The New England Patriots defense held Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce to one of his least productive games of the season in the AFC Divisional round. Brian Filipiak reviewed the film and found one of the reasons: Patrick Chung outmuscled him.
While the Patriots mixed up their coverages throughout the contest, it was safety Patrick Chung that most often manned up against the big tight end. In particular, Chung was the main cog within an important defensive stand made by New England early in the second quarter.
Fresh off a dominating eight-catch, 128-yard effort against the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round, Travis Kelce was limited to six receptions on nine targets for just 23 yards (3.8 yards per catch) in the loss. Kelce, who finished the regular season seventh in the league with 533 yards gained after the catch (second only to Rob Gronkowski among tight ends), did minimal damage with the ball in his hands against a swarming Patriots defense.
On a key series early in the second quarter, the Chiefs attempted to get Kelce going by feeding him the ball on two screen plays. However, Chung’s awareness and strength at the point of attack dismantled both attempts to gain space for the tight end.
Down 7-3 with just over ten minutes left in the first half, the Kansas City offense takes the field at the New England 36-yard line following a short punt from the Patriots own end zone and a 19-yard return by punt returner Frankie Hammond.
On first down, quarterback Alex Smith operates out of the shotgun with a wide trips bunch to his left. The compressed grouping includes Kelce, who is aligned two yards off the line of scrimmage in the slot. The Chiefs will attempt a bubble screen to their star tight end, hoping to utilize fellow tight ends Brian Parker and Demetrius Harris as blockers to help spring Kelce free.
Here’s a pre-snap look at the design of the screen play:
In response, the Patriots have their big nickel (three safeties) personnel on the field and show man coverage with a single-high safety before the snap. Defensive back Devin McCourty is initially aligned close to the line of scrimmage, seemingly in man coverage over Kelce, but drops back ten yards just prior to the snap. Cornerback Malcolm Butler (#21) is positioned just outside Parker (#82) and the bunch tight end set, playing a bail technique with outside leverage. In the middle sits Chung, lined two yards off the line of scrimmage and straight up with Harris (#84).
Given the positioning of McCourty (#32), as well as the spacing and blocking Kelce (#87) should have in front of him, the bubble screen appears to be a safe bet to pick up some positive yardage to start the drive. However, Chung (#23) has other ideas:
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At the snap, Kelce “bubbles” away from the line of scrimmage and starts to swing toward the flat in anticipation of the quick toss coming his way. At first glance, the Chiefs have the exact reaction they desire from the defense with McCourty and Butler both initially backpedaling. Furthermore, outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (#54) – the unblocked dive read defender on the play – has to respect the possibility of a handoff to the running back and / or the read option, making him a non-factor on any quick throw outside the hashes.
But Chung’s instincts and awareness overcome any disadvantage forced upon the defense. Perhaps keying off the curious alignment of Kelce before the snap, Chung does not hesitate in correctly deciphering the play. He fires off the ball with urgency, targeting Parker – the tight end outside of him. By aggressively taking on Parker, the defender essentially eliminates Harris from making an impact as a blocker on the bubble screen, while also shielding Butler from Parker and any potential opposition in his way. The cornerback, in turn, swiftly closes in on Kelce, dropping him for a two-yard loss.
After heading in the wrong direction on first down, the Chiefs offense compounded their troubles with a missed opportunity on second down. Once again operating out of the shotgun – this time within a compressed double tight end formation – Smith takes a shot deep down the sideline:
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The quarterback takes the snap and initially looks left, where he has Kelce racing toward the flat and wide receiver Albert Wilson (#12) executing an out-and-up route. Smith looks off the single-high safety by delivering a slight shoulder fake toward Wilson as he cuts toward the left sideline. The QB then pivots back to his right and tosses a pass intended for wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (#19) down the right sideline. The coverage by Butler is nearly step-for-step with Maclin, but the pass is overthrown by ten yards, giving the receiver no opportunity to make a play on the ball.
On this play, Smith’s mind was seemingly made up – presumably based on a pre-snap look to his liking such as the positioning of the deep safety and Maclin’s relative isolation on the outside in concert with the supporting routes being run. But a different read and a little more patience from Smith may have allowed him to connect with Wilson, who has cornerback Logan Ryan (#26) squatting on the out as he stems free vertically up the field.
Now facing 3rd and 12, the Chiefs turn back to Kelce and a staple play of theirs: the tight end screen off play action. By quickly getting the ball in the hands of their best playmaker, Kansas City hopes to at least gain enough yards to get into reasonable field goal range and salvage a drive that started out with such promising field position. And given Kelce’s ability after the catch, the high percentage throw could go for even more yardage and extend the drive if things break the right way.
Instead, Chung barely allows Kelce to break past the line of scrimmage:
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The Patriots have dime personnel on the field with only six defenders in the box. But, in this instance, all you need is Chung.
Smith fakes the handoff while the in-line Kelce sells himself as staying for pass protection, fanning out against defensive end Rob Ninkovich (#50). The tight end slow plays any engagement with the defender, holding his pass set for a two count before swiping free of Ninkovich and turning back to the quarterback for the ball.
During this same sequence, Chung has already laid the groundwork for a defensive stop. First, the safety remains patient, reading – but not reacting – run first. He holds his position on the backside and sees the play through as the tight end screen begins to develop. Chung is soon approached by right tackle Donald Stephenson (#79) attempting his block past the line of scrimmage – a telltale sign that a screen play is coming (otherwise it would be an ineligible receiver downfield penalty for any pass made beyond the LOS).
Chung then demonstrates the old football adage: if it’s too big to go through, go around it. The safety gives a little ground to Stephenson in order to eventually gain more back. By creating space, Chung is able to use his hands to fend off the offensive lineman and move around him to the inside just as Kelce begins to turn upfield with the ball now in his hands. Chung squares up the tight end and attempts to wrap him up at the waist. The elusive Kelce absorbs the hit and remains on his feet, but can’t shake loose of Chung’s grasp, managing just a one-yard gain on the play.
The Chiefs would go on to bypass a long field goal or fourth down conversion attempt. Although Kansas City was able to pin the New England offense at their own two-yard line with a punt, the Patriots nonetheless went on to march the length of the field to go up 14-3, and didn’t look back from there. If not for Chung’s heady play on the defensive series preceding the New England touchdown drive, the tenor of the game could have shifted in Kansas City’s favor if points had been put on the board by their offense.
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Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.