FOXBORO -- The Patriots defense did something back in Week 6 that no other NFL team was able to do in 2018: They kept the Chiefs out of the end zone in the first half.
Kansas City was the top-scoring team in the league this year (35.3 points per game) due to a variety of factors. They have a coach in Andy Reid whose West Coast system perfectly suits his explosive offensive weapons. They have a quarterback in Patrick Mahomes who will likely be named MVP. And as a team, they have a propensity to start faster than anyone.
Their first-quarter point differential of plus-91 led the league and helped the Chiefs build up piles and piles of points throughout games. Play with the lead -- as we saw with the Patriots in the Divisional Round -- and you become more unpredictable and harder to defend.
"There is, I think, historically, no better fast-starting team than the Chiefs," Bill Belichick said this week. "Coach Reid’s always done a great job of that and they’ve outscored their opponents by I think it’s about 100 points or so this year. That’s a big advantage to play the last three quarters with."
That's what makes what the Patriots did back in October so impressive. For 30 minutes, they kept Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt and Travis Kelce from crossing the goal line. They took a 24-9 lead into halftime. It would be the last time the Chiefs would be kept out of the end zone in a half all season. (The Niners held Kansas City without a touchdown in the second half in Week 3.)
"I mean, we played the first half literally the exact way we wanted to," Dont'a Hightower said earlier this week. "We were able to mix things up, keep those guys guessing and keep them on their toes, not letting those guys make big plays.
"With an offense like that, you give Any Reid any kind of time and he’s able to draw up a couple things, and that’s something that we learned in the second half was that we’ve got to play a full 60. He was able to draw up a couple plays and make a couple big plays and score at the end."
The Patriots won that day, 43-40 in a game that won't get remembered as one of the team's best performances of the season. But it might not have been as bad as the score indicated. Belichick pointed out in the days following the game that, "We had three bad plays that cost us 21 points. Two on defense, one in the kicking game. I mean there were plenty of other plays, too. But you throw 21 points up there on three plays; it's hard to have a good day when you do that."
So what exactly did the Patriots do in the first half that slowed down Mahomes and this high-flying Chiefs offense? What might they be able to do at Arrowhead Stadium in order to put together that 60-minute game Hightower referenced?
Let's take a look . . .
There's no defense that Brian Flores can call Sunday that will assuredly stop Kansas City. But it does seem like, as far as the Patriots are concerned, there are some that may fare better than others.
Mahomes is Pro Football Focus' highest-graded quarterback against zone coverages this year, but he's also shredded teams that love to play man-to-man. According to Sports Info Solutions, against five defenses that were in the NFL's top-12 in terms of man-to-man usage, Mahomes averaged 328.6 yards per game, 3.8 touchdowns and 0.8 picks per game.
One of those defenses was the Patriots, which the Chiefs passing game lit up for 352 yards, four scores and two picks. But there's good news here for the Patriots: When Mahomes went wild in the second half in Week 6, he was -- for the most part -- working against zone.
Teams may hesitate to play man against the Chiefs because Mahomes is athletic enough to scramble for yards with defensive backs not looking into the backfield, and because his weapons (Hill and Kelce, in particular) are among the league's toughest covers at their positions.
But the Patriots play more man-to-man than any team in football, and they had success in man against the Chiefs.
More good work from the Patriots defense in the first half against the Chiefs...
Cover 1. Mahomes thinks he has Kelce open with McCourty in coverage. Big-time individual effort by Hightower to drop after seeing play-action. Interception sets up a Michel score. (Flowers...yikes.) pic.twitter.com/kZjGhqrVfx— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 16, 2019
Mahomes went 6-for-13 for 49 yards and two picks for a quarterback rating of 16.6 against man-to-man in the first half against the Patriots. In the second half, Mahomes threw two short touchdowns -- both to Hill -- against man but still didn't set the Patriots defense ablaze in man-to-man situations. For the game, he went 11-for-22 for 91 yards, two touchdowns and two picks against Patriots man-to-man looks. That's good for a quarterback rating of 53.4.
Think Belichick would take that?
Mahomes torched the Patriots for long touchdowns to Hunt (67 yards on a scramble drill play against Cover 2) and Hill (75 yards against Cover 3) that came against zone looks.
Another reason the Patriots may want to use more man-to-man? JC Jackson is now part of the equation. A healthy scratch in Week 6, the undrafted rookie has established himself as a starter since Week 13 and the Patriots defense has soared with him as a more significant part of its weekly plans.
Since the Patriots came back from their bye in Week 12, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, no team has forced more tight-window throws (23.3 percent), no team has generated more pressure thanks in part to Patriots coverage in the secondary (32.3 percent pressure rate), and New England is second in completion percentage allowed (59.2 percent).
"He's definitely made us better," Duron Harmon said. "He's made us better. Just look. I don't want to be a stat guy but look at how we've fared over the past since he's been in there. He's done a tremendous job. Putting Steph [Gilmore] on one guy, you know that's locked down. Then this guy who has phenomenal man-to-man skills too. It just makes us more aggressive as a defense and lets the safeties be a little bit more free and play strictly off the quarterback."
The Patriots have difficult matchups to choose if they want to utilize more man-to-man -- who gets Hill and who gets Sammy Watkins? -- but they're better equipped to match up across the board with another corner who has had a well above-average rookie season. (Among corners with at least 25 percent playing time, Jackson leads the league in rating when targeted at 42.0.)
DISGUISE, JAM AND GO
It's not all about the coverage, of course. How many times have you had to hear Belichick use the phrase "complementary football" over the years to know that the pass-rush will be critical on Sunday?
Part of the reason the Patriots have allowed over 20 points just twice since their bye week (Week 14 in Miami, Divisional Round against Los Angeles) is because they've generated pressure by baffling opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines.
Even in one of those 20-point games, last weekend against the Chargers, the Patriots had one of their best pass-rushing games of the season. Los Angeles linemen didn't know who was rushing or who was dropping into coverage. Even on relatively simple twists and stunts, the Patriots beat them soundly. As a result, Philip Rivers was under pressure on over 70 percent of his dropbacks through two quarters and his team went into the locker room for halftime with little prayer of a comeback.
The disguises up front that the Patriots have shown of late drew significant praise (in this space, included) following their Week 13 win over the Vikings. That felt like the re-birth of the "amoeba" fronts that Belichick had deployed in earlier iterations of the Patriots dynasty. But all you have to do is go back to Week 6 to see the Patriots using similar concepts to get after Mahomes and his offensive line.
Made a big deal out of Patriots “amoeba” fronts against Minnesota (https://t.co/jDOl1YR52P). But they showed something similar in Week 6.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 16, 2019
Cover 0. No safety. Man-to-man. What looks like a six-man rush is really a three-man rush. Flowers, Clayborn pressure. Ball out. Short gain. pic.twitter.com/MByVn25Bxv
More “amoeba” here on third down. Cover 0. Man-to-man. Trying to confuse Mahomes and his protection.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 16, 2019
Patriots initially rush seven, then drop three (Hightower, Van Noy, Butler). Kelce has a couple steps on Chung, but Clayborn and Harmon are in the backfield to force a bad throw. pic.twitter.com/QXyA5JVv4W
The Patriots blitzed Mahomes 10 times on 37 dropbacks that night, and he completed 5 of his 10 attempts on those plays for 39 yards and two touchdowns, according to PFF. Some good. Some not so good.
For Patriots blitzes (or twists and stunts) to work this weekend, though, they'll need some time to get to Mahomes. Part of what will go into providing the front that kind of time will be disrupting the timing of the quarterback's go-to pass-catchers.
Kelce, a First Team All-Pro, clearly fits that bill. And the Patriots know it. Look at how they treated him in Week 6.
Next play, more attention paid to Kelce. It’s third and three. Patriots back in man-to-man. They’re doubling Kelce off the line (top of the screen) with Hightower and McCourty. pic.twitter.com/Jwbj2NqHgD— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 16, 2019
Another impressive play by Hightower to end the half. Jams Kelce at the line. Catches Mahomes from behind. Forces an ill-advised throw. Pick.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 17, 2019
Look at the attention paid to Kelce. Jammed then bracketed. Clear by how they treated him, they respect the hell out of his ability. pic.twitter.com/aYEF7BeBLc
This happened snap after snap after snap. Kelce constantly had someone trying to shove him off his route as he burst off the line.
If the Patriots commit to roughing up Kelce the way they did in this matchup's first go-round, they can have the player who jams Kelce at the line then serve as a spy of sorts. For players like Hightower, Kyle Van Noy or even Trey Flowers, they may not be part of the initial rush if they're focused on getting hands on Kelce. But if they can mirror Mahomes behind the line after jamming the tight end, it may make Mahomes more reticent to scramble.
Or, even better for the Patriots, jammers could come up with crucial delayed rushes -- like Hightower's on the ugly Mahomes interception at the end of the first half -- that turn into game-changing plays.
Whether or not there is a spy, it'll be key for the Patriots to employ a pass-rush plan that is essentially the polar opposite of what they did last weekend. As opposed to rushing Mahomes up the middle, the way they did against Rivers, Belichick will want his players "crush rushing." That means collapsing the pocket around Mahomes with bull rushes that limit the quarterback's scramble lanes.
"I think to keep him in the pocket [is important], but to also keep pressure on him, not letting him feel comfortable," Hightower said. "But, obviously, he’s an athletic quarterback. He can throw just as well outside the pocket as he can inside the pocket. I mean, on film, you see him not even looking where he’s throwing and he’s able to hit it, too. I mean, he’s a very accurate quarterback, so we want to keep him inside the pocket but keep pressure on him."
The Patriots forced Mahomes into one of several bad first-half decisions when they cut off any and all escape lanes down in the red zone in the second quarter, leading to a third-down Gilmore pass breakup.
Continuing to look at how the Patriots played the Chiefs in the first half...— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) January 17, 2019
Bunch at the top. Patriots handle it, which forces Mahomes to hold on and scramble. Watch the defensive line close off Mahomes running lanes. He’s eventually hit by Butler. Gilmore recovers. PBU. pic.twitter.com/4vuzViUggK
It's not going to be easy. Particularly with the Chiefs playing at home. But the Patriots defense showed enough in the first half of Week 6 to be encouraged going into the AFC Championship Game.
If they play lock-down man-to-man coverage, if they mix up their pass-rush looks, and if they generate pressure without allowing open running lanes, they could two more weeks of work ahead of them.
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