Editor’s note: We welcome Managing 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 4 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Patriots on Monday night.
1) What’s your take on the change at quarterback in this game? And with Cam Newton, are the Patriots better at quarterback this year?
For the first time since the early stages of 2016 — when Brady was suspended, Jimmy Garoppolo was injured and Jacoby Brissett was starting games as a rookie — there are a lot more questions at quarterback than answers for the Patriots. Sure, we can say with relative confidence that Brian Hoyer will start in place of Cam Newton this week, but what he will look like is anyone’s guess. You have to be realistic, though: he will be an enormous downgrade from Newton (and, of course, Brady as well). While Hoyer has experience in the system, he is more one-dimensional as a passer and simply lacks the physical attributes and consistent decision making New England wants from its passers. He will have to manage — pardon my French — the hell out of Monday’s game in order for the Patriots to stand a chance, by a) keeping his mistakes to a minimum and b) taking what the defense gives him.
As for the big picture and Newton’s eventual return (if he remains asymptomatic, he might be back as early as Week 5), the question whether or not the Patriots are better at quarterback this year is tough to handle. I would argue that Newton is not better in a player-to-player comparison, but consider the circumstances: Brady’s supporting cast let him down last year in part due to injury, inexperience and whatever it was Antonio Brown was doing, leading to him also looking — switches to Larry David voice — pretty, pretty, pretty mortal. With Newton under center, though, the Patriots can play more to the strengths of their current personnel, which is best at running the football and winning the matchup game versus defenses through the scheme. So, I would definitely say that the offense’s ceiling is higher this year.
2) How can Mahomes have more success against the Patriots defense?
The Patriots will do what they always do: throw multiple looks at the Chiefs and try to get Mahomes off his game — something they accomplished with some success over the past three meetings, but obviously never for a full 60 minutes. On the other hand, for the Chiefs and their quarterback to find success over four quarters they will have to simply pick their matchups wisely and exploit New England’s defensive weaknesses. There are two, in my opinion, that jump off the page: stopping the early-down run and covering the underneath areas of the field.
With Danny Shelton having left in free agency — and his replacement, Beau Allen, still on injured reserve — the Patriots lack that big-bodied two-gapping nose tackle they usually use in order to control the point of attack and free their second-level defenders up to make plays in the running game. Attacking this weakness by running at the smaller players that will be in the lineup (Hi, Clyde Edwards-Helaire!) could be a recipe for success for Kansas City’s offense. Of course, keeping the ball out of Mahomes’ hands is probably what New England wants anyway, so the second weakness is more directly tied to the quarterback position.
The Patriots have lost three of four off-the-ball linebackers from last season — including Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins — leaving them thin at the position. While Ja’Whaun Bentley has proven himself serviceable as the top player at the position, he is a downgrade — especially when it comes to his feel for zone coverage and his athleticism. Putting pressure on him and the second linebacker, should the Patriots use one (and not turn to “star” safeties such as Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger or Terrence Brooks) could be a key to steadily moving the football down the field without testing New England’s opportunistic secondary.
3) Who are the under-the-radar players that Chiefs fans should know?
On offense, you should know about Michael Onwenu. A sixth-round rookie out of Michigan, the youngster started his pro career playing rotational right tackle and jumbo tight end. With David Andrews being moved to injured reserve and Joe Thuney filling his vacant center spot, Onwenu was inserted into the starting lineup at left guard. Despite his relative inexperience both at the NFL level and the position, he looked very good last week against the Raiders (then again, it’s the Raiders) but will face a different beast this week if asked to go against Chris Jones.
I’ll also mention Jakob Johnson here: the former International Pathway player has taken over as New England’s fullback this season, and will play a prominent role in the running game.
Defensively, there are a lot of familiar names in the secondary. The front-seven, however, looks quite a bit different. One player I will mention there is Chase Winovich: a third-round pick last year — also from Michigan, by the way — Winovich was primarily a pass rusher in 2019. This season, however, he is a do-it-all edge defender capable of making impact plays against the run and the pass. He will face a formidable challenge in possibly the best tackle duo in football this week, but he has proven himself over the first three games of the season.
4) Would a Patriots win put them up there with the Ravens and Chiefs as the AFC’s elite?
I have to be honest, I don’t really know what a Patriots win on Monday with Brian Hoyer at quarterback would really mean for the AFC’s elite. I will say this, though: if New England is able to come away victoriously for some reason — and most importantly not register a subsequent spike in COVID-19 cases — it would further serve as proof that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels can out-scheme anybody — even with one hand tied behind their back. I don’t think it will happen, however, given the quarterback situation and tough mental toll the weekend certainly took on the team.
5) How do you expect this game to play out?
The Patriots will try to play a familiar game on offense by running the football in an attempt to shorten the contest and control its rhythm. I’d be more confident in this plan if Cam Newton was under center, but with Brian Hoyer I honestly don’t know how successful it will be. The Chiefs will probably dare him to throw the football, and it remains to be seen if the scheme and game plan can support him enough to make some positive plays.
On the other side of the ball, I am not convinced the Patriots defense in its current form — without players such as Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Patrick Chung — will be able to slow down the Chiefs enough to stay in the game. On paper, they should match up well, but the unit as a whole has not yet shown the shutdown capabilities I would have hoped — and that would give me confidence against Kansas City.
All in all, I see a Chiefs win. It probably won’t be 41-14 — like the last time the two met on Monday night — but it wouldn’t surprise me if it won’t be particularly close (i.e. within one touchdown) either.