Is It Possible for the Patriots to Slow Down This Chiefs Offense?

I realized even as I typed that headline that it's probably akin to asking, "Is it possible to build a perpetual motion machine?" or "Is cold fusion possible?" or "Can Old Balls get in good enough shape for that hot mom in the yoga pants at the gym to notice him?" It's asking if the theoretical, highly improbable is, in fact, possible. Even if science says "yes," making it happen is another thing altogether. 

You saw what we all saw Monday night. The Chiefs took the NFL's third best defense last season, on a team that went 14-2, and did the equivalent of kid holding his little brother down, grabbing by the wrists and going, "Why are you hitting yourself? Huh? Why are you hitting yourself." Four touchdowns and a missed field goal in the first half. Three drives of 10+ plays. Five touchdown drives of 68 yards or more and another that went 59 yards before it was mushed by a fumble. Kansas City possessed the ball for 34 minutes to Baltimore's 26, and the Ravens were all about controlling the clock last year, with an average drive of 3:22 to their opponents' 2:27

The Ravens' plan was obvious. It was right out of the syllabus they hand out on the first day of NFL Pregame Show 101: "You gotta pressure the quarterback." Baltimore DC Wink Martindale sold out in order to do so, and Patrick Mahomes carved them like a Subway Sandwich Artist. They blitzed 21 times. Which produced zero sacks, zero hits and two pressures. Meaning that on the season, Mahomes has faced the blitz on 40 drop backs, and these are his totals:

30 for 39, 76.9 completion %, 332 yards, 8.5 YPA, 5 TDs, 0 sacks, 1 QB hit, 0 throwaways, 23 1st downs, 141.2 passer rating

Do that in a game and you're a mortal lock for Offensive Player of the Week. So that's obviously not the answer. 

Which begs the question that is the premise of all this. Is there any way to throw stop sticks in front of the seemingly irresistible force that is Andy Reid's offense? And is it possible for a blogger who's only experience at scheming defense peaked as the assistant to the DC on a JV team of 12 year olds to offer any insight? Come with me on this exercise in futility. I've suffered for my art, now it's your turn. 

The damned shame of the last time the Patriots faced the Chiefs is that they did the best job they've done against KC since  Mahomes took over. In Week 14 last year, they made him look, if not human, practically lifelike. They held him to 283 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 83.6, all the lowest totals of the three times they've faced him. And JC Jackson intercepted him. If it weren't for the fact it was one of the worst officiated games of 2019, including the refs blowing the play dead on a Travis Kelce fumble and the most infamous call of the season:

… we would've been talking about how N'Keal Harry was worth a first round pick while the world bellyached about not getting to see Mahomes touch the ball in overtime instead of counting down how many more games Tom Brady had left.

Anyway, as far as the defense was in that game, here's what I wrote in the Knee Jerk Reactions column the following morning. That is, after I vented for 10 paragraphs about the officiating and how none of the Patriots receivers could get open:

Defensively, a unit that has shown the versatility to play multiple styles made the adjustments they needed to. Early on, playing a lot of post safety (so Cover-1 and Cover-3, closing the middle of the field). For the most part they trusted Gilmore to handle Watkins on the Flat- and Drag routes. And Pat Chung to take Kelce by himself. As we saw last year, Jonathan Jones was mainly in coverage on Hill, but they also matched career Core-4 Special Teamer Justin Bethel on Hardman in an attempt to fight speed with speed.

--From there they switched to more of a Tampa-2, with Jones dropping into the deep middle zone and one of the split safeties bracketing Hill while the other slid to whichever receiver released to run a vertical. As a result, Mahomes found his completion percentage going up but his YPA were cut by more than half. He was trying to beat them with Death by a Thousand Checkdowns. But the Patriots swarmed to the ball, limited yards after the catch – Jackson in particular made a nice read & react on Spencer Ware, tackling him for a loss of nine on a screen pass to stall the drive that resulted in Nate Ebner's blocked punt – to keep a great offense off the scoreboard for the last 24ish minutes of the game.

I'll also add that the Front-7 held up well against the run. Mahomes had six yards on six carries, five of which game on one run. And LeSean McCoy was held to just 39 yards on 11 carries. But it's containing theChiefs tight ends and wideouts that is the impossible task here. The simultaneous heisting of the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand you're asking your 11 to pull off. 

Consider the following. Assuming I'm right (doubtful at best) and the Patriots did, in fact, play at lot of Cover-1 and Cover-3 to take away the deep middle, here are the numbers when Mahomes has attacked the deep sidelines so far this year:

  • Outside right, 20+ yards: 3 for 7, 129 yards, 0 INTs, 129.5 PR
  • Outside left, 10-20: 2/3, 41 yards, 109.7
  • Outside right, 10-20: 8/9, 127 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, perfect passer rating of 158.3.

Only when he's gone left and more than 20 yards has he not connected. And that's on his whopping two attempts. So taking away the middle has been all well and good. But it's picking which cup the Iocane powder is in. 

But here is where I think there is hope. An idiot's hope maybe, but hope nevertheless. 

I'll start with Kelce. Last year they had a reasonable amount of success playing him primarily with Pat Chung. Kelce won a few of those, as he will. But he didn't take over the game, with seven receptions for 66 yards and a long of 20. The Ravens would've watched Trump-Biden ten times over for results like that. And the Patriots have very clearly made shutting down tight ends a priority over the last couple of years, with the understanding that they're not ever going to go deep in the AFC if they don't. So they drafted Joejuan Williams last year, who, at 6-4, could've been bred in Ernie Adams' secret lab to match up with guys like Kelce. And Kyle Dugger who is two inches shorter but is freakishly athletic and who took reps against Darren Waller late in the game Sunday to get him prepared. In fact, on one route Dugger took on Waller who had a head of steam and stopped him dead in his tracks. In all, several Pats DBs took turns on Waller, including Williams, Dugger, Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Stephon Gilmore. And he did zero damage against them. Just a total non-factor in the game.

Next obviously is Tyreek Hill, whom they've been defending like they're his secret service detail the last two times they've faced him. In Hill's first two games against New England he averaged seven receptions, 137.5 yards and two touchdowns. His last two averages have been 3.5 catches for 51 yards and no scores. And 42 of those yards came on one breakdown on the only reception he had in the 2018 AFC championship game. They've done it by assigning a full time safety and bracketing him all over the field. It'll be some combination of Jackson and Jones in trailing coverage, and probably Jason McCourty deep so that Devin McCourty can patrol the middle and come up in run force. 

I realize all that leaves you with Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman, plus Clyde Edwards-Helaire out of the backfield, to worry about. And those guys scalded the Ravens three nights ago. But I'll take my chances with Gilmore on Watkins, hoping the officials stop being so flag happy on him:

… and whomever is not doubling Hill on Hardman. 

Then I'll rely on Belichick, Mayo and Belichick, the three-headed Cerberus guarding these gates of Hell, to come up with a wrinkle Mahomes and Reid haven't dealt with before. The way they disguised their coverages and actually doubled the checkdowns last week. Seriously, watch this:

Failing that, screw it. Let the Patriots rush for 250 yards again like they did last week and make it all a moot point. Regardless of how the Patriots attempt to do the impossible Sunday, it's going to be yet another Game of the Year between these two teams. They always are.