Thursday night in Foxborough, an aging quarterback, his successor waiting in the wings, proved that he hasn’t lost a smidgen of his ability. It just wasn’t the QB we thought it’d be.
While the 40-year-old Tom Brady completed just 44.4% of his passes, the 33-year-old Alex Smith threw for 368 yards and four touchdowns, connecting on 28 of his 35 attempts. But furthering the theme of Smith’s career, he won’t be the nation’s focus on Friday. New England’s defense will—specifically, what’s wrong with it.
As of right now, plenty. The Patriots allowed 537 yards and 42 points—worsts of the Bill Belichick era. There were mental mistakes in the second half, from 12 men on the field on a desperation third down late in the fourth quarter, to $65-million corner Stephon Gilmore and safety Devin McCourty miscommunicating on Tyreek Hill’s 75-yard touchdown.
Mental mistakes can be cleaned up. More concerning was where Kansas City out-executed and out-smarted New England. A great snapshot was third-round rookie running back Kareem Hunt’s 78-yard touchdown catch. The play began with a patented Chiefs misdirection fake to Hill, which widened the defense. It ended with Hunt finishing a wheel route out of the backfield, where the only man who could defend him was Cassius Marsh, a longtime 4–3 defensive end in Seattle who was acquired by the Patriots just five days earlier. Presumably, Marsh has not practiced downfield man coverage much. Worse yet, it was one-on-one coverage with no deep safety—a consequence of free safety Duron Harmon reacting to Hill and Eric Rowe double-teaming Travis Kelce instead of replacing Harmon in centerfield. As expected, they’d homed in on those two all night, and Andy Reid made them pay.
Building on his improvements from last year, Kelce also defeated the Patriots as a run-blocker multiple times, including on Hunt’s 58-yard sweep to ice the game. That brings us to potentially the biggest problem facing the Patriots: run defense. It suffered after Dont’a Hightower left in the third quarter with a knee injury (that’s why Marsh was in).
Hightower, a stack linebacker for much of his career, appears to have a new fulltime position: strongside defensive end. That’s no surprise. The Patriots are deep at inside linebacker and, following Jabaal Sheard’s move to Indianapolis and Rob Ninkovich’s retirement, they’re thin on the front edge. Hightower has the resolute strength to fill this role. In fact, he dominated the Falcons as a line-of-scrimmage defender in the second half of Super Bowl LI.
In New England’s scheme, the strongside edge man is vital. It’s a gap-sound scheme; the Patriots almost never run stunts or twists with their defensive line. Instead, everyone lines up and simply tries to plug his hole or stalemate his blocker. For this to work, you must do what Belichick constantly hollers at practice: Set the edge! As the strongside edge man, that’s Hightower’s job. He must force ballcarriers back inside, towards meaty defensive linemen like Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy.
Edge-setting is more important than ever because the Patriots are now primarily a 5–1 defense. And a light one, at that. Last year, their base D featured just two linebackers and a third safety, Patrick Chung. Thursday night, they took it a step further, playing just one linebacker (Kyle Van Noy) and a fourth safety (Jordan Richards). If you play such a light six-DB dime package, you must have someone who can force ballcarriers back inside. With Hightower, the Patriots do. Without him, they don’t.
The news on Hightower will determine just how bad Thursday night was for New England. If it’s a minor injury, we chalk up Week 1 as a simple poor outing. (It happens, even to the league’s reigning No. 1 scoring defense.) If Hightower’s injury is major, however, the conversation shifts to whether New England’s juggernaut offense can score over 30 on a weekly basis. Or, as Thursday night went, whether that offense can score more than 42.
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