After demolishing the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round by a score of 30-0, the Kansas City Chiefs now move on to face the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Aidan Curran is scouting the Kansas City defense, looking at how they’ll handle the New England offense.
With a beat-up offensive line, and various other nagging injuries at other positions, the Patriots come into this game with a whimper, losing their last two games of the regular season. The Chiefs meanwhile, are riding an impressive 11-game win streak. The last time these two met, Kansas City defeated New England by a score of 41-14 in Week 4 of 2014.
The key matchup for Saturday will be the Chiefs defense versus the Patriots offense. Tom Brady looked nearly unstoppable in the first four weeks, but then Dion Lewis tore his ACL against Washington. This began an onslaught of injuries at various positions that has afflicted on the Patriots’ offense since.
The Chiefs operate out of a 4-3 base defense, but play a large majority of their snaps in a 4-2-5 sub package, with safeties Eric Berry and Husain Abdullah each capable of playing a hybrid linebacker role versus certain personnel packages. On the line, defensive ends Tamba Hali and Justin Houston lead the way. Both are powerful, quick ends capable of ruining any offense’s game plan. However, neither Hali nor Houston have registered a sack since November 29th, when Hali notched one against the Buffalo Bills. Houston’s last sack came on November 15th against the Denver Broncos.
In watching the Chiefs’ last two games ‒ Week 17 versus the Oakland Raiders and last week against the Texans ‒ there was not a consistent pass rush. Hali played limited snaps versus Oakland, while Houston sat out. Houston also briefly left the game against the Texans with an ankle injury. He came back in, but was not as disruptive as he was before the injury. If the Chiefs are going to beat the Patriots, Hali and Houston need to get healthy quickly.
The Chiefs typically rush just four defenders, but will get creative with their blitz packages on third down and long. Coordinator Bob Sutton uses a combination of stunts, overload blitzes, double A-gap blitzes, and corner blitzes. With Hali and Houston limited by injury, they have had to manufacture pressure through more creative avenues.
New England, who played journeyman offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle at left tackle against the Dolphins in Week 17, will greatly benefit from the return of left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Jets in Week 16.
On this play in the first quarter against the Texans, Kansas City lines up Houston and Hali together on the right side of the offensive line. Hali is playing 7 technique while Houston is playing 9 technique:
The Chiefs use their star defensive ends as decoys, and overload the left side of the offensive line with Abdullah blitzing off the edge and Derrick Johnson looping around to join him. Houston had the right number of blockers in on this play, with running back Jonathan Grimes staying in for pass protection, but with Johnson looping around the formation, Houston’s left guard is too late to notice him, as he gets to the quarterback along with defensive tackle Dontari Poe and forces an errant pass on third down.
Another tactic Sutton likes to use is the cornerback blitz. On this play Ron Parker (#38), the nickel back for the Chiefs, is the blitzing corner:
The Chiefs don’t seem to hide their corner blitzes. They almost always position another defensive back about five yards behind the blitzer.
On this play, Sean Smith is playing a bit deeper in what looks to be in a Cover 3 alignment. Berry is directing traffic at the line of scrimmage, and moving into a curl zone. He is covering the zone behind the blitzing Parker. However, Sutton adds a wrinkle: the Chiefs send five rushers. Meanwhile, the two underneath defenders and three deep coverage results in a strip sack by Parker.
When the Chiefs send pressure they dial up creative looks that confuse the opponent’s offensive line. It will be important for New England to pick up on these blitz packages and for Tom Brady to correctly identify who is blitzing and who isn’t.
Derrick Johnson and Josh Mauga are the starting inside linebackers for the Chiefs. Johnson is a fast defender who uses his speed and quick-twitch athleticism well in rushing the passer and in pass coverage. In run defense, he deftly avoids engaging blockers, being easily moveable when the opponent gets his hands on the veteran linebacker. Mauga is the better run defender of the two, filling gaps well and wrapping up runners.
Dee Ford, a 2014 first round pick, has emerged recently because of the injuries to Houston and Hali ‒ with mixed results. The second-year edge defender is a rotational pass rusher at this stage in his career, and did not come close to matching the play of Hali or Houston when given increased snaps against the Raiders and Texans.
The secondary, led by All-Pro safety Berry and ball-hawking rookie corner Marcus Peters, are an opportunistic group that play aggressively and use their size to their advantage. Kansas City uses a variety of coverages, but does not do much to disguise them. Against a quarterback of the likes of Brady ‒ who excels in the reading the defense in the pre-snap phase ‒ the Chiefs are hoping their execution makes up for their lack of concealment.
Both of Kansas City’s outside cornerbacks, Sean Smith and Peters, play almost exclusively off man technique. Smith consistently gives his man a ten-yard cushion off the line of scrimmage. Peters gets a little closer, but still maintains a sizeable distance between himself and his man. The Kansas City secondary players are in a similar mold to the secondary of the Seattle Seahawks: lengthy, physical cornerbacks, with a ball-hawking, rangy free safety that controls the middle of the field and can drop down into the box for run support.
But against New England’s Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, the Chiefs will get picked apart if they maintain that same cushion before the snap. The Chiefs will need to play closer to the line than they have against other teams to keep Brady from making quick throws.
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Smith pay for his aggressive play in Week 7 with this double move by Martavis Bryant. With the Chiefs showing Cover 4 but rolling into Cover 3 after the snap, Smith’s job is to prevent Bryant from getting over top of him:
Bryant takes a step inside as he if is running a dig route, but then keeps running vertically. Smith bites on the fake and tries to jump what he believes is an in-breaking route, but Bryant blows past him for the easy touchdown catch. Against even quicker receivers like Edelman and Amendola, this could be an issue for the Chiefs.
On film, Smith’s weakness was on horizontal routes such as drag routes and quick slants. Peters loves to jump routes, especially out routes, and a tendency like that can be picked on by running double move routes. Smith stays on the defensive right side (offensive left side) and Peters stays on the defensive left side. The Patriots may benefit if they put Edelman on Peters’ side, testing his aggression. If healthy, Edelman’s elite footwork and quickness could be decisiveAgainst the Patriots in 2014, the Chiefs’ corners played more press man, so it is fair to expect they would follow the same game plan that got them such an impressive win last season.
Abdullah is the Chiefs player who usually defends tight ends when the Chiefs go to a man coverage. In 2014, Abdullah did a good job limiting New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, who only had two catches on three targets, for a total of 31 yards. The Chiefs had Abdullah play up at the line against Gronkowski, bumping him and trying to disrupt the timing on his route.
The Kansas City defense used mostly Cover 1 on Saturday against the Texans. The Texans used a lot of three- and four-receiver sets, which Kansas City countered with their nickel defense. Sutton tasked his defensive backs with playing off man and dropping back into zones.
New England would be smart to copy the Houston offensive strategy ‒ but not the results ‒ and spread the Kansas City defense out. They have the personnel to execute it better, especially with both Amendola and Edelman back. Further, the Chiefs have shown the ability to lock down opponents that run jumbo sets or personnel packages such as “12” or “21”, as shown in Week 7 against the Steelers.
In short, this game will be decided by who wins the matchup between the Kansas City defensive line and the New England offensive line. If Tom Brady is kept upright by his offensive line, it will be an easy win on Saturday night for New England. If Ford can run around the Patriots tackles, and secondary can jump a few errant quick passes, the Chiefs could score an upset on the road.
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Aidan Curran has written about whether Malcolm Butler is for real, the Patriots versatile defensive line and options at offensive tackle, as well as Rex Ryan’s blitzing ways.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.