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