-catching back, totaling 57 receptions for 512 yards. He’s only run the ball 53 times, with a season-high 14 attempts in Week 13 against the Houston Texans. Rex Burkhead will do both for the Patriots — although in a limited capacity. This running back group especially misses all-world fullback James Develin, who is out for the year with a neck injury.
The Patriots’ wide receiver group is led by Julian Edelman. Now in his 11th year, he already has 915 yards on 82 catches. He’s the only member of this group that seems to get consistent separation. Mohamed Sanu was acquired from the Atlanta Falcons in October and has totaled 17 catches for 122 yards over four games. Phillip Dorsett is the closest thing the Patriots have to a deep threat, but he hasn’t been trusted to produce; he’s averaging less than 35 yards per game. First-round rookie N’Keal Harry recently returned from injured reserve. He shares time with undrafted rookie free agent Jakobi Meyers. Neither player is especially strong at creating space, but have shown glimpses of attacking the ball at the catch point.
The Patriots don’t have a strong tight end who can contribute to the passing game. 16-year veteran Ben Watson leads with 147 yards on 12 receptions. Matt LaCosse only has seven receptions for 87 yards but plays a bigger role as a blocker; he often lines up in the backfield in place of Develin.
The Patriots offensive line has looked significantly better after the return of left tackle Isaiah Wynn two weeks ago. He’s helped steady Brady’s blind side and has blocked well in the run game. Marcus Cannon lines up at right tackle and continues to produce at a very high level in his ninth year. Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason man the guard spots. Both are athletic players who can get out in space for screen passes and power runs. The major news is that starting center Ted Karras — who injured his knee against the Texans — is likely to miss game. Starting in his place will be James Ferentz — a player with whom Chris Jones might be familiar from Ferentz’s time in Denver.
The offensive concept: tight end Wham with fold concepts
NE still loves to use wham blocks, even without Gronkowski.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 5, 2019
13p, LT and OC fire up to the second level. Both guards complete the fold block, and the 3-technique is unblocked. TE seals with a wham block, and Michel wrong-foots the MIKE in the hole. Big yardage. pic.twitter.com/Noi4gDS36P
With Rob Gronkowski at their disposal, the Patriots used wham blocks at a very high rate. Even after Gronkowski’s retirement, this has continued.
Despite a down year running the ball, New England’s athletic offensive line can open holes through movement. They gamble through wham blocks and fold blocking concepts — which fire an uncovered blocker up to the second level while looping another blocker over him to cover quick penetration.
In the play shown here, the fold blocks result in two covered blockers looping to the back side, leaving a defender free to get upfield. New England covers this with a front side fold block — pulling to the 1-technique — and a wham block from the tight end.
It’s a risky concept, but one that can catch the opposition off-guard — particularly if they are 2-gapping. This play puts Michel into the gap untouched. Then a small hesitation forces the MIKE linebacker to freeze. Michel is then free into the third level, having to make only a minimal adjustment.
New England does give up plenty of negative plays with these blocking assignments. Athletic defensive lines can get into the backfield quickly and force the fold/wham blocks to initiate earlier, clogging the backfield with bodies. Linebackers can also wreak havoc on these assignments by getting downhill — slipping the block or clogging a gap. So against the Patriots’ blocking schemes, it will be all about getting downhill early — something the Chiefs haven’t done well throughout this season.
The bottom line
The New England Patriots aren’t an offensive juggernaut. They average 3.5 yards per carry on the ground. Their passing game largely consists of White in the flat and Edelman in the middle of the field. Lacking a vertical threat, Brady has struggled to get the ball down the field consistently.
Yet the Patriots typically execute well enough for those limitations not to matter. White is a horrible matchup for the Chiefs’ linebackers — and some safeties — and should see plenty of targets out of the backfield and split wide in empty formations. The Patriots also do an excellent job scheming Edelman into free releases, where he can run pivot and drag routes to beat coverages.
Up front, the Chiefs will absolutely have their work cut out for them. Karras’ injury plays into Kansas City’s strengths, but they’ll need to perform significantly better with their four-man rush than they did against Oakland last Sunday. Flooding the shallow routes and defending horizontally will force Brady to hold on to the ball longer, giving the Chiefs more time to rattle him early.
Most of all, this Chiefs defense cannot allow the same frequency of explosive plays we’ve seen in recent weeks. New England’s offense may be on the shallower end, but it’s still very capable of creating extra yards after the catch, turning short gains into game-breaking plays. It’s true every week, but this matchup in particular will require the Chiefs to be assignment-sound — and make tackles when they have the opportunity.