|The Chiefs pass rush harassed Brady all game the last time these teams met. Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images|
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. This being the playoffs, I'm splitting this series into two parts this week. Part one was posted yesterday and dealt with the Kansas City offense, but today I'm focusing on what should really make Pats fans nervous: a ferocious KC defense that has been the driving force behind their 11 game winning streak. Without further ado, here's a closer look at that defense (along with their fantastic special teams unit) and how the Patriots could match up.
Kansas City defense
Make no mistake, this is absolutely one of the top five defenses in the entire league. That numbers back that up, as they were a top 10 unit this year in points (17.9 per game, 3rd), yards (5,269, 7th), turnovers (29, 5th), net yards per pass attempt (5.7, 4th), interceptions (22, 2nd) and sacks (47, 4th). This makes sense when you look at their roster, which has deserving Pro Bowlers at every level of the defense. There simply aren't any glaring weaknesses to attack on this unit.
On paper, the closest to a weakness would be their run defense, which allowed a middle-of-the-pack 4.1 yards per carry average to opposing rushers this year. However, that number is inflated a bit by a late season hiccup against the Browns as they allowed 232 rushing yards that day, including a 108 yard day by "Billy" Manziel. Looking at the overall body of work, they held their opponent under 100 rushing yards in 11 of their 16 regular season games. They did allow one 49 yard scamper to Alfred Blue last week (aided by several missed tackles) but held the Texans to just 65 yards on their other 24 rushing attempts.
|Poe's massive presence makes the Chiefs tough to run against|
As good as Poe is, he's merely one man in a rotation that goes four strong on the interior. Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey typically surround him as the starting defensive ends in the Chiefs 3-4 front, and both have had strong years as stout, two-gapping run defenders. While run defense is the primary strength for both players, both have had their flashes as powerful interior pass rushers as well, as they each had impact plays last week against the Texans. That bears monitoring, as the Patriots interior line has struggled to protect Brady for much of the season. Starting center Bryan Stork needs to be better in protection than he's shown this season, and the team could be in real trouble if pass protection liability Shaq Mason is forced into the lineup (fellow rookie Tre Jackson hasn't practiced all week and is a longshot to play at this point). In fact, it wouldn't surprise me to see Stork bump out to Jackson's right guard spot, with David Andrews jumping back into the starting lineup at center. Former Jet Mike DeVito is also a part of the rotation, where he offers less upside as a pass rusher but stout, physical play against the run.
As if that group wasn't enough to block, they're backed up by one of the premier tackling machines in football. The seemingly ageless Derrick Johnson turned back the clock and turned in one of his best seasons at age 33, just a year removed from a torn achilles. The quarterback of the defense from his middle linebacker spot, Johnson's uncanny instincts allow him to diagnose and disrupt as many running plays as any one in the NFL. He's also effective in the passing game, be it running stride for stride with running backs and tight ends or bringing his downhill power as a blitzer. He's another guy the Pats will absolutely need to get a hat on if they want to run the ball at all on Saturday.
While the Patriots did try to establish the run late in the regular season, much of that was due to the coaching staff essentially treating the final few weeks with a preseason-esque approach aimed more at health and development than 100% on-field results. Their failure to get the run game going despite their best efforts hinted at the obvious truth that these Patriots are not a great rushing team, even with Steven Jackson giving them a power option for short yardage situations. The Pats under McDaniels have rarely tried to go outside their strengths and pound the ball inside against good run defenses like this Kansas City group, and I wouldn't expect that to change on Saturday. They'll sprinkle in the run here and there to keep the Chiefs honest, along with the obvious situational work (short yardage, goal line, etc), but I'd be very surprised if the rushing attack was a major part of the Patriots game plan this week.
Of course, projecting a pass-happy approach also means projecting a fully healthy and effective Julian Edelman returning to the Patriots offense. There's no doubt Brady's favorite target will be out there, but just how healthy he is will be a huge key as to how this one plays out. The Edelman that Pats fans have grown to love is quick enough to get open against just about anyone, including the Chiefs talented duo of rookie Pro Bowler Marcus Peters and Sean Smith. However, if that ability to uncover quickly is compromised by his recently healed broken foot, Tom Brady could find himself in danger against the Chiefs pass rush.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, this matchup could come down to this simple question: can the Patriots receivers get open before the Chiefs pass rush gets home? Only a fool at this point would expect the Patriots porous offensive line to hold up for any length of time against the group of monsters Kansas City employs up front. If Brady's targets can get open quickly enough, as was the case during the Pats early season dominance, the pass rush will become a moot point due to Brady's quick decisive trigger. If they can't, Brady will be under duress early and often, which would turn this into a long afternoon for the Patriots offense.
Lets talk for a minute about the Chiefs pass rush, which is led by a Pro Bowl duo of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Houston is the best player of the bunch. A physical monster with a combination of power, speed and motor that recalls James Harrison, Houston would have been the defensive player of the year last year if not for the otherworldly season of JJ Watt. Houston is an excellent run defender, boasting both the physicality to set a hard edge and the motor to run down plenty of plays from the backside, but his true calling card is his pass rush. Prior to this regular season, which was cut short after 11 games due to a knee injury, he had double digit sacks in three consecutive seasons, including an eye-popping 22 last year.
Injury is about the only thing that can stop a player like Houston, and it appears to have slowed him down. Wild Card weekend marked his first game back since spraining his PCL back in Week 12, but Houston's impact on the game was minimal. He was on the field for an edge rotation leading 44 snaps, but registered just 3 tackles (2 solo) and no sacks. He's currently listed as questionable for tomorrow's game, but it would be shocking if he isn't out there in a game of this magnitude.
Fortunately for the Pats, Tamba Hali also comes into this contest a bit banged up. Hali had a bit of a resurgent season at age 32, earning a Pro Bowl nod and PFF's 10th highest edge defender grade, but a late-season broken thumb has limited his effectiveness somewhat. Hali has played through the thumb injury the past two weeks, but has played just a total of 29 snaps in those two games, a far cry from his normal workload. At his best, Hali is a big, physical edge defender who uses power and an array of pass rushing moves to get to the quarterback, but the thumb injury appears to have limited what he can bring to the field.
|Ford could play a big role with Hali and Houston injured|
The Chiefs have been one of the most blitz-averse teams in football this year and it's easy to see why, as they have the personnel to consistently generate pressure without bringing extra rushers. When they do blitz, they like to come from the slot, as evidenced by slot corner Ron Parker's five sacks. I could see the Pats using their running backs to chip rushers like Houston and Ford quite a bit, but they'll have to be aware at all times of the possibility of Parker screaming in untouched from the slot.
With pass protection clearly a question mark heading into this game, the onus will fall onto Brady's weapons, many of whom are dealing with injury situations, to uncover quickly against a deep and talented Kansas City secondary. Rookie corner Marcus Peter and cancer ass-kicking safety Eric Berry are the two Pro Bowlers in this group, but KC has depth all over the place in the defensive backfield. Former Dolphin Sean Smith would be the number one corner on plenty of teams, but in Kansas City he teams up with Peters to give them one of the league's best starting duos. Ron Parker capably mans the slot in the nickel, and even rookie Steve Nelson flashed in limited snaps last week, holding up against DeAndre Hopkins on an end zone fade. The Chiefs also go three deep at safety, with the diverse skillsets of former Raider Tyvon Branch and Husain Abdullah complementing Berry to give them a number of options to throw at Gronk.
One thing that will play to the Patriots advantage is that the Chiefs almost never change their corner's alignment. Peters plays exclusively on the left side, while Smith mans the right and Parker the slot. Houston took advantage of this, often lining up DeAndre Hopkins on the offensive left side to free him from Peters, and the Patriots tendency to move their receivers all over the formation could create better matchups, particularly with Julian Edelman in the slot against Parker. Regardless of the matchups the Pats create, the Chiefs will typically stick to the same physical, press-man coverage that the Patriots prefer to play themselves. It's a smart strategy, as the Pats feast against soft zone teams that give them space to work with underneath, but also one that leaves the Chiefs a bit vulnerable against the bunch formations and pick plays that make up a solid chunk of the McDaniels playbook.
Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald drew the ire of Chiefs fans earlier in the week for his tweet predicting that Edelman will "roast" Peters. It's an interesting position, as Peters has displayed number one corner talent and, as his league leading 8 interceptions suggests, a knack for making quarterbacks pay for testing him. However, Peters aggressive style has led to him getting burned for a quite a few big plays on double moves; perhaps Howe based his ballsy prediction off of that and Edelman's precise route running ability. I would still prefer for the Pats to stick with their strengths, which to me would be Gronk and Brandon LaFell clearing out space downfield to open up the short zones for Edelman and Amendola to work their magic from the slot.
Another clear strength of the Patriots is their ability to attack other team's weaker coverage players (linebackers and safeties) with their backs and tight ends. James White emerged during the second half of the season as one of the Pats better playmakers, and he could be turned to against the Chiefs linebackers if the Chiefs talented corners are winning their battles outside. Josh Mauga typically starts next to Derrick Johnson for the Chiefs and White should have a clear athleticism advantage against him in space. Screen passes could also serve as a way to counteract the Chiefs pass rush while also feeding White more touches, although the Chiefs fundamentally sound and swarming defense can be tough to fool.
|Berry will see plenty of Gronk on Saturday|
There are few teams that approach special teams with a level of urgency that matches the Patriots, but the Chiefs are one of the rare exceptions to that rule. Under coordinator Dave Toub (you may remember him for overseeing the Bears special teams during Devin Hester's peak), the Chiefs have one of the league's best and most well-rounded special teams units. Their special teams excellence has undoubtedly contributed to their 11 game winning streak.
This, of course, was made evident on the very first play of Wild Card weekend, as Knile Davis ran the opening kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown. Davis entered the season expecting to return to his old role as Jamaal Charles' primary backup, but the combination of West and Ware overtook him on the depth chart due to his ball security issues. However, Davis has still manage to contribute as the team's primary kick returner, averaging a healthy 25.1 yards per return this season. At 5'10" and 227 pounds, Davis is built like a freight train, but he has uncommon explosive burst for a man his size and is a nightmare to bring down in the open field once he gets going. Patriots fans will remember him for several explosive runs against them during last year's MNF debacle, but this weekend it will be up to Stephen Gostkowski to limit his chances by booting the ball deep into the end zone. Depending on the weather conditions, that task could be easier said than done.
Punt returns have been handled by reserve receiver Frankie Hammond ever since De'Anthony Thomas was lost for the season to lingering concussion symptoms. Hammond isn't quite as explosive as Thomas was, but he's been steady in that role, averaging a respectable 8.2 yards per return.
The punting game could become key if this turns into a defensive struggle, and Kansas City has one of the best in the league in Dustin Colquitt. Colquitt particularly excels at downing punts inside the opponent's 20 yard line, which he did repeatedly last weekend to keep field position tilted against the struggling Houston offense. He's also been helped by an excellent punt coverage unit that allowed a stingy 6.5 yards per return. The Patriots struggled fielding punts late in the season, largely due to the injuries limiting Danny Amendola's availability. 'Dola will likely be fielding the punts in this one, as the team isn't likely to expose Edelman's surgically repaired foot to any more stress than necessary. Amendola's made some big plays in the return game this year, and a big return could bring a major momentum swing if this is a close game.
Finally, the Chiefs appear to have found a keeper in placekicker Cairo Santos. Santos isn't quite at Gostkowski's level, but he's emerged as a fairly reliable kicker with enough leg to regular attempt kicks from 50+ yards out. That big leg is also a factor on kickoffs, which he regularly send through the back of the end zone for touchbacks. When his kicks were returned, the kick coverage team allowed a middle-of-the-pack 24.7 yards per return.