New England Patriots AFC Championship Game Preview: Defensive Strategy vs Kansas City Chiefs

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The New England Patriots completed 17 weeks of the 2018 NFL season and then knocked off the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Playoff round to earn a record eighth consecutive trip to the AFC Championship Game. Dwell on that for a second: the last time the New England Patriots were knocked out of the playoffs in the Divisional round Aaron Hernandez started at tight end and Brandon Tate started at wide receiver.  

From a off-season filled with locker room drama regarding Tom Brady’s personal trainer’s role with the team, Brady and Rob Gronkowski retirement rumors, Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension, to a 1-2 start including a loss to former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and to the Jacksonville Jaguars (in an “AFC Championship Game Rematch”), it did not look like the Patriots–after losing Super Bowl 52 to the Eagles and Seth Wickersham stories about the professional marriage of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick eroding–would be in this position of being just one game away from the Super Bowl yet again.

However, a six-game winning streak–including a thrilling win in prime-time over the then undefeated Kansas City Chiefs–seemed to quell those fears. However, the Patriots then lost three of five–including an ugly performance on the road against former Patriots great Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans and back-to-back losses in December on the road. That included the “Miami Miracle” on a multi-lateral touchdown to the Dolphins and an ugly performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers which included an atrocious Tom Brady interception.

The season ended on an upswing by outlasting an impotent Buffalo Bills offense 24-12 in Tom Brady’s ugliest game of the season and a good old-fashioned stomping of the Jets 38-3 to make everyone believe everything was all good heading into the playoffs. As the number two seed, the New England Patriots hosted the Los Angeles Chargers last week in Foxboro, MA.

The Patriots on offense scored touchdowns on five of their first six possessions and forced five consecutive punts after a defensive breakdown gave the Chargers an early easy touchdown. With New England ahead 35-7 at the half, by the time the Chargers started moving the football in the second half the game was over and New England was playing prevent defense almost the entire second half of the game on their way to victory.

This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS again on Sunday night at 6:40PM ET and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Evan Washburn, Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feely will work from the sidelines.

Sunday’s game will be broadcast on Westwood One with Kevin Kugler calling the play-by-play and Tony Boselli as analyst. Ross Tucker will provide sideline 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 and local talk radio personality Scott Zolak adding color analysis.

Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.

The New England defense finished 2018 strong holding the potent Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense to just 17 points, the hapless Buffalo Bills’ offense to just 12 points (and the only Buffalo touchdown came with just over a minute to play and the Patriots ahead by three scores) and the New York Jets managed just a field goal in week 17. Last week the Chargers had a defensive breakdown on the first drive but the Chargers did not score again until it was 38-7.

The New England defense had been solid much of the second-half of the season. The defense held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in five of their last six games following their bye week. The defense was temporarily in the top ten in the NFL in points allowed before giving up 34 points to Tennessee in week ten and 34 to Miami in week 14.

The Patriots finished the season seventh in points allowed although the defense was 21st in total yards allowed. The defense was 22nd in passing yards allowed and 11th in rushing yards allowed. However, they were 29th in the NFL in yards per attempt allowing teams to rush for an average of 4.9 yards per attempt. Last week the Chargers generated a pitiful 19 yards on ten rushing attempts.

The defense was excellent on third downs in November and December and finished the season 16th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 38.6% of the time (76 of 197). The New England defense was 16th in the red zone allowing teams to score 58.7% of the time (27 touchdowns on 46 trips). Los Angeles was just five of 13 on third downs last week but two of seven until the Patriots went into the prevent defense leading 38-7 halfway through the third quarter.

How do the Patriots plan to continue their defensive momentum against the explosive Chiefs’ offense with Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce after a strong finish to the 2018 season?

LIMIT THE DAMAGE

The New England Patriots’ defense had a fantastic performance–particularly in the first half and into the third quarter–shutting down a potent Los Angeles Chargers’ offense which had finished sixth in the NFL in points scored in the regular season. The Patriots need to throw out that defensive game-plan, though, because the Kansas City Chiefs are a whole new challenge.

The Kansas City offense finished first in the NFL in the regular season putting up 565 points (35.3 points per game). Bizarrely, there are a number of new head coaches for 2019 but offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy appears to be passed over by all of them. His offense was tops in points, yards, third in first downs, third in passing yards, first in passing touchdowns, first in net yards per pass attempt, sixth in rushing yards per attempt, first in scoring percentage, second in third down percentage and second in red zone scoring percentage.

A large part of that offensive success was the dynamic second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, just 12 interceptions, and a 113.8 quarterback rating. He was a weekly highlight reel not just for his pinpoint accuracy and daring to throw across the field but also for the arm angles he used like the shortstop he used to be playing baseball.

The combination of Mahomes and wide receiver Tyreek Hill was a match made in heaven. Hill pulled in 87 catches for 1,479 yards (17.0 yards per reception) and 12 touchdowns. Free agent Sammy Watkins was slowed by injuries during the regular season with just 40 receptions but stepped up against the Colts with six catches for 62 yards.

Tight end Travis Kelce has taken the mantle from Rob Gronkowski of the best receiving tight end in the NFL (although San Francisco fans may have a legitimate gripe about that title) and Kelce had 103 receptions for 1,336 yards and ten touchdowns. Six-foot-five and 260 pounds, the tight end topped 90 yards receiving seven times in 2018 and then added 108 yards last week against the Colts.

Mahomes, Hill, Kelce and Watkins makes for a ridiculously dangerous offense. The Patriots held the Chiefs to just nine first half points in October, but Mahomes broke out in the second half and put up 31 second-half points coming back to tie the Patriots at 40 apiece. However, the quick-strike 75-yard touchdown to Hill left Tom Brady three minutes to bleed the clock and drive into field goal range to win 43-40.

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While much of the sports talk both nationally and locally assuming the Patriots will put All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore on Tyreek Hill it will be interesting to see if he will follow Hill into the slot and pick him up when he lines up in the backfield. Gilmore is at his best on the outside and the Chiefs love to move Hill around. Another option is to put aggressive rookie J.C. Jackson on Hill and let Gilmore try to lock down Kelce.

If I had to guess I would think the Patriots will likely use Gilmore on Hill when he lines up on the outside and let rookie J.C. Jackson face-off against Sammy Watkins. Kelce will see plenty of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung while Jason McCourty will draw Hill when he is in the slot with a lot of help from the safeties and try to get his hands on him at the line of scrimmage.

Stephon Gilmore–other than his 43 yard touchdown to Keenan Allen on the first drive of the game, shut down the Chargers with an interception, a pass break up and no other completions on four additional targets. Jason McCourty allowed six receptions on eight targets for 127 yards–most in garbage time. JC Jackson was targeted 11 times but gave up just five catches for 67 yards and broke-up a pair of passes last week (per NESN).

Of course, a big help would be getting a pass rush to pin in Mahomes and keep him from getting outside the pocket. Mahomes can run, but he is always keeping his eyes downfield and looking to throw the ball. His ability to extend plays makes him dangerous.

The offensive line for the Chiefs need to hold up against a New England pass rush that brought pressure to Phillip Rivers early and often last week. The Chiefs may get Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back at right guard after missing much of the season due to injury. Otherwise, left tackle Eric Fisher is solid and Mitchell Schwartz is one of the better right tackles. Center Mitch Morse is solid and Cameron Erving has found his first-round draft pick potential playing in Kansas City.

Getting strong but disciplined pressure from edge rushers Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise (who missed last week’s game due to injury) is a must for the Patriots. Inside pressure from Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler would be welcome as well as to force Mahomes into the arms of the edge rushers. Also, look for blitzes at time sprinkled in from Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.

Last week Trey Flowers led the way with a sack and six hurries and a blitzing Dont’a Hightower added another seven hurries. The pass rush was dominant with Adam Butler adding a quarterback hit and a four hurries and Adrian Clayborn piling up a sack, a quarterback hit and two hurries. John Simon had four hurries and Kyle Van Noy added three more hurries (per NESN).

The Chiefs are going to score. The Patriots need to eliminate the big-plays, recover fumbles, and hold onto interceptions when they get their hands on the ball. The Chiefs had 16 touchdowns of 20 or more yards in 2018. Minimizing the big-plays from the Kansas City passing attack is a must if the Patriots are going to pull off the upset on the road.

There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against the Chiefs’ offense this week:

CONTROL THE RUNNING GAME

The New England offense is unlikely to score five first half touchdowns this week in Kansas City. The Patriots are going to need to play some of their best football on both sides of the football and on special teams in order to move past the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium and advance to the Super Bowl for a third consecutive season.

The Chiefs were at their most dangerous when dual-threat running and receiving running back Kareem Hunt in the backfield. More than just an outlet, Hunt averaged 14.5 yards per reception before his release due to assault charges. Not having to worry about Hunt is a huge advantage for the Patriots on Sunday.

Hunt rushed for 80 yards on just 10 carries in October against the Patriots. Against the Patriots in his first career NFL game, he had rushed for 148 yards. In the passing game he had been at his most dangerous catching five passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns in week one of 2017 and five receptions for 106 yards and another receiving touchdown in week six.

The Chiefs will instead be starting Damien Williams at running back. Williams has come on with 74 yards receiving against the Chargers in week 15, 103 yards rushing against the Seahawks in week 16, rushed for 51 yards in limited action in week 17 against Oakland, and rushed for 129 yards against the Colts last week in the Chiefs’ dominant 31-13 win over the Colts.

New England has been ambivalent about the running game at times–they dared teams to run the ball and gladly gave up yards with six or seven defensive backs on the field knowing that the opponents were not disciplined enough on offense to keep with it. This week, the Chiefs may just be disciplined enough to want to run the football and the Patriots need a plan to keep the running game in check and keep from letting the Chiefs be balanced on offense.

Danny Shelton has improved his run defense since being a healthy scratch for a few weeks and played well last week. Malcom Brown has also stepped-up down the stretch since a rocky start to 2018 and had a key role stopping the Los Angeles rushing attack. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts was a downhill threat in shooting gaps and stopping running backs in the backfield. The Chargers finished with just 19 yards rushing on ten attempts.

New England will be tested early by the Chiefs. If the Patriots can win their one-on-one battles up-front they should be able to control the line of scrimmage and make the Chiefs be unbalanced and help with their game-planning against the Chiefs’ dangerous offense.

The game plan on defense seems simple for the Patriots: keep Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce from making big plays against a secondary that has played well lately. In addition, the Chiefs will try to test the Patriots’ suspect road rushing defense to keep the linebackers from helping in pass coverage. If the Patriots can limit big plays and make the Chiefs’ attack one-dimensional, their defense may be able to slow them enough to outscore Kansas City.

-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01

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