Scouting Report: Chiefs Aiming to End Patriots' Reign at the Top of the AFC
Take a look at the Week 6 breakdown for the earlier meeting between the Chiefs and the Patriots.
It's remarkable how healthy both of these teams are this late in the season. The only player listed on the Patriots' injury report is defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr., who practiced in full all week and didn't carry an injury status on either Thursday or Friday. He expects to play with no lingering effects from an ankle injury.
Despite having 10 players listed on the injury report, only three Chiefs failed to practice in full all week. Running back Spencer Ware (hamstring) practiced in a limited role on Wednesday, but upgraded to a full participant the rest of the week and looks in line to play.
The Chiefs also get a huge boost this week with the return of safety Eric Berry and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. Duvernay-Tardif suffered a fractured fibula and ligament damage in his ankle during the Week 5 game against Jacksonville. He practiced in full on Thursday and Friday. While his role remains unspecified, keep an eye out for who starts at right guard come Sunday between Duvernay-Tardif and Andrew Wylie.
Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (ankle) missed practice all week. The team ruled him out on Friday, but he could potential return in two weeks if the Chiefs reach the Super Bowl.
Key Offensive Players
#12 QB Tom Brady – Brady completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 4,355 yards and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions on the season. While those numbers don't compared much to any of the insane stats Patrick Mahomes put up this season, Brady brings a ton of experience to this game, playing in his eighth-straight AFC Championship. Unfortunately for Brady, it seems his TB12 training method and avocado ice cream haven’t saved his arm from the drop off that comes with age. Last week against the Chargers, Brady threw 44 passes, but only eight traveled more than 10 yards in the air. Just two throws went more than 20 yards through the air with 27 passes traveling within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
#26 RB Sony Michel/#28 RB James White – Michel and White have this offense running on all cylinders. Michel rushed 209 times for 931 yards and six touchdowns while adding seven receptions for 50 yards. White carried 94 carries for 425 yards and five touchdowns, but he plays a much larger role in the passing game, leading the team with 87 receptions for 751 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. The two should combine for at least 40 touches in the game.
#87 TE Rob Gronkowski – Gronkowski seems slower ending this season after all the injuries he sustained in his career, but don’t put it past him to have one more big game left in him. He recorded 47 receptions for 682 yards and three touchdowns this season. Despite the Chargers limiting him to one catch for 25 yards last week, Gronkowski should see more targets this week.
#11 WR Julian Edelman – Edelman remains the Swiss Army knife of this offense; he does a little bit of everything. He caught 74 receptions for a team-high 850 yards and six touchdowns. Edelman also rushed nine times for 107 yards and completed both passes he threw for a total of 43 yards. He serves as the focal point of the Pats’ offense, and might get used for a trick play.
What the Patriots Like To Do
The Patriots master making defenses defend every inch of the field. They adapt their offensive attack to hit the opponent at their weakest points. The Chiefs struggle stopping the run and remain susceptible to blown coverages on the backend, so watch for the Patriots to target those Achilles' heels.
In the run game, expect to see a heavy dose of the rookie Michel. He gets a lot of looks between the tackles on inside zones, counters, leads and power runs. Some of his best runs come on the edge, however, via stretch runs, outside zones and toss plays where he uses his vision to pick a hole and burst through it with his speed and athleticism. Lately fullback James Develin factored more in the game plan as a lead blocker, but he can also carry the ball and catch out of the backfield. Gronkowski stays inline as a blocker more of late, possibly due to injuries slowing him down in the passing game.
The Patriots' passing game aims to stretch teams vertically and horizontally. They take advantage of defenses by varying their splits, bunching up groups of receivers to run pick routes and using their stable of running backs as pass catchers. When the Pats run bunch sets, they try to spring their target free by using rub routes to pick off defenders, leaving their main receiver open. If one receiver splits out wide with another receiver in tight to the offensive linemen, expect the receiver in tight to attack the hook/curl area in between himself and the outside receiver while the outside receiver runs deep to open up some space. Another popular route concept uses a drag and a dig from the same side, hoping to occupy the linebacker with the shorter drag and throw the dig behind it. The Patriots like to put a lot of stress on zone coverages by running a receiver deep and then trailing him with a running back on a wheel.
Edelman serves as the focal point of the passing attack. He does most of his damage in the short to intermediate areas of the field, running drags, digs, speed outs and hitches in the voids of zone coverage. He remains extremely slippery once he gets the ball in his hands. White leads the team in receptions and can hurt defenses with his speed and elusiveness. White often runs wheels, flares and Texas routes out of the backfield, but can also line up as a wide receiver for screens, drags and fades. The Patriots phased Gronkowski out of the passing game lately, but don’t expect that to continue. Head coach Bill Belichick might be lulling defenses to sleep and making them lose focus on Gronkowski. He can still beat defenses up the seams and in the red zone.
Where To Attack Them
The key to stopping the New England offense rests upon playing technically sound defense with no blown assignments, making tackles when given the opportunity and pressuring Brady. Easier said than done normally, but the Chiefs have stepped up their game at home this season.
The Chiefs need Chris Jones, Dee Ford and Justin Houston to attack right tackle Marcus Cannon in the run game. He struggles dealing with power and can be driven back to set the edge against outside runs to the right. Keeping Michel from getting the edge or stretching the play horizontally limits him in the run game.
The tackles for the Patriots struggle in containing speedy edge rushers. Ford and Houston should both have advantages in their matchups on the edge. The only flaw in getting pressure off the edge is that Brady reigns as the check-down king as he gets older. Last week against the Chargers he threw 81 percent of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. That makes it tough to get pressure with the ball coming out that fast. The pass rushers need to squeeze the pocket and get their hands up in passing lanes, forcing Brady to throw over them.
The secondary has its hands full with the shifty, speedy receivers in the Patriots scheme. Disrupting the timing of the passing game is essential in slowing down New England. Defenses that play press-man and jam receivers to slow them down then turn and run with them have given Brady fits over his career. With the majority of the passing game centering on short passes, the Chiefs can afford to play aggressive in their coverage and force the old quarterback to sit in the pocket for longer than he wants and use his noodle arm to complete deeper, lower percentage throws.
Key Defensive Players
#53 LB Kyle Van Noy – Van Noy leads the team with 92 total tackles and ranks third with 3 1/2 sacks while also forcing a fumble this season. He's key cog in stopping the rushing attack. He's not really flashy in anything he does, but always seems to be at the right place at the right time.
#24 CB Stephon Gilmore – Gilmore serves as the closest thing to a shutdown corner the Patriots have. Quick, physical and technically sound he does his best to disrupt timing on routes and frustrate receivers. Gilmore could matchup one-on-one with Sammy Watkins or to attempt to beat up Tyreek Hill at the line of scrimmage with safety help over the top. He recorded 45 tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions on the season.
#98 DE Trey Flowers – Flowers put it all together in the final year of his rookie contract. He leads the team leader with 7 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles while tallying 57 total tackles this season.
#21 S Duron Harmon – Harmon plays as one of the nameless, faceless guys patrolling the back end of the Patriots defense. Guys like Harmon have little name recognition, hardly ever make the Pro Bowl and rarely go on to have successful careers outside of New England, but while playing for Belichick they always seem to make key plays in big games. Harmon led the team with four interceptions to go along with his 38 tackles.
Belichick remains a mastermind on defense. For years, he designed schemes that take away a team’s best weapon, forcing them to turn to backup plans that rarely work. Against the Chiefs in Week 6, they aimed at taking away Travis Kelce and held him to five catches for 61 yards. That strategy didn't payoff, however, because Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt won their matchups and hit big plays against the defense.
While the Patriots don’t really have the standout defensive players that other teams do, they play with excellent technique and limit mistakes. Linebackers Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower are playing at a high level, defensive ends Flowers and Wise get pressure off the edges, defensive tackle Malcom Brown clogs up the middle to stop the run and the secondary remains well-versed in the defensive scheme and plays exceptionally well as a unit.
The Chiefs have advantages in this matchup with their athletes at their skill positions. Kelce lines up as a mismatch for everyone on this defense, Hill's rare speed can’t be equaled and Watkins presents problems for defenders with his blend of size and speed.
Kansas City must remain patient and persistent in the run game. Hunt rushed for 80 yards on 10 carries in the Week 6 matchup. Misdirection and counters can keep the Pats off-balance and open up decent running lanes.
Mahomes finished with 352 yards and four touchdowns against the Patriots earlier this season. Had it not been for missing a few throws early and a couple of untimely interceptions, the Chiefs could have easily won that matchup. Mahomes should have the nerves a little more under control at this point in the season. His avoiding a slow start remains crucial to this game. If he can pick his matchups well, deliver a good ball and let his playmakers do the rest, the Pats will be hard pressed to find answers for how to stop him.
New England showed a lot of cover one lately with their defensive linemen and linebackers roaming around the line of scrimmage trying to confuse the blocking schemes. Their game plan expects to apply pressure on Mahomes and force him to get rid of the ball early or take sacks to get the offense off track. Mahomes needs to use his hard count to uncover the disguised rushers and use his feet to escape the pocket when necessary to keep the play alive. The Patriots don’t have enough players that can play lock down man coverage, so Hill, Watkins and Kelce should get open with regularity. Damien Williams and Ware can easily beat the linebackers covering them in man coverage.
Special Teams Notes
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit 27 of 32 on field goal attempts with a season long of 52 yards. Four of his five misses have come on the road. He missed from 42, 48, 52, 50 and 54 yards with four of those misses sailing wide right. His lone missed extra point this season also missed right, hitting off the upright. A total of 42 of his 93 kickoffs have yielded returns with an average of 24.6 yards per return.
Punter Ryan Allen averages 45.1 yards per punt on 64 kicks. He put 21 punts inside the 20-yard line with25 punts returned for an average of 10.2 yards.
Edelman returns punts for the Patriots, averaging 7.7 yards per return on 20 attempts. His long return this season mustered only 25 yards, but he does have a four touchdown returns in his career.
Cordarrelle Patterson returned 23 kick returns, averaging 28.8 yards with a 95-yard touchdown return on the season. His explosive speed serves as a real difference maker for the Patriots’ special teams units, so the Chiefs must keep him bottled up and limit his effectiveness.