The New England Patriots have bounced back after a 1-2 start to the 2018 season by crushing the Miami Dolphins 38-7 in week four and cruising past the Indianapolis Colts 38-24 and moving into first place in the AFC East. The Patriots jumped out to a 24-3 lead over the Colts on Thursday night behind a solidly balanced rushing and passing attack.
There was nervousness in New England after the Patriots lost two straight after defeating the Houston Texans 27-20 in Gillette Stadium in week one. In weeks two and three the Patriots struggled on offense and defense as the Jacksonville Jaguars coasted to an easy 31-20 win followed by Detroit cruising to a 26-10 win completely shutting down the offense. The addition of wide receiver Josh Gordon, the return of Julian Edelman from suspension and the emergence of rookie running back Sony Michel has sparked the offense these past two weeks.
This week the New England Patriots have had a mini-break with ten days between games and all day Sunday to rest before their prime-time showdown. They will need it with the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs coming to Foxboro. Andy Reid’s squad has been a wrecking ball going through the Chargers, Steelers, 49ers, Broncos (in Denver), and the Jaguars averaging 35 points per game over that span.
This week’s game will be broadcast by NBC and can be seen locally on NBC10 Boston in the greater Boston area and on WJAR NBC-10 in the greater Providence area (just put the television on channel 10). If not near a television Sunday night, you can watch the game on your Desktop or Mobile Device by using the NBC Sports App. Al Michaels will handle play-by-play duties with Cris Collinsworth as the color analyst. Michele Tafoya will work from the sidelines (with the dreadful Carrie Underwood Sunday Night Football theme song “Game On”–go back to “Oh, Sunday Night” already).
On the radio, Thursday’s game will be broadcast to a national audience on Westwood One. The bad news is Kevin Kugler will call the game instead of Ian Eagle. The good news is that the best color man in any medium, Mike Mayock, will be providing analysis. Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York, and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The win over Indianapolis bumped the defense–which was ranked 19th in the NFL in points allowed and 28th in total yards coming into week four to ninth in points allowed and 16th in yards allowed (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted). New England was ranked 30th in the league on third down percentage allowing opponents to convert on 48.7% of their third downs. There has been a gradual improvement as the defense is ranked 26th heading into week six allowing 44.6% of third downs to be converted.
KEEP IT IN FRONT:
The Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive weapons in the passing game are simply ridiculous: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Chris Conley, Travis Kelce and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. No other team has so much athleticism, speed, size and power in their passing offense.
Mahomes has emerged as possibly the most perfectly molded quarterback for the Andy Reid offense. He has completed 63% of his passes in 2018 throwing for 1,513 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first five games this year. With only two interceptions and another 66 yards on the ground, the 23-year old 2017 first round draft pick has taken advantage of his physical gifts and his advanced understanding of the offensive scheme.
Tyreek Hill has become one of the best deep threat receivers in the league. A fifth-round draft pick in 2016 due to off-field concerns, the five-foot-ten speed demon was a big-play machine as a rookie. He took a huge step forward last year growing as a wide receiver instead of just a gadget-play player.
Travis Kelce is another overlooked player coming into the NFL as a third-round draft pick in 2013 with the reputation as a blocker rather than elite receiver. Under Reid and his stable of offensive coordinators, Kelce has grown from a complementary piece to a weapon in the offense. He leads the team in targets (46) and receptions (28) and is second to Hill in receiving yards with 407.
Add in the addition of the supremely talented but seemingly always underperforming Sammy Watkins (on pace for over 60 receptions and almost 800 yards receiving this year) and the underrated Chris Conley and this offense will use every formation and motion element in the game to attack opposing defenses.
So with all those varied receiving weapons and all that mobile quarterback who–unlike most young quarterbacks–keeps his eyes downfield outside the pocket looking for a big play down the field, how do the New England Patriots defend them?
The blueprint is a plan that the fanbase of New England does not want to hear: a mush pass rush and a two-deep zone defense.
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Fans want to see aggressive defenses jamming wide receivers and blitzing and creating pressure from different players and angles. It’s understandable: that defense is highly entertaining to watch and creates big plays. However, against Kansas City that strategy is suicide.
First and foremost, the pass rush has to emulate what they did in week one against the Houston Texans and Deshaun Watson: keep Mahomes contained. They are not concerned with him running for a 40-yard gain, but the concern is Mahomes breaking containment (especially to the right) and prolonging the play, giving time for his playmakers (particularly Tyreek Hill) extra time to run away from coverage and make a game-changing play down the field.
The next area is the coverage. The Patriots will play man-coverage, especially with safeties deep. The problem with the man-coverage is that Patrick Chung has no chance to cover Travis Kelce–the Patriots will need a cornerback with athleticism and long arms (Eric Rowe, if healthy) or safety Devin McCourty.
Checking Kelce and keeping two safeties back to help out with stopping the deep edges of the field is hard to do, especially in man coverages. New England must use zone concepts to cover all these weapons and the running backs (particularly Spencer Ware and gadget-play specialist Demarcus Robinson) throughout the game. Look for a game with heavy emphasis on the cornerbacks and safeties and a limited role for the linebackers.
So look for Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn holding the edge on the outside edge to keep Mahomes from getting outside the pocket. In addition, while New England will play some man-coverage, look for a majority of zone coverage to try and keep Hill, Conley and Watkins from making big plays downfield and trying to force Mahomes to be patient and make mistakes trying to force passes into heavily defended zones.
NO RUSH ZONE:
Of course, even with focusing on all those receiving weapons and quarterback Patrick Mahomes, opponents still have to deal with a creative and effective running game. Kareem Hunt exploded on the scene last year in week one against the Patriots and earned a Pro Bowl berth as a rookie rushing for a league-leading 1,327 yards and 4.9 yards per attempt along with 53 receptions for 455 yards.
Hunt has been squeezed out of the passing game with just five receptions but he is halfway to his total of eight rushing touchdowns last year through five games and still on pace to easily top 1,000 yards rushing if he remains healthy.
What has been overlooked for Hunt has been the pair of games early in the season where the Chargers (3.06 yards per rushing attempt) and 49ers (2.44 yards per rushing attempt). He piled up yards at his normal pace in those other three games and the offense still scored 38 points in both games.
Most impressive was Hunt in week five against Jacksonville. Hunt rushed 22 times for 87 yards and a touchdown against one of the better run defenses in the league. He is getting back on track and the Patriots have struggled against the run.
The interior offensive line will be tasked with closing holes and being strong at the point of attack. Danny Shelton has been a huge disappointment to date after coming in with the reputation as a run-stuffer. Malcom Brown–in a contract year–has struggled early in the season to maintain power at the point of attack. To date, only Lawrence Guy has held up at the point of attack inside (Adam Butler continues to be a penetrating pass rusher and lost in run defense).
New England will likely have to devote additional resources to the secondary on Sunday night. The front four and a pair of linebackers (likely Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower) will be counted on to hold at the line of scrimmage and keep Hunt from impacting the game.
One advantage for New England is the loss of Kansas City right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to injured reserve and the Chiefs moving to Jordan Devey. Yes, that Jordan Devey. The tuba player. The undrafted offensive lineman who was inserted into the starting lineup unexpectedly in 2014 and was destroyed each week in his first three games before landing back on the bench and being traded the next year for the immortal Asante Cleveland.
Being able to stop Hunt with the front six and devoting extra defenders to the passing game is a must for the Patriots to slow the Chiefs’ offense. The defense has allowed just 140 yards rushing total over the past two weeks and that improvement needs to continue on Sunday night to give the offense a chance to make stops.