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How the Patriots changing quarterbacks will affect the Chiefs’ defense

With Cam Newton ruled out against the Chiefs, how much will change with Brian Hoyer at the helm?

New England Patriots Practice Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

With all the weekend’s uncertainty about when the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots game would be played, the news that the Patriots will be without their starting quarterback took a back seat.

Starting quarterback Cam Newton has been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list and will not play against the Chiefs in Monday night’s game. The Patriots will likely turn to journeyman quarterback Brian Hoyer to lead the team, which will create a distinct change in the offense.

But just how much different will the offense be? Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between Hoyer and Newton — and some spots where Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs defense could find success.

Similarities

Tom Brady’s Patriots teams have been predicated on the run — and the quick passing game. Even with Newton starting, the Patriots have still had a lot of quick passing concepts baked in to their offense.

In the past, Hoyer’s best performances have come from rhythm passing — particularly in the quick passing game. So the Patriots will likely try to lean on their play-action passing game, slants and running backs in the flat. Hoyer is an accurate passer who would suit this approach, which would likely require minimal alterations from Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

In the past, New England has also placed a lot of trust in their receivers — and Newton at the helm did not drastically change this. With the threat of a running quarterback, teams have played more zone against the Patriots, opting to keep eyes in the backfield to corral a potential run.

If the Chiefs opt to play more zone, Hoyer fits in well with what the Patriots have traditionally done. He is a smart player with good zonal anticipation, placing the ball into open areas of the middle of the field before the receiver has come open. This requires reliable receivers whom Hoyer can trust — and the Patriots don’t have many. I would expect Hoyer to lean on Julian Edelman when he sees zone looks from the Chiefs defense.

Newton’s arm strength appears to have decreased a bit this year — and he has struggled to get the ball to the flat on time, resulting in some pass break-ups and interceptions. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Hoyer also struggles with his arm strength.

Too often, Hoyer will float the ball out to the sideline, allowing some easy pickings to defensive backs who are sitting hard in the flat. This season, Spagnuolo has mixed things up with some Cover 3 looks featuring a hard flat cornerback, rotating the two deep safeties over the top to protect against the vertical passing threat — which could result in a gimmie interception on Monday night.

While Newton hasn’t been afraid to throw it deep in these situations, Hoyer lacks the arm strength to test the Chiefs secondary. This could result in some more Cover 2 looks where the cornerbacks trap underneath and jump routes to the flat.

Differences

The biggest difference will be the lack of a credible running threat from the quarterback. Newton is a fantastic power-read runner, which forces defenses to dedicate a linebacker or defensive end to be the quarterback keeper. With Hoyer in the game, that running threat is almost non-existent.

This will make the most difference in the red zone and in short yardage situations — where Newton is at his most dangerous. The Patriots will have to rely on a more traditional rushing attack to move the ball, making the responsibilities in the Chiefs’ defensive front a little easier.

While Newton is more capable of holding on to the ball and finding the open man off-schedule, Hoyer wants to hit the top of his drop and get rid of the ball. His quick release allows him to do this even when there is pressure in his face, making it very difficult to sack him when he’s in a rhythm.

But Hoyer is also a much less-imposing presence than Newton — he’s a full 3 inches shorter — and tends to throw some of these quick passes with a low-slung, sidearm release. This could be fodder for the long-armed Chiefs defensive line; passes will be easier to bat down.

Should the Patriots attempt to establish Hoyer’s quick, rhythm passing game early on, Chiefs defenders won’t have many opportunities to pressure the quarterback and force mistakes. On early downs, Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Brendan Daly may instead place an increased focus on getting hands into the throwing lanes — rather than creating dedicated pressure.

Despite their lack of dangerous weapons, it has been difficult to play man coverage against the Patriots this season. The threat of Newton breaking contain, extending the play and finding the open man — or rushing for the first down — makes some defensive coordinators hesitant to opt for those coverages.

That should not be a problem with Hoyer at quarterback. Hoyer is not a quarterback known for throwing receivers open. Nor does he like to throw into contested coverages — even if his receiver is one-on-one with no safety help. This leads to an over-reliance on man-beating concepts — and also on his receivers to gain separation. Outside of Edelman, that’s something Patriots receivers struggle to do.

Despite the Chiefs secondary being without L’Jarius Sneed, I would still expect a healthy dose of man coverage on the back end — and plenty of blitzing up front. So far, Spagnuolo has brought a blitz at the league’s fifth-highest rate. I would expect that to continue against a quarterback who struggles mightily under a hint of pressure. When he senses a free blitzer, Hoyer often throws with poor footwork and mechanics — even if the blitzer isn’t an immediate threat.

The bottom line

Spagnuolo and his coaches got another day to re-tool the game plan to go against Hoyer. While I don’t think they would have needed that extra day to have an advantage, I think the extra preparation will prove significant.

I believe the Chiefs cornerbacks are capable of matching up with the Patriots receivers in man coverage. On its own, this should make Hoyer uncomfortable. Even more, his lack of a true vertical passing game — both from the weapons New England possesses and Hoyer’s inability to throw downfield — mean that the Chiefs should be able to keep an extra defender in (or near) the box. That should help defend what is likely to be run-heavy play-calling to begin the game.

The Patriots will surely have some tricks up their sleeve to try to steal some yardage and draw the game out as long as possible. But the Chiefs will no longer have to worry about the quarterback running the ball — and shouldn’t be as concerned about the deep passing game. If the defense can defend the run well enough early in the game — and not get fooled on screen and play-action passes — the change from Newton to Hoyer should make it difficult for the Patriots to play catch-up against the Chiefs defense.