An in-depth look at how the New England Patriots defense schematically countered the explosive Kansas City offense
Going into Monday night’s contest against the New England Patriots, the Kansas City Chiefs offense had scored at least 20 points in 38 of the 39 games that quarterback Patrick Mahomes had started. Despite that, and a fully loaded offense with minimal injuries, Kansas City’s offense was held to 19 points by the Patriots defense. Luckily for the Chiefs, that was enough to get the victory, but that doesn’t change the fact that New England’s defense played about as well as anybody previously had against Mahomes.
Only five times with Mahomes as starting quarterback, the Chiefs have gone an entire half without scoring a touchdown. After Monday night, three of those instances have come against the Patriots. That makes it fair to ask how exactly New England was able to play that well against the Chiefs offense. The answer is really a mixture of talent and scheme, as well as Bill Belichick’s familiarity with Andy Reid.
Kansas City is obviously effective in the passing game, but they’re similarly blessed with a top-10 rushing attack. Knowing this, New England continually employed their most effective run-stuffing defensive lineman such as Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. While personnel-wise, New England had extra defensive backs on the field, they were mostly able to control the line of scrimmage against the run. Chiefs running backs finished with just 66 yards on 17 carries, with no touchdowns.
Stopping the run is important, but limiting the passing game is paramount when facing the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes can blow open games with his arm and the talent of his weapons, having thrown for 300 yards or 3 touchdowns in 27 career starts. New England’s game-plan was focused on how they would cover the explosive, multiple Chiefs personnel.
Blessed with talented cornerbacks such as the reigning defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore, arguably the top #2 cornerback in the NFL in J.C. Jackson, the steady Jason McCourty and the speedy Jonathan Jones, they’re one of the few teams who can match-up with the personnel of the Chiefs in man coverage. This depth allowed New England to consistently change their man-to-man assignments throughout the game, keeping Kansas City guessing to an extent on what New England had planned.
On a lot of the Chiefs passing attempts, New England decided to drop 8 players into coverage while only rushing 3 to the quarterback. While this may limit the speed of their pass rush, it gave New England the best chance to cover while having players available for when Patrick Mahomes extended the play.
New England’s most popular variation of this was to play man coverage on all 5 eligible receivers, drop the free safety deep into the middle of the field, and use two linebackers or safeties in underneath zones. They used this coverage structure for a few reasons. New England could be assured that each eligible receiver would have a player responsible for them, which sometimes can be an issue in zone coverage. The underneath zones are an effective way to counter mesh or crossing routes across the field, as well as have players with eyes on Patrick Mahomes in case he scrambled out of the pocket. Here are three examples of this coverage from the game. You’ll notice that each one had a different pre-snap disguise and pass rush plan, despite ultimately having the same defensive structure.
New England ran the exact same defensive structure with just one slight coverage variation as an attempt to contain Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill. When Hill aligned as the inside receiver or in a condensed alignment, the Patriots expected him to run vertically across the field. The Patriots plan for that was to have the free safety overtake his route, with the defensive back that was covering Hill then becoming the “post” safety. Basically, New England would have Hill covered during his entire route by having two players exchange responsibilities mid-play. Check out those two reps here:
New England used a similar defensive structure as a change-up. Still only using three pass rushers and dropping 8 into coverage, on these reps the Patriots used two-high safeties with only one underneath zone. This call was used when New England was expecting Kansas City to use more vertical routes, as the two-high shell is a deterrent for the quarterback to throw deep. Despite only rushing three players, you’ll notice that Patriots defensive end Chase Winovich was able to create havoc in the pocket for Patrick Mahomes on each of these reps:
When New England decided to play zone coverage, they did so with rare pre-snap disguises. During Stephon Gilmore’s time with the Patriots, he’s consistently been one of the best man-to-man cornerbacks in the NFL. He’s so good, in fact, that New England will have Gilmore travel with a receiver no matter his alignment to play man coverage.
Almost always that would mean when Gilmore is aligned against a receiver in the slot, that the defense is in man coverage. New England used Gilmore in that role a few times early in the game, but their best disguise would be to put Gilmore over a slot receiver just to run traditional Cover-2.
Ultimately New England did enough to contain the Chiefs offense, but at times Kansas City’s talent was too much to handle. The Chiefs are dynamic enough that they won’t ever be shut down for an entire game. However, New England played about as well against them, both schematically and through their ability, as any defense has over the past few years.