Mahomes vs. Belichick, Round II: What the Patriots Should Do Differently

New England escaped with a shootout win when they hosted the Chiefs on a Sunday night in October, but Mahomes clearly got the better of Belichick’s defense. Here’s how the Patriots should attack the best quarterback in football in the AFC title game.
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Tom Brady might be The Greatest of All Time (The GOAT), but Patrick Mahomes is The Greatest of Right Now (The GORN?). How New England’s defense does against the soon-to-be league MVP will decide whether Brady and Bill Belichick reach the Super Bowl for an astounding ninth time.

When the Patriots and Chiefs met in that instant classic shootout on a Sunday night in Week 6, the Patriots dispatched a plan for Mahomes similar to the one they obliterated Philip Rivers with on Sunday: various blitzes out of an array of undefined presnap pressure looks. Outside the pocket, Rivers is as mobile as a man in snowshoes. The Patriots, especially early on Sunday, were inclined to bring the pressure that they threatened. This included a sprinkling of all-out blitzes (aka Cover 0).

Mahomes, of course, has the slippery agility to get outside the pocket, and the arm flexibility to slice you apart when he does. Which is why, in that Week 6 game, the Patriots often showed pressure but dropped into coverage.

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Their other featured tactic that night was something called a “bullseye” coverage, which Belichick invented to stop Marshall Faulk and upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. In “bullseye,” either an edge defender or linebacker jams an interior receiver off the snap, (hopefully) wrecking the timing of his route. The Patriots did this at times to Tyreek Hill when he was aligned in his most dangerous position: the “inside slot” in trips. But the main focus of their bullseyes was tight end Travis Kelce, who often aligns somewhere inside.

Both tactics—showing pressure before dropping into coverage, and bulls-eyeing Kelce—yielded some positive results, with Mahomes throwing a few interceptable balls and the Chiefs failing on some early third downs. Ultimately, though, the plan did not win out, in part because the false pressure looks and bullseyes have the same downside: They give Mahomes time to work late into the down. That’s when Mahomes’s otherworldly playmaking prowess takes over. That playmaking is amplified by Kansas City’s cadre of speedy weapons, which was augmented on Saturday by Sammy Watkins’s return.

New England’s man-to-man defenders, however, are better now than back in Week 6. Stephon Gilmore has been this season’s top cover corner. Undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson, strong and lanky on the perimeter, is becoming a premier downfield defender. Both men can provide constricting press coverage outside.

The question is how to defend inside. No. 3 corner Jason McCourty is shrewd at using his safety help, but he doesn’t have the greatest wheels. His twin brother, Devin, is a fine man defender (he got the better of dangerous Chargers scatback Austin Ekeler on Sunday), but it’s hard to envision him consistently staying step for step with Kelce.

Bullseyeing Kelce again might seem viable, except it would detract from the plan Belichick should deploy this time versus Mahomes, which is to again show pressure but this time actually bring it. Belichick would be leaning heavily on his press corners here.

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If you do blitz Mahomes, it must be up the middle, with edge rushers staying in their outside lanes to keep him in the pocket. Yes, on Saturday NBC’s Cris Collinsworth smartly pointed out that Mahomes is actually more dangerous in the pocket when he’s getting the ball out quickly, but that’s partly because those quick throws come when Kansas City’s ingenious pass designs are working. New England’s hope would be that the physical man coverage could derail those designs.

Yes, man coverage is a tall order, especially when you consider the pre-snap motioning of Tyreek Hill. But recall that last year K.C.’s ingenious pass designs dried up for much of November and December once defenses started playing man-to-man. That didn’t happen this year because Mahomes gives the offense almost infinite dimension. That is why everything the Patriots do must center around attacking the QB.

Going after Mahomes is risky, but think of it this way: If you sit back and just react to him, the Chiefs probably score 40. By attacking, you might give up 50… or, you might give up only 30, with those attacks coaxing the young QB into a few reckless plays. Mahomes still misses on a few throws each game and, like many great playmakers, his gunslinger’s mentality can sometimes go too far. Belichick can assume his QB—who may not be The GORN but is still The GOAT and still playing at the highest of levels—will not make those mistakes, even in the unfriendly din at Arrowhead.

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