2018 NFL playoffs

Lessons from first meeting could help Patriots' defense slow down Chiefs in AFC Championship Game

Lessons from first meeting could help Patriots' defense slow down Chiefs in AFC Championship Game

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 . . . 

MORE MAN-TO-MAN

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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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Patriots or Chiefs: Digging into the matchups that will decide who moves on

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Patriots or Chiefs: Digging into the matchups that will decide who moves on

The Divisional Round matchup between the Patriots and Chargers was among the more fascinating schematic showdowns we'd been presented with all year. This week, there's just as much to dig into when looking at how the Patriots stack up with the Chiefs. And the expectation is that it will be a much better game than the ones these teams played last weekend to get to this point.

Grab a shovel and let's go . . . 

PATRIOTS MAN COVERAGE vs. MAHOMES

Trying to slow down the man who will likely be deemed the league's Most Valuable Player for 2018 is going to be difficult. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of the field conditions. He's been that good against...just about whatever has been thrown his way. Consider this: He's 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, he averaged 328.6 yards per game, 3.8 touchdowns and 0.8 picks per game. One of those defenses was the Patriots, who he lit up for 352, four scores and two picks. There's good news here for Patriots fans, though. First: They're the only team to keep the Chiefs offense out of the end zone in the first half this season. (Only one other team kept them out of the end zone for a half -- the Niners in the second half of Week 3.) How'd they do it? Man coverage. Teams 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 (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, in particular) are among the league's toughest covers at their positions. But the Patriots, who play more man than any team in football, still used it quite a bit in the first half of Week 6. How'd Mahomes fair? He went 6-for-13 for 49 yards and two picks for a quarterback rating of 16.6. 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. Plus, one could argue the Patriots have become a better man-to-man team since then with the emergence of JC Jackson, who went from a healthy scratch in Patriots-Chiefs I to one of their starting corners for Patriots-Chiefs II -- and an extremely productive one at that . . . 

GILMORE/JACKSON vs. HILL/WATKINS 

Hard to say that what Jackson has done at his position as an undrafted rookie is the best we've seen from an undrafted rookie in recent Patriots history. There's that Super Bowl-winning interception from four years ago, obviously. But Jackson has helped transform the Patriots defense over a lengthy stretch during his first season as a pro in a way Malcolm Butler never did. His first start came in Week 13 against the Vikings. 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 question is who does Jackson see on Sunday? He has three picks, he leads all NFL corners (minimum 25 percent playing time) in quarterback rating against (42.0), and he's been especially productive against the deep ball. Devin McCourty has called him the best tracker of the football he's seen in his time in New England. He's part of the reason the Patriots allowed the second-lowest percentage of deep passes to be completed this year (26 percent), and he'll be key against a quarterback who completed 43 percent of those passes (third in the NFL) this season. Will he see Hill, who saw and caught more deep targets (20 yards or more down the field) than anyone this season? Perhaps with help over the top? That's unclear at the moment, but he's an option. I'd lean toward using Gilmore, the highest-paid member of the secondary and a First Team All-Pro corner, on Kansas City's speed demon. You know Gilmore, who has seen opposing No. 1s all season, would enjoy that challenge. That would leave Jackson to take on Sammy Watkins (Gilmore's assignment in Week 6) and Jason McCourty (who saw a lot of Hill in Week 6 with help) to take Chris Conley. 

KELCE vs. THE WORLD

If you watch the Patriots play the Chiefs back in October, notice what they did with Kelce at the line of scrimmage. Snap after snap after snap, they made sure to get hands on him at the line of scrimmage. Dont'a Hightower went out near the boundary to get him once. Trey Flowers aligned well wide of what he's used to in order to take his shot. Kyle Van Noy got him as well. The Patriots mixed up their coverages on Kelce, using linebackers and safeties primarily, but they doubled him in critical situations on third down and in the red zone. He may be more of a receiver in a tight end's body than he is a true tight end. But it's clear, given the resources devoted to him, that the Patriots respect the hell out of his ability. He was jammed and then doubled in the red zone late in the first half against the Patriots yet Mahomes still threw his way. He was picked. The Patriots allowed Kelce to reel in five passes that night for 61 yards. In four career games against the Patriots, he has 24 catches on 34 targets for 217 yards and a touchdown. 

BRADY vs. SUTTON

Another week, another defensive coordinator against whom Tom Brady has a wealth of experience. Bob Sutton spent 13 seasons helping to coach and run the Jets defense, starting there in Brady's rookie season. Since 2013 he's been with the Chiefs, and he has his tendencies. He, like the Patriots the last few years, loves man-to-man defense. Even if his personnel isn't always necessarily geared to win those one-on-one matchups in the secondary. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Chiefs ran man at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL this season. The Patriots aren't exactly loaded with man-coverage beaters offensively. Josh Gordon is gone. Rob Gronkowski isn't the same receiver he was at this time last year. But what they can do is turn to man-beaters in their playbook to help them create openings. Slant-flat combinations on the outside, high-low crossers over the middle and other play-calls that naturally create traffic for defensive backs could be go-tos for Brady and Josh McDaniels this week. Plus, the Patriots can clear out space for their two best man-coverage receivers to work one-on-one with their defenders. Julian Edelman and James White (we'll get to them) have juicy matchups that could have Brady licking his chops int he short-to-intermediate area. Helping the quarterback and his offensive teammates is the fact that the Chiefs have a secondary that has made significant changes late in the season. They just cut safety Ron Parker, who started 14 games for them this season. Eric Berry could be back in action, but he's been banged up all season and has been dealing with a heel issue of late. Orlando Scandrick (seven starts this season) has become a bit player at corner and Charvarius Ward -- an undrafted rookie out of Middle Tennessee State -- has taken on a significant amount of work as their No. 3 corner, starting in his team's last three games after not starting all season. The Chiefs have a pass-rush that can make things easy for their teammates in the secondary, but this is a group that is particularly susceptible to heavier formations. They're arguably the worst team in the league against 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end), allowing 6.2 yards per carry and 7.9 yards per pass attempt. The only team in the league who used more "21" this year than the Patriots were the Niners with do-it-all fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Expect Brady and McDaniels to see what they can do out of that grouping nice and early. 

EDELMAN vs. FULLER

Julian Edelman had only been back for two games when he saw the Chiefs earlier this season, but he looked "fresh as lettuce," as his quarterback might say, when he beat Kendall Fuller for a 17-yard touchdown. That's a matchup the Patriots could try to exploit Sunday as Fuller has been one of the most generous slot corners in football this season. He bumps into the slot in three-corner packages for the Chiefs, and from the inside he's allowing a quarterback rating of 110.5, which is sixth-worst in football among corners with at least 50 percent playing time, per PFF. Edelman looked as healthy as he's looked all season last weekend against the Chargers, working against a variety of defenders (including All-Pro defensive back Desmond King) to finish with nine catches and 151 yards on 11 targets. 

PATRIOTS INTERIOR vs. JONES

McDaniels wasn't lying when he said that Chris Jones was "as good of a player as we’ve played in the front all year." He is the definition of disruptive, whether he gets to the quarterback or not. He batted three passes on 25 pass-rush snaps last week against the Colts and he ended up with 72 total quarterback pressures on 431 pass-rush snaps this season. The Chiefs have a lot going on up front with Dee Ford and Justin Houston on the edges; Ford ended up a top-10 pressure player in the NFL, racking up some type of disruption on 13.8 percent of his rushes (seventh-best in football, per SIS). But Jones can destroy a play before it starts, whether it's in the running game or passing game. David Andrews told us on Patriots Wednesday that it's going to take a group effort to slow down Jones so look for protection schemes to shift his way at times as Andrews, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason work to help one another inside. You can also expect the football to be out of Brady's hands quickly to help keep the Kansas City rush at bay. No team has generated more pressures at home than the Chiefs (118) thanks, of course, in part to the crowd noise at Arrowhead forcing teams to use a silent count. 

MICHEL vs. CHIEFS FRONT

We told you the Chiefs aren't good against two-back sets. But they've been bad against the run this season regardless of the personnel grouping. They allowed 5.0 yards per carry this year, and in Week 6 Sony Michel ran for 106 yards on 24 attempts, creating 61 yards after contact. As a team, the Patriots ran for 173 yards on 38 attempts and created a whopping 97 yards after contact. Should the Patriots be fortunate enough to see the Chiefs overplay the run and deploy a handful of linebackers, that's when they should go to their short passing game with White or Rex Burkhead. Neither Anthony Hitchens nor Reggie Ragland -- their top two players at the second level -- are effective in coverage. Hitchens allowed a quarterback rating of 126.5 when targeted this season, and Ragland is right behind him at 111.7.

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How the Patriots can slow down the Chargers' Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa: Scheme 'em up

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How the Patriots can slow down the Chargers' Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa: Scheme 'em up

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady was pressured 17 times by the Joey Bosa-Melvin Ingram combination in their Week 8 meeting with the Chargers last year, and the Patriots felt heat on 21 of Brady's 50 dropbacks that day.

The Patriots did enough offensively to win that week, but if Brady is under pressure on almost half his dropbacks in the Divisional Round, that won't bode well for their chances of advancing. So how can the Patriots slow down the duo of Ingram and Bosa?

Let's empty out the notebook to highlight a few of the methods Brady, Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense may employ . . . 

PUNCHER'S CHANCE
If Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown are going to be able to handle their one-on-ones on the outside, they can't forget to throw their hands. Cannon was injured (ankle) going into last year's meeting, but there was nothing wrong with his hands. He and Brown both have a powerful punch -- throwing their hands to initiate contact in pass protection -- when it's timed up well. It can stun athletic rushers like those of the Chargers. But if they forget, as Cannon did at times last year before leaving the game hurt, it'll be a long day. Expect the Patriots to provide their tackles help at points. Rob Gronkowski has been used as a pass protector effectively at times, chipping and releasing into the flat, and if he's guarded by man-to-man coverage that would effectively remove one player from the Chargers secondary. James White and Rex Burkhead could also be impactful chippers from either single-back or "Pony" alignments.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Talking to Patriots offensive linemen this week, it wasn't Bosa and Ingram's speed or power that continued to emerge as unblockable traits -- though, to be sure, both players are both fast and strong. It was their instincts that were the biggest concern. When Ingram breaks out his spin move, one that landed Joe Thuney face-first on the turf last year, he uses it in such a way that he's spinning away from the line's slide or his blocker's help. When Bosa speed rushes up the field, he knows the precise moments to throw on the brakes -- almost like a hockey player stopping suddenly -- to catch a linemen off-balance. That timing combined with his flexibility and agility are a daunting challenge that the Patriots tried to prepare for through their tape study this week. 

FIRE THE MISSILES
Those "missile" motion runs the Patriots have utilized of late, with Brady handing to a receiver in fast motion around the end, could help slow down Ingram and Bosa because it'll force them to stay honest. If they aggressively pursue up the field during one of those missile reps, the Patriots will run around them with ease. If they sit back and the Patriots fake an end-around, they could hesitate and give Brady the extra split-second he needs to make a play. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers have allowed 53 yards on 11 jet-motion runs this season, and the Rams -- in the Chargers' only road loss of the season -- used it extensively in their matchup. Hand-offs, fakes, pitches off of the fakes . . . the Rams went to it 16 times and scored 28 points offensively against one of the top defenses in the league. 

SCREEN TO ROLL
Another scheme the Patriots could use to slow down Bosa and Ingram would be to turn to their screens early and often. If the Chargers rushers want to get up the field, let 'em. The Chiefs got huge plays from their screen game against the Chargers late in the season. They gained 42 yards on two first-quarter screens before scoring on their third of the game that night. With so much north-south movement from the Chargers front, Chiefs backs ran free and easy on those calls. Could White and/or Burkhead do the same? The screen game has been up and down for the Patriots this year, but it may be a good day to show their screen variations as often as possible. Perhaps a missile-motion fake to move the defense one way, then a screen back to the opposite side?

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