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Chiefs vs. Patriots: Five questions with the enemy

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We welcome in Pat Pulpits for answers to five questions about the Patriots before Sunday’s Week 14 matchup.

New England v Houston Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Editor’s note: We welcome editor Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit — our sister site covering the New England Patriots— for Five Questions with the Enemy as we head into the Week 14 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Patriots this Sunday.


1) It’s happening again. There is buzz the sky is falling for the Patriots offense is bad and Tom Brady is done. True or untrue? Why?

Well, how about... both? Here’s the thing: the Patriots offense has been bad recently, there is no denying that. However, to think that Brady’s performance is the primary issue is not backed up when looking at the tape. Yes, his numbers are not up to his usual lofty standards, and at 42 years of age, the D-word (decline) is naturally coming to mind whenever he does not light up the scoreboard. But Brady is still showing the same skills he displayed in 2018, and 2017, and 2016, and… you get the point. He is making mostly good decisions with the football, still has considerable arm strength and accuracy, and remains one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL when it comes to moving around in the pocket (no, he’s not mobile in a Patrick Mahomes-ish way, but his ability to feel the pocket and maneuver around in it is still [Italian Chef’s kiss]).

So, what’s the problem? I would argue there are numerous factors at play here, all contributing to New England’s recent offensive struggles.

First, an offensive line that saw considerable turnover going back all the way to the offseason: left tackle Trent Brown was lost in free agency, center David Andrews placed on injured reserve after blood clots were discovered in his lungs. Andrews’ replacement, Ted Karras, suffered a minor MCL sprain last week and is expected to miss the game against the Chiefs, while Brown-successor Isaiah Wynn previously spent eight games on IR due to a turf toe injury. Right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon also missed time because of injuries this season. Luckily for the Patriots, Wynn is back in the lineup now and playing some strong football, but the line as a whole still needs to develop chemistry and get better at seeing the game through one set of eyes.

Speaking of which, Brady and the Patriots’ receivers — at least those not named Julian Edelman or James White — also have had a hard time getting on the same page as of late. Part of it is inexperience and/or a lack of reps: Mohamed Sanu was acquired via trade mid-season, N’Keal Harry (he also missed time on injured reserve, by the way) and Jakobi Meyers are rookies, and tight ends Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson also struggled to stay healthy this season. Meanwhile, other options such as Josh Gordon, Antonio Brown and Demaryius Thomas all came and went again. Add it all up, and you get a receiver group that has not had plenty of opportunities to get into a rhythm with Brady in one of the toughest offensive systems in the NFL. The quarterback himself, of course, has also made his fair share of questionable passes, but he remains near the bottom on the list of things to worry about.

Of course, there is still time for New England’s offense to figure things out — the Patriots did not really find their offensive identity last year until Week 16, for example. Until the results show it, however, the passing offense remains an area of concern.

2) From afar, it seems like the Patriots have deeply missed Gronk this year. How have they replaced that production en route to their 10-2 record (though 2-2 against teams with winning records)?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

I would say they haven’t replaced it, simply because of what Gronkowski brought to the table. Not only was he a big-play threat as a pass-catcher, he also was the best blocking tight end in all of football — something that helped the Patriots’ running game immensely down the stretch last year. This year, the team lacks such a dual-threat tight end as neither Matt LaCosse nor Benjamin Watson have developed into reliable or above-average contributors in the passing and running game. Just take a look at the target share of the tight end position: only 8.2% of the team’s pass attempts we thrown towards a member of the tight end group, the lowest number in all of football (the Chiefs, for example, sit at 26.1%).

That being said, the Patriots’ offense still ranks 10th in the NFL in scoring (not counting defensive or special teams scores) while averaging 23.2 points per game. How come, despite the struggles and inability to replace Gronkowski’s production? Part of it has to do with the defense and special teams units regularly, giving the team good field position (and contributing 44 total points to bring New England’s total scoring average per game up to 26.8; sixth in the league). However, the one player who I would argue took over most of Gronkowski’s role in terms of being a go-to-guy for Tom Brady also played a part: Julian Edelman.

The MVP of last year’s Super Bowl is in the middle of what could be the most productive season of his career as he is on pace to finish with 109 catches for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns. He is the main man in the Patriots’ offensive attack, especially as Brady and the rest of the receiving corps are still trying to get in sync: Brady targets him more often than any other pass catcher, as he rarely is in the wrong position on any given down.

3) If you were an offensive coordinator, how would you attack the Patriots defense?

Two teams have had notable success this season against the Patriots defense this season, and they did so in different ways: the Baltimore Ravens were able to exploit New England’s aggressiveness in the running game by patiently setting up blocks and getting to the perimeter versus run-blitz concepts; the Houston Texans found success targeting the underneath zones in coverage and trusting their extremely talented wide receivers — especially Kenny Stills — to win their one-on-ones. While the Ravens’ plan worked very well, I would go the Texans’ route to attack New England for two simple reasons:

  1. The Lamar Jackson factor: Jackson is a supremely talented player with the ball in his hands, and playing behind the NFL’s best offensive line. New England, therefore, tried to attack the Ravens differently by running plenty of run-blitzes to limit the team’s production up the middle. The problem was that Baltimore adjusted well and simply went to the edge where they found success and out-manned the Patriots. However, relying on a similar approach to win consistently against the Patriots with a more traditional quarterback (I understand that Mahomes is all but that, but he is still less of a threat running the football in Andy Reid’s system) is maybe not the way to go. Other teams tried that, and found some success, but were still forced into passing the football on a regular basis — playing into the strengths of New England’s defense.
  2. The strengths of the Patriots’ defense: New England’s secondary has played plenty of football together, features arguably the NFL’s best man-to-man cornerback (Stephon Gilmore), and is capable of making different coverage concepts and disguises look incredibly easy. In short, the unit is pretty good and targeting it a risky plan. I would try to move the football down the field with short passes while trying to create matchups against New England’s linebackers: Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr. form one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL, but they do have weaknesses when going up one-on-one against running backs or tight ends.

While it goes a bit against Kansas City’s roster construction, I would try to incorporate some two-back or two-tight end sets: the Patriots may opt to use Gilmore against Travis Kelce, and safety Patrick Chung versus the running back on the field, but I doubt they will employ another cornerback against an additional tight end or running back on the field. This leaves the linebackers up for coverage duty, and they are somewhat vulnerable. Does this mean the Chiefs should completely re-tool their offense this week? Of course, not, but they could still force the Patriots into favorable matchups from time to time by using this approach.

4) How concerned are you about the kicker situation, as the Patriots have gone through four this season?

Seriously, though, the kicker position has been a concern for the Patriots ever since Stephen Gostkowski was placed on injured reserve in early October due to a hip injury. Mike Nugent (inconsistency), Nick Folk (appendectomy) and Kai Forbath (inconsistency) were not the solution and all came and went again, so the team is currently without a placekicker on its roster. The spot will be filled again at one point, but whoever gets brought in will be a downgrade from Gostkowski. This, in turn, creates a problem from a decision-making perspective: what do you do if you face a 4th and 4, for example, and could go for a 46-yard field goal. With Gostkowski, the kick would have been the easy decision (depending on the score and quarter, of course), but with a less accurate kicker the team could opt to try its luck with a conversion. The problem is that the Patriots’ offense currently does not have the fire-power to be trusted to pick up four yards. So what do you do? Punt? Try the kick anyway? Try an offensive play and risk a turnover on downs? Having an uncertain kicker situation has a trickle-down-effect, and that is where it could hurt New England the most.

5) Who is an under-the-radar player on offense and defense that has made a major impact for the Patriots this year?

On offense, I would pick Joe Thuney. Despite being a four-year veteran and a day-one starter for the team that has won two Super Bowl rings since getting drafted in the third round in 2016, Thuney is flying under the radar a bit simply because of his position: he is the team’s starting left guard, and therefore doomed to anonymity to a certain degree. However, he is the team’s best and most consistent lineman this season and a big reason why the Patriots were able to survive somewhat without their original center (David Andrews) and starting left tackle (Isaiah Wynn) available. With Wynn now back, he and Thuney form a formidable duo on the left side of the line — especially when it comes to run blocking.

On defense, meanwhile, I would go with cornerback J.C. Jackson. A former undrafted free agent in his second year with the team, Jackson is essentially New England’s fourth cornerback but still seeing considerable playing time opposite Stephon Gilmore (especially the last two weeks, when he replaced an injured Jason McCourty on the perimeter). While Jackson can get a bit grabby — he has been flagged five times so far this year — he is a talented and physical press-man cornerback that the team trusted against Travis Kelce during last year’s AFC title game. This year, Jackson is arguably even better as a look at his numbers shows: he has allowed only 10 catches on 33 targets, for only 86 yards with two interceptions. His defensive passer rating of 14.6 is worse than what you get when you throw every pass incomplete (39.6).


Bonus: score prediction

I think the Patriots will use a similar approach as they did last year: shortening the game by trying to establish a presence on the ground. This plays into the team’s current offensive strengths and also would force Kansas City to possibly take a more aggressive approach through the air and targeting the secondary instead of the underneath zones. Of course, the Chiefs have the talent across the board to win their matchups, so they should still score their fair amount of points. Ultimately, however, I still think New England finds a way to pull this one out — simply because I have learned never to pick against Brady and Belichick. So I’m going with 28-24 Patriots, fully prepared to see the Chiefs score like 48 points or something. Because Mahomes.