Own­ing Ma­homes

Drop­ping into a ‘soft’ zone and avoid­ing the big play may be the Pats’ only shot at de­fus­ing Chiefs QB

Winnipeg Sun - - SPORTS - JOHN KRYK

Bill Belichick’s suc­cess against firstyear NFL quar­ter­back starters nor­mally is about as un­cer­tain as Don­ald Trump’s at Repub­li­can ral­lies. Yeah, not very. But what can the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots head coach and de­fen­sive mas­ter­mind come up with to stymie Kansas City phe­nom Pa­trick Ma­homes? That’s the most grip­ping sto­ry­line of the young NFL sea­son, as the un­de­feated Chiefs (5-0) pre­pare to face the host Pa­tri­ots (3-2) in this week’s Sun­day night matchup.

On a con­fer­ence call this week, NBC’S top trio of an­a­lysts — ex-cincin­nati re­ceiver Cris Collinsworth, former Pa­tri­ots safety Rod­ney Har­ri­son and former In­di­anapo­lis and Tampa Bay head coach and noted de­fence spe­cial­ist Tony Dungy — went deep down that road.

For a time, the trio hi­jacked the con­fer­ence call as they mu­tu­ally shared ideas and ques­tions, bounc­ing spec­u­lated con­cepts off one an­other in try­ing to pre­dict how Belichick might at­tempt to at least slow down Ma­homes, the NFL’S most dy­namic passer so far in 2018.

It was com­pelling stuff and can’t be beat as a primer for Sun­day night’s show­down.

Nor­mally, Belichick is to a first-year NFL passer what kryp­tonite is to Su­per­man.

But, fer­cry in­gout loud, his chal­lenge seems so much more dif­fi­cult this time. Ma­homes is tear­ing up the league, ev­ery week, re­gard­less of how good the op­pos­ing pass rush is (such as Den­ver’s in Week 4) or how dan­ger­ous the sec­ondary (like Jack­sonville’s last week).

Ma­homes leads the NFL in TD passes (14), and the AFC in both yards per at­tempt (8.6) and low­est per­cent­age of passes in­ter­cepted (1.1). The right-han­der even com­pleted a pass left-handed against Den­ver, in a late-game mo­ment with ace pass-rusher Von Miller on his heels.

Sun­day night’s is just his sev­enth ca­reer start, and sixth this year, af­ter sub­bing for K.C.’S 2017 starter Alex Smith in Week 17 last De­cem­ber.

Those who ques­tioned the wis­dom of Chiefs head coach Andy Reid trad­ing Smith to Wash­ing­ton in March, for the pur­pose of pro­mot­ing Ma­homes to starter al­ready this sea­son, are quiet now. Ma­homes has looked so spec­tac­u­lar a leader, thrower, scram­bler, open-re­ceiver iden­ti­fier and big-play cre­ator as to earn the nick­name “Show­time.”

As for Belichick, con­sid­er­ing his un­der-tal­ented de­fence’s creaky sec­ondary, what schemes might he pos­si­bly use to stop Ma­homes? Or at least slow him and Reid’s cut­ting-edge, speed-laced of­fence down?

Dungy and Har­ri­son be­lieve they know, and it made a lot of sense.

First, know that the Chiefs de­ploy a bevy of cre­ative schemes to get the ball into their fast, tal­ented play­mak­ers in space — led by smurfy, third-year re­ceiver Tyreek Hill (ar­guably the fleetest skill-po­si­tion player in the league), sec­ond-year run­ning back Ka­reem Hunt and per­haps the premier tight end in the league now in sixth-year Travis Kelce.

Through a dizzy­ing ar­ray or for­ma­tions, mo­tion, mis­di­rec­tion and run/pass op­tion plays (RPOS), Reid stretches a de­fence both hor­i­zon­tally and ver­ti­cally to de­grees sel­dom seen in the NFL.

The Chiefs uti­lize RPOS as much or more than any other team in the league. In these plays, a quar­ter­back reads a spe­cific de­fender — typ­i­cally a weak- or strong-side line­backer — sus­pected of hav­ing both run-play and pass­play re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. The QB quickly as­sesses af­ter the snap which way that de­fender is cheat­ing, and does the op­po­site. If that de­fender cheats toward the run, the QB passes over or be­hind him. If he cheats toward the pass, the QB hands off to the run­ning back.

“Like a lot of things in foot­ball, they’re re­ally noth­ing new,” Dungy said of RPOS. “Peo­ple are (act­ing) like it’s new. The first time I saw this was when Ron Turner was the of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor of the Bears in 1997, and they were run­ning them against us when I was in Tampa.

“The se­cret to de­fend­ing it is very sim­ple. It’s not easy, but it’s sim­ple. You have to have the front seven de­fend the run with­out the help of the sec­ondary, and you’ve got to be able to play man-to-man cov­er­age. Teams that have both of those el­e­ments can stop the RPOS, but not many peo­ple do. That’s the big prob­lem.”

The Pa­tri­ots most de­cid­edly do not. Their sec­ondary by NFL stan­dards is old. And worse?

“Their de­fence is SLOW,” said Har­ri­son, a strong safety with San Diego from 1994-2002 and New Eng­land from 2003-08, mean­ing he played on two of Belichick’s five Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onship squads.

“When I look at de­fences, I look at their speed, their size and their ac­tiv­ity. This is a very, very slow de­fence, so they’re go­ing to have to play smart. They’re go­ing to have to make sure they’re more po­si­tioned … They have to con­cen­trate on play­ing smart and mak­ing sure they don’t give up the big play.”

That’s why Har­ri­son said he pre­dicts Belichick will de­ploy a sim­ple, soft zone de­fence.

“With all the crazi­ness, the last thing you want is a lot of com­pli­cated de­fences,” he said.

This would be the op­po­site strate­gic thrust the Pa­tri­ots used in last year’s opener, when New Eng­land de­fend­ers tried too of­ten to cover Chiefs re­ceivers man-to-man and got to­tally em­bar­rassed, giv­ing up 537 to­tal yards in a 42-27 maul­ing.

“All of the big plays came against man cov­er­age,” Dungy said. “Any time you call man cover-

age, you’re go­ing to have a speed mis­match some­where against that Kansas City of­fence. Two or three guys are just go­ing to have speed ad­van­tages. (You) have to be very care­ful with man-to-man cov­er­ages.”

Belichick is renowned, too, for aim­ing to take away what an of­fence wants to do most. In Kansas City’s case this year be­hind Ma­homes, Reid wants to rack up yards in big chunks. Collinsworth, Har­ri­son and Dungy all pre­dict Belichick will try to take away the big plays by de­ploy­ing that deep, soft zone.

That whole con­ver­sa­tion sparked when Collinsworth asked: “Is it pos­si­ble that (New Eng­land) sits back there with two (deep) safeties and goes: ‘If you want to beat us with (run­ning back) Ka­reem Hunt, then go ahead’?”

An­swered Dungy: “I think that’s ex­actly what they’ll do — try to take away the pass­ing game, that deep pass. Coach Belichick doesn’t mind if you move the ball, just stop them in the red zone and force them to (kick) field goals.

“When I was with Indy … we went up there one year, in 2004, in the same type of sit­u­a­tion. And they gave us run looks the whole game. We ran the same run­ning play 12 times in a row, and ran the ball down there un­til Edger­rin James fum­bled at the two-yard line. And it was a per­fect se­ries for them. They took away what we did best. They took away the ex­plo­sive throw, gave us some things. We ran the ball and made yards, but we didn’t score. I think you’re go­ing to see the same type of plan, to some­how slow down that ex­plo­sive pass­ing game.”

“One thing about Belichick is it’s that men­tal­ity — bend but don’t break,’’ Har­ri­son said. “We’re go­ing to force them to ex­e­cute, es­pe­cially with the young quar­ter­back. They’re go­ing to show him a bunch of dif­fer­ent looks, try to show him some things he hasn’t seen, but not give up that big play.”

For the Chiefs’ part, Reid has been a head coach in the NFL for more un­in­ter­rupted years than Belichick — since 1999, ei­ther with Philadel­phia or K.C. The two men are good friends, and Reid said he knows to ex­pect strate­gic curve­balls from Belichick.

“He is the best at that,” said Reid, 60. “He mixes and matches, and he does that whole thing. He can change up and give you a com­pletely dif­fer­ent look one week than the other. So, we make sure we have plays that are good ver­sus all, and you go in and play. “

Ma­homes said he “for sure” un­der­stands he’s in for un­ex­pected chal­lenges against Belichick’s de­fence. “Coach Reid says it:

When you play in this league, you want to play against the best, and they’ve been one of the best for a long time. It’s an awe­some op­por­tu­nity to get to go up against them, and see what we can do.” Pass the pop­corn.

NFL

GETTY IM­AGES

Chiefs QB Pa­trick Ma­homes has a wide as­sort­ment of plays and op­tions he can call at the line, as well as a group of elite play­mak­ers (in­set) such as Travis Kelce (87), Tyreek Hill (10) and Ka­reem Hunt.

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