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How the Chiefs offense can beat the Patriots defense

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The Patriots have stifled the league with Cover 0 this season. How can the Chiefs attack it?

New England Patriots v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs travel to Foxborough to play the New England Patriots — a game that both teams are likely to have circled on their schedules back in April.

After two hard-fought losses to the Patriots last season, the Chiefs are looking to prove to themselves (and the world) that they aren’t just another team the Patriots’ buzz saw can slice through.

The biggest challenge will be handling the Patriots top-ranked defense — one that presented unique challenges to the Chiefs offense last season. That defense has only improved this year.

Let’s take a dive into the Patriots defensive personnel — and a schematic concept the Chiefs will have to overcome if they want to defeat the Patriots on Sunday.

Dallas Cowboys v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Personnel

Stephon Gilmore leads the Patriots secondary, which might be the best unit in football. He is the league’s best cornerback — and often shadows the opposing team’s top receiver. The Patriots aren’t likely to try that against Tyreek Hill’s elite speed, instead assigning Gilmore to either erase Sammy Watkins or use his size to slow down Travis Kelce.

Joining Gilmore will be Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson, both of whom are having strong years; one of them will likely participate in double-teams against Hill. Devin McCourty is the dominant free safety. He will likely see most of his snaps as the deep defender doubling Hill. Safeties Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung will play more man coverage.

The Patriots linebacker group is an interesting blend of players who offer a lot of varied skill sets. Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy all offer good pass-rushing skills on top of traditional linebacker responsibilities. But outside of Collins, they have a lack of speed; they are a relatively unathletic group. Even Collins has had coverage issues in recent years.

The Patriots defensive line isn’t where most of their talent lies, but they maximize their production through creative usage and alignments; the Patriots’ leaders in pressures, sacks, and tackles for loss are all linebackers — along with defensive linemen Adam Butler and Chase Winovich, who are both rotational players. John Simon, Danny Shelton and Lawrence Guy get the most reps on the defensive line. They are all stout against the run but offer little as pass rushers.

Attacking Cover 0

Cover 0 is a type of man coverage that has no extra defenders dedicated to help coverage — either high or low. Cover 0 is usually run behind a blitz in which six or more defenders are rushing the passer; every other player is in man coverage. In Cover 0, cornerbacks often press to slow down wide receivers’ releases, using the blitz pressure to force the quarterback into a quick decision.

Here is a traditional Cover 0 rep from the Patriots with six defenders rushing the quarterback while five defenders are in man coverage.

The Patriots use two interior rushers to occupy a blocker in that space — and also spy or contain-rush the quarterback. Facing a mobile quarterback like Deshaun Watson (or Patrick Mahomes), it’s imperative to keep them from breaking contain, which can extend plays against Cover 0. The Patriots are relying on the outside pressure either hit home or force the quarterback into the spy players.

Fortunately for the Houston Texans, the trips formation isn’t allowing the Patriots to get all three defenders on the line of scrimmage. When bunched up, it’s hard for the defenders to really disrupt every receiver unless the lead player is dominated right off the line.

The Texans run a couple of man-beating concepts against this coverage with a deep over — it’s nearly impossible to stick directly to a receiver on a good speed cut that goes across the field — and an underneath drag. Also available are a short option, an intermediate option and even a timing route — the out route at the bottom of the screen. It’s up to the quarterback to find the proper route before the free rusher gets home.

On this play against the Chiefs in January, the Patriots run a Cover 0 with a slightly different look. Here, just five defenders rush the passer while a safety double-teams Hill. There is still no deep (or shallow) help coverage.

We saw the Texans use the deep over against traditional Cover 0 — and the Chiefs found success with the same route against the Patriots in the AFC championship game. If the protection holds up to the extra rusher (and the Patritots’ stunts up front) the Chiefs should be able to stress the Patriots defense with their speed, along with man-beating concepts like these deep over and seam routes.

A big key for success on these intermediate and deep passes is the protection holding up long enough for the route to develop. Not only will the Patriots run a lot of delayed blitzes and stunts, they will often try to force a running back to stay in and pass protect by using a rusher to engage with him, thereby holding him in the backfield.

On both of these plays, you see a way to counter that: having the running back cross the formation to either block or block/release. This makes the extra defender honor the potential receiving threat — while also providing late help to the side most likely to see a stunt.

The Chiefs should use concepts that take advantage of the traffic in the middle of the field during man coverage.

The Chiefs should frequently use mesh and scissor concepts, switch releases and natural pick plays to help struggling wide receivers beat man coverage. This won’t be a game where Kansas City should rely on their physical talent gain advantage. Instead, they should rely on scheme to get players open — and then sprinkle in deep shots where their receivers’ athleticism can shine.

In that same vein, any time the Chiefs can force Patriots linebackers into man coverage and make them run vertically (or across the wide side of the field) should result in a big play. Collins has had coverage success in the past, but as he’s gotten older he isn’t the same coverage player he once was. Hightower and Van Noy have never been the best players in space. The Chiefs will challenge any of them in man coverage against any of their running backs or tight ends.

The bottom line

With the Patriots defense putting so much Cover 0 the tape this season, the Chiefs should be able to formulate a game plan to attack it. In the AFC championship game’s second half, the Chiefs began to pick it apart as the offense settled in. The Texans took advantage of it more than once in Week 13.

The biggest problem facing the Chiefs isn’t going to be trying to read all the pass rushers, getting production from their wide receivers against a very talented secondary or even picking up all the Patriots’ stunts and blitzes. These are all things the Chiefs have seen on film; they will have planned to counter all of it.

No... the biggest issue the Chiefs will face is dealing with whatever curve ball Bill Belichick and the Patriots have cooked up — something they haven’t yet shown on film. The Patriots will mostly stick to their identity, giving the Chiefs plenty of chances to attack their Cover 0 scheme. But the Chiefs will also have to survive whatever new concepts the Patriots bring to the table.