MAHOMES FACES ULTIMATE CHALLENGE
Chiefs’ young quarterback goes up against Belichick’s Patriots in Week 6 showdown
Bill Belichick’s success against first-year starting quarterbacks normally is about as certain as Donald Trump’s at Republican rallies.
In other words, he knows how to get the job done.
But will the New England Patriots’ head coach and defensive mastermind find a way to stymie the hottest QB in the
NFL, namely Kansas City Chiefs phenom Patrick Mahomes?
That’s the most gripping storyline heading into Week 6 of the NFL season as the undefeated Chiefs (5-0) face the host Patriots (3-2) in the Sunday night matchup.
On a conference call this week, NBC’S top trio of analysts — exCincinnati Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth, former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison and former Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and noted defensive specialist Tony Dungy — went deep down that road.
The trio bounced ideas off one another, trying to predict how Belichick might at least slow down the NFL’S most dynamic passer.
Belichick’s 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 (like Denver’s in Week 4) or how dangerous the secondary is (like Jacksonville’s last week).
Mahomes leads the NFL in touchdown passes (14), and leads the AFC in both yards per attempt (8.6) and lowest percentage of passes intercepted (1.1). And the right-hander even completed a pass left-handed against Denver in a clutch lategame moment, with ace pass rusher Von Miller on his heels.
Sunday night will mark Mahomes’ seventh career start and sixth this year. He subbed for 2017 starter Alex Smith in Week 17 last season, a dress-rehearsal, if you will, against Denver. He won that game, too.
Those who might have questioned the wisdom of Chiefs head coach Andy Reid trading Smith to Washington in March, for the purpose of promoting Mahomes as the starter, are quiet now. Mahomes has looked so spectacular as a leader, thrower, scrambler, open-receiver identifier and big-play creator that he’s earned the nickname “Showtime.”
As for Belichick, considering the lack of talent in his defence’s old and creaky secondary, what schemes might he possibly employ to stop Mahomes, or at least slow him and Reid’s attacking, cutting-edge, speed-laced offence down?
Dungy and Harrison believe they know.
First, know that the Chiefs employ a bevy of creative schemes to get the ball to their fast, talented playmakers in space. Those playmakers are 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 his sixth year, Travis Kelce.
Through a dizzying array of 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 employ RPOS as much or more than any other team. In these plays, a quarterback reads a specific defender — typically a weak-side or strong-side linebacker — suspected of having both run-play and pass-play 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 quarterback passes over or behind him. If he cheats toward the pass, the quarterback hands off to the running back.
“Like a lot of things in football, they’re really nothing new,” Dungey 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 Chicago Bears in 1997, and they were running them against us when I was in Tampa.
“The secret to defending 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-toman 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 employ 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 employed 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 coverage, 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 manto-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 with Mahomes at the helm, Reid wants to rack up yards in big chunks. Collinsworth, Harrison and Dungy all predicted Belichick will try to take away the big plays by employing a deep, soft zone.
That whole conversation was 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?”
“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,” said Dungy. “They took away what we did best and that was the explosive throw. They gave us some things, we ran the ball and made yards, but we didn’t score. And I think you’re going to see the same type of plan, to somehow slow down that explosive passing game.”
Harrison played safety for the Patriots in the 2004 game Dungy referenced, and said he remembers that strategy well.
“We didn’t care about you running. You could have run for 300 yards and it didn’t matter,” Harrison said to Dungy. “But what we did was we had a lot of emphasis on the red zone. We made sure that we forced you guys to go on 10-, 12-, 14-play drives, and when you got to the red zone we said, hey, our goal is to hold these guys to a field goal, or try to create and force a turnover.
“One thing about Belichick, his mentality is bend but don’t break. 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. You want to see a young quarterback that doesn’t have a lot of experience do that, time and time again.”
Reid has been a head coach in the NFL for more uninterrupted years than Belichick, beginning in 1999 with the Eagles and moving to the Chiefs in 2013. The two men are good friends, and Reid said he knows to expect strategic curveballs from Belichick.
“He is the best at that,” said the 60-year-old Reid. “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 understands he’s in for a challenge.
“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.
Coach Belichick doesn’t mind if you move the ball, just stop them in the red zone and force them to (kick) field goals.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is off to a torrid start this season and leads his 5-0 Chiefs into Foxboro, Mass. against head coach Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots in a Week 6 matchup that is sure to test the young signal-caller.