Chiefs’ improved defense is key in rematch against Patriots

Kansas City Chiefs, NFL Playoffs

The AFC Championship Game features a rematch of Week 6’s shootout between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. The Chiefs’ improved defense is key to hold their home-field advantage.

The last three games of the 2018-19 NFL season are upon us, with the conference championships left to determine which teams will make Super Bowl LIII. Both the AFC and the NFC feature rematches of two of the best games of the year.

For the Chiefs to avenge their 43-40 loss to the Patriots in Week 6, their defense will have to replicate the level of play they showed against the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round. Their defense was dramatically more effective against a red-hot Colts team than its been all season.

After reviewing how the Chiefs’ defense performed against both the Colts and their previous matchup with the Patriots, there were several differences that will factor into how this showdown will play out this coming Sunday.

The Chiefs’ secondary personnel has changed significantly over the course of the season and it has certainly made offenses work much harder.

Even with Eric Berry’s status unknown, the safety play has seen a moderate increase of effectiveness as Ron Parker has been swapped out for Daniel Sorensen. More importantly, Jordan Lucas has gained more experience since his second major game action in Week 6. And incumbent Eric Murray’s play has steadied over the course of the year.

It’s not a dynamic or athletic trio, but their experience together and complimentary skill sets mesh better than the Parker-Murray duo. Going with six defensive backs also has provided more versatility, which could greatly pay off this go-around with New England.

The cornerback room has also improved as rookie Charvarius Ward was put in for veteran Orlando Scandrick. Scandrick wasn’t bad, but was overwhelmed as a boundary corner after spending years as a slot specialist in Dallas. Ward has allowed some big plays, but is consistently in position to force very difficult finishes, which is a reflection of a good process that will eventually bear positive results.

He’d be a good fit to play against Josh Gordon, but obviously he’s now out of the picture for the Patriots. New England’s transitioned back to their quick-hitting offense that heavily relies on their backs and Julian Edelman since Gordon is gone and Rob Gronkowski is likely nearing retirement.

Still, the more capable talent on the field, the better for this defense. It’s still not a high-upside bunch, featuring coverage limitations at linebacker, but there’s enough to win the Super Bowl with the right strategy and playmaking from their few stars.

We’ll likely see another high-scoring game in this rematch. The Patriots showed again last week they’re too good at dissecting their opponents’ weaknesses with elite scheming and execution.

Though the Patriots scored 43 in their last matchup, the Chiefs can look at four plays that helped define the outcome. A Patrick Mahomes interception set-up a four-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, so avoiding a bad turnover and watching for the following staples of the Patriots’ offense can buy them enough scoreless possessions to win.

Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves to use motion, throwing to his backs after clearing out the second-level of the defense, and using various pseudo-rub combinations to open deep crossing routes. He shows off the combination of motion to expose the man coverage, distract the linebackers with the man in motion, and isolating Rob Gronkowski with room to run.

Unlike Gus Bradley’s Cover 3 scheme, which was shredded as predicted, Bob Sutton’s penchant for Cover 1 looks provides more upside to work but also predictable traps because he’s not one to vary the looks often. If the pass-rush can quickly penetrate, especially up the middle, and the corners jam well, the defense will work perfectly. But a slow pass-rush opens time for one of the crossing routes to eventually come open.

That’s where the Colts failed in their game-planning.

While it’s true the Chiefs’ defense played better last week, the Colts were also exposed due to their own issues. Andrew Luck played poorly, the game plan failed to compensate for subpar individual playmakers, and the Chiefs’ pass-rush came to life.

Chances are low the Patriots will give the Chiefs those first two breaks on their own.

The Chiefs must try to avoid any Edelman-Steven Nelson matchups, as Edelman burned Nelson repeatedly when given the chance. He’s too quick, and Nelson’s more built to be a boundary cornerback.

This is one reason why Lucas has seen an increased role. He’s a more capable and quick slot option in coverage despite being a safety. His presence allows the Chiefs to play Nelson and Ward outside, with Lucas and Kendall Fuller in the slots.

Even if the receivers don’t create contact on their combinations, they’re slowing the corners just enough to separate from their defender. They mastered this strategy years ago and are the gold standard in the league at avoiding offensive pass interference calls because they don’t force the contact.

The action to spring the slot receiver free is intentional on the play above. The top receiver creates the rub effect, while the other side of the field will clear out as zone-beaters. The underneath back occupies the linebacker, opening the window to hit Edelman on the second-level without issue.

Edelman’s touchdown on a corner route on Fuller was another intentional clear-out effort. Although Fuller is very good, isolating any corner against Edelman works much more often than not. He’s been drastically underrated throughout his career because of Brady’s presence, but Edelman is a nightmare to guard in man coverage.

Fuller anticipated Edelman breaking underneath, and loses leverage around the 13-yard line as his feet stayed planted. The play is over at that point as it became an easy pass for Brady to make. But this is the risk the Chiefs take playing so much Cover 1 to help discourage the running game and maximize their pass-rush.

The final thing the Chiefs must watch for are the trick plays. McDaniels pulled out this beautiful fake pitch that ended in a 42-yard play for Gronkowski. McDaniels will want to rely on the running game as long as he can to bleed the clock, buy time for his defense, and set up screens and play-action opportunities. If he comes out passing early, he risks quick and scoreless possessions that the Patriots can’t afford to have considering the Chiefs’ offense.

There’s no question the Patriots’ offensive line has a favorable matchup this week against the Chiefs’ front seven. Even though the Chiefs boast talented players like Justin Houston, Dee Ford, and Chris Jones, their levels of play (and their surrounding pieces) fluctuate enough for it to be an inconsistent unit.

Expect Sutton to tempt the Patriots to throw with a single-high Cover 1 looks. Incorporating more defensive backs on obvious passing downs is a must, and their ability to hold-up in these man looks will determine the outcome of this game.

At least based on what we’ve seen since their first battle in Week 6, the current personnel is better suited to limit the Patriots. They’ll have to play intelligently and expect to see what’s been highlighted in this piece. If they snuff out the plays early, their chances of maintaining home-field advantage and driving a stake into the Patriots dynasty significantly rise.

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