|Smith may be a "game manager", but his running ability makes them tougher to defend. John Rieger/USA Today sports|
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. The playoffs are finally here and both the pressure and level of competition has been ratcheted up several drastic notches, as evidenced by this week's opponent: the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs. With it being the playoffs, I'm breaking this series off into two posts this week: this one focusing on how the KC offense matches up with the Patriots defense, and the next focusing on the terrific Kansas City defense and special teams units. Without further ado, here's a look at the key matchups to watch when the Chiefs have the ball this Sunday.
Kansas City offense
Overall, this isn't a great unit. They finished the regular season ranked in the bottom 10 in total yards gained (5,229, 27th), first downs (303, 25th) and passing yards (3,255, 30th). Part of that is the result of a conservative passing game approach that is somewhat necessitated by roster limitations. Throwing deep has never been Alex Smith's forte, and it makes little sense with few proven playmakers outside of tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Jeremy Maclin, who is reportedly dealing with a high-ankle sprain suffered in last week's game. Couple that with a porous offensive line attempting to protect Smith and it's no surprise that only the Rams, Bills and Vikings attempted fewer passes than the Chiefs' 473.
However, it's also not an offense without strengths. The same offensive line that struggled all year to protect Smith has done an excellent job of opening rushing lanes, which helped the rushing game to remain a strength despite the early-season loss of superstar running back Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL. They averaged 4.7 yards per rush as a team (only the Bills and Bucs averaged more) and led the league in rushing touchdowns with 19. That ability to consistently generate yards on the ground helped the team stay out of troublesome third-and-long situations, where their poor pass protection and limited passing game could be exposed. They also excelled at avoiding turnovers: Smith had the fewest interceptions in the league with just 7, and their 15 giveaways were the second fewest in the league. Only the nearly undefeated Carolina Panthers had a better turnover ratio than their +15.
Needless to say, stopping the run figures to be the Patriots number one priority on defense. It's a task easier said than done, as the Chiefs have one of the most diverse rushing playbooks in the league. They can attack you in a number of ways on the ground: between the tackles with the powerful Spencer Ware, off-tackle with the shiftier Chancardrick West, through deception with jet sweeps to speedsters like receiver Albert Wilson, or on designed QB draws and scrambles from the deceptively athletic Smith.
West appeared poised to take over Charles' every down role when the veteran star went down back in Week 5, but the bulldozing Ware emerged later in the season to take over a sizeable chunk of the early down work. At 5'10" and 229 pounds, Ware packs a lot of explosive power into his stout frame. He always runs hard with good forward lean and pad level, making him a very difficult and painful individual tackle once he gains momentum into the second level and, impressively given how much he fights for extra yardage, he has yet to fumble this season. Predictably for a back of his size, he's best used as a hammer between the tackles, often with fullback Anthony Sherman leading the way for him. Solid fundamentals and gang tackling are necessary against him: weak arm tackle attempts will not bring him down, as the Texans' Quintin Demps found out the hard way on Wild Card weekend.
The Chiefs have been a strong running team all season, but Ware has stood out amongst the committee as of late. His 5.6 yards per carry average would tie with Thomas Rawls for the league lead if he had enough carries to qualify (Ware only saw six carries prior to his Week 11 breakthrough game). He's averaged a full half yard per carry more than Charles did in nearly the exact same workload and over a yard and a half more than West. Ware did suffer an ankle injury during his strong Wild Card performance and was held out of practice both today and yesterday, so his status throughout the week bears some monitoring.
The Patriots have typically had success shutting down power backs like Ware, but much rides this week on the health and effectiveness of Dont'a Hightower. Hightower's physical downhill presence was key to a dominant stretch of run defense earlier in the season, but the unit has been inconsistent lately as Hightower has been in and out of the lineup as he's battled an MCL sprain. He didn't look close to 100% the last time we saw him on the field (Week 16 against the Jets), but he's had nearly two-and-a-half weeks since then to rest up and get the knee as healthy as it can be. How healthy that is remains to be seen, but the Pats are a different defense when he and Pro Bowler Jamie Collins are both full bore.
Hightower is a major player in this game, but the onus in stopping the run will also fall on a Patriots defensive line to hold up against a solid run blocking Chiefs group. While that group has been good all season, their depth is getting tested at the moment, as starting guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and starting center Mitch Morse have been in the league's concussion protocol. Duvernay-Tardif is likely a long-shot to play just a week after suffering a concussion against the Texans (he has yet to practice), and Morse has yet to return to practice after missing last week's game with a concussion suffered in Week 17. That was Morse's second concussion in a short period of time (he also missed Week 13's game due to one suffered the previous week), which means caution could be in order for him.
If Morse does return, it will be a boost for this group, as the 2015 second round pick been a rock-solid run blocker during a successful trial-by-fire rookie year. If he doesn't, it will likely be second year man Zach Fulton filling the void at the pivot. Fulton, a sixth round pick last year who earned a starting spot at guard as a rookie, was serviceable last week against a strong Texans front. If Morse does play, Fulton will likely switch over to right guard over veteran right tackle Jah Reid, who filled in on emergency duty when Duvernay-Tardif went down against the Texans. Reid's primary position is right tackle, where he spent a good chunk of the season starting. Their guard depth has already been tested this year, as veteran and former Pro Bowler Ben Grubbs was lost for the season after just seven games to a neck injury.
The only interior spot of the line with any certainty going into this game is left guard, where 2012 second round pick Jeff Allen has a emerged as one of the best run blocking guards in football. Allen currently holds the fourth highest run blocking grade and 10th highest overall grade amongst guards at ProFootballFocus. It will be up to the rotation of Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Akiem Hicks to win the line of scrimmage against Allen and whoever accompanies him on the interior of Chiefs line. If a power back like Ware is able to consistently get through the line of scrimmage and gain momentum, it could be a very long day for the defense. If he's forced to consistently fight through contact or change direction near the line of scrimmage, the typically swarming Patriots defense should be able to limit his effectiveness.
While the Kansas City run game wouldn't be effective without the efforts of players like Allen and Ware, Andy Reid and the coaching staff also deserve a lot of credit for creating schematic advantages for their players. Kansas City incorporates a ton of misdirection and disguise into their rushing attack. Their tendency to run jet sweeps for their receivers (Houston saw this last week with Albert Wilson) forces a defense to honor their cross formation motion. Essentially, they excel at forcing the defense to defend the entire width of the field, rather than it's length, which helps draw defenders away from the between the tackles stuff that they are largely trying to establish. Gap discipline is typically a strength of Belichick teams, but the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of the Chiefs play designs will test that a great deal.
While Ware has been the better of the two backs recently, West could get more carries if Ware is limited by his ankle injury. Undrafted in 2014, West overtook Knile Davis as the primary backup to Charles this year, and was getting the workload of a feature back before his week 11 hamstring injury allowed Ware to emerge. That injury broke up a streak of three straight games with 20+ touches, a number he hasn't reached since getting hurt. He has instead settled into a steady role in the backfield committee, typically seeing between 10-15 carries while also serving as the team's primary passing down back. That passing game aspect is not to be overlooked, as the backs have always had big passing game roles both in Andy Reid's offense and with checkdown friendly Smith under center. Jamie Collins will likely have primary responsibility for him when he leaks out into pass routes.
West is the speedier of the two backs (he posted a blazing 4.27 40 time at his Pro Day) and offers more of a big play element, but lost carries as they game progressed to the more effective Ware as the Texans game went on. With that kind of speed, preventing him from getting around the edge will be imperative, with Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard typically having the responsibility of forcing backs to cut their runs back inside.
|Fisher has struggled to block the league's best pass rushers|
While the Patriots will look to put heat on Smith, they'll likely be very careful in doing so, as his running ability can be a back-breaker when things break down. Smith's running ability adds an extra dimension that makes the Chiefs offense more difficult to defend. While Smith will occasionally keep the ball on read option plays (Tedy Bruschi recently noted the amount of "Saturday" plays in the KC playbook), the majority of his rushing attempts come on scrambles, as he's more than willing to take open space if the defense gives it up. Smith also has surprisingly good speed, which allows him to turn broken plays into big gainers in a hurry if the defense is caught unaware. For the season, he rushed for 84 tunes (just over 5 attempts per game) for 498 yards (5.9 per carry) and two scores, all impressive numbers for a quarterback. I could see the Patriots using putting a "spy" on Smith at times to eliminate that aspect of his game. Kansas City also uses his athleticism and accuracy on the run on bootlegs, and I could see the Chiefs intentionally moving the pocket at times as a counter to the Patriots on-paper pass rush advantage.
When the Chiefs do look to throw, their limited options could make for a fairly simple straight-forward strategy for the Patriots secondary: use bracket coverage on Travis Kelce, trust Malcolm Butler to lock down Jeremy Maclin, and trust the rest of your corners one-on-one against the Chiefs lackluster receiver depth chart. This seems to make sense, following the Belichickian philosophy of taking away the opponent's best player.
The Chiefs best passing game weapon has undoubtedly been Maclin, who has silenced critics who suspected he was a product of the system in Philly and not worthy of the number one receiver money Kansas City offered him. Despite playing in a poor passing game without complementary playmakers to detract attention from defenses, Maclin still turned in an impressive 87 catch, 1,088 yard, 8 touchdown season as Alex Smith's go-to receiver. Maclin's impact on the passing game was massive, as he added a legitimate threat outside the numbers to an offense that didn't have a single receiving touchdown by a receiver the previous season. Perhaps no stat illustrates his importance to the Chiefs passing offense than targets: Maclin's 124 more than doubled the next highest receiver (Albert Wilson with 57).
That's why Maclin's high ankle sprain is a huge deal that cannot be overlooked this week. The initial reports of "high ankle sprain" made it sound dubious that Maclin would even be able to go this week. Since then, the Chiefs have poured some water over that initial doom, with Andy Reid describing the sprain as "mild" and saying he expects he'll be able to practice later in the week. It's hard to reconcile the word "mild" with "high ankle sprain", but my best guess is that Maclin plays but at far less than 100%. Given how much of Maclin's game is based on quickness, it's hard to imagine him being particularly effective playing with an ankle injury. It's harder to imagine him winning a game-long one-on-one matchup with Malcolm Butler, who earned a Pro Bowl nod in his second season due to his ability to shadow top receivers.
|Kelce's speed and power make him very dangerous after the catch|
Patriots fans are more than familiar with what Kelce is capable of, as his monster game against the Patriots in last year's infamous MNF blowout was a bit of a coming out party for the freakishly talented pass catcher. While Kelce was curiously just a part time player despite regularly displaying his tantalizing talent in 2014, the coaching staff finally made him a major part of the passing offense. He responded by catching 72 of his 103 targets for 875 yards (12.2 ypc) and 5 touchdowns en route to his first Pro Bowl nomination. As one of the few dynamic playmakers on the offense, Kelce's big play ability was key to bringing the occasional explosive play into the mix. The Chiefs leaned on him in last week's win, with the big tight end contributing season highs in catches (8) and yards (128), and they'll lean on him even more if Maclin is noticeably limited.
Given the lack of proven passing game playmakers elsewhere on the Chiefs roster, it makes all the sense in the world to sell out to take away Kelce. Patrick Chung has spent the bulk of the season manning up on opposing tight ends, and has more than lived up to the challenge. Leaving Chung one-on-one against Kelce with no help would be a mistake (Kelce is simply too good), but keeping a safety over the top to take away the seam route would test the already expansive list of ways Kansas City tries to get the ball in Kelce's hands. Quick tight end screens and crossing routes would be ways to test Chung against Kelce in space, whose solid open field tackling will be put to the test against Kelce. Chung's versatility could be key to the matchup, as the Chiefs will line up Kelce all over the formation to make it more difficult to match-up with him. Of course, it's worth noting that Chung missed some time himself late in the season with injury issues and, while his availability for Sunday isn't in doubt, his overall mobility will be tested by Kelce.
Committing two defenders on most snaps to Kelce would mean trusting the rest of your defensive backs to hold up in coverage against the Chiefs secondary targets. Given their track record this season, it's easy to justify that trust. Logan Ryan did give up some plays over the season's final few weeks, but against far more talented receivers than the likes of Albert Wilson and Chris Conley. An undrafted rookie last season, Wilson played his way into being the Chiefs number two receiver this season, but that role as a complimentary guy in a low octane passing offense was hardly enough to translate into consistent production. The Chiefs will try to get Wilson the ball in space, either via quick receiver screens or jet sweeps. They'll also take the occasional deep shot with him, as Smith just missed Wilson wide open behind the defense last week. Conley was a 2015 third rounder who struggled to earn consistent playing time, let alone targets in his rookie year. He did step up in the Texans game, flashing his eye-popping athleticism to catch a contested touchdown. If Maclin is unable to play, 32 year old Jason Avant could be dusted off for some snaps in the rare occasions the Chiefs go to 3 WR sets. Demetrius Harris is seldom targeted in the passing game, but the second tight end is worth noting due to his size (listed at 6'7") and raw athletic talent, much of which stems from his basketball background.
This isn't an offense devoid of good players, but it's a limited one even when Jeremy Maclin is fully healthy. They can be effective as long as they can stay in manageable down-and-distance situations. The running game's ability to consistently generate solid yardage has been key to that and, when they're rolling, short precision routes combined with some wonky misdirection plays and the occasional deep shot in play action have been more than enough to compliment the strong ground attack and keep the chains moving. Reid's play-calling has been a part of that, as he's done an excellent job of keeping defenses off balance this season despite some obvious personnel limitations.
However, they aren't designed for obvious passing situations. If the Patriots can turn this into a passing game, they have the horses up front to exploit Kansas Cities poor pass blockers and to turn and run with their thin group of receivers. Selling out to stop the run will likely be the top priority, with the Chief's lack of playmakers inviting the Pats to stick seven or eight guys into the box. Take away Kelce with aggressive help over the top, and you put Smith in a difficult predicament on passing downs: with little time before the pass rush gets home and no obvious favorable matchups to bail him out. It remains to be seen how well the offense will be able to fare against a dangerous Chiefs defense, but the Pats defense appears to have the talent to make these Chiefs struggle for every yard.