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Hill's big play ability is the biggest threat to a Patriots win tonight
Each week, I'll be preparing you for the Patriots upcoming opponent with a scouting report, going over the opponent's roster with a focus on how they will specifically match up with the Patriots. This week, the Pats open their title defense with a Thursday night showdown with a talented Chiefs team that figures to once again wind up in the playoff mix. Here's a closer look at how the matchups could play out Thursday.

Kansas City offense vs Patriots defense

While they weren't quite the floundering unit that Alex Smith's detractors long ago decided they must be, Kansas City's offense was still middle of the pack at best last year. They are counting on a big second year leap from receiver Tyreek Hill and a productive rookie season from third round pick Kareem Hunt for improvement this year. Those two will likely combine with Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce to dominate the skill position touches.

I'd expect Hill to be a focal point of New England's defensive gameplan Thursday night. An explosive athlete, Hill began his rookie season as a little used gadget player. As the season went on, his production forced the team to create more touches for him. Whether it be through the air or on the ground, the more touches Hill got meant more chances for him to break free for a big play. By the time the smoke cleared, Hill had scored 9 offensive touchdowns (six receiving, three rushing) and gained 860 offensive yards, despite spending a decent chunk of the season as a little used bit player.

Now with a year of experience under his belt, Hill is expected to be an offensive centerpiece for the Chiefs. His pure explosiveness obviously makes him a troublesome matchup, but defending Hill becomes far more complicated due to the variety of ways he lines up and receives touches. The Chiefs will go out of their way to manufacture touches for him, be it on bubble screens, jet sweeps (Hill had 24 rushing attempts last year for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns), shallow crosses or deep shots. They'll even line him up in the backfield and give him direct handoffs as a running back. No matter where and when the Chiefs get Hill the ball, the Patriots open field tackling and pursuit will be tested right off the bat by one of the game's most explosive playmakers in-space.

Kansas City's offense has been more difficult to defend than its skill position talent would indicate for years thanks to clever schemework by Andy Reid and co. The variety of ways the Chiefs can schematically attack you forces the defense to defend the entire field. Putting an extra resource towards taking away any specific thing (say, for example, Travis Kelce sprinting up the seam) will leave the defense vulnerable to something else. For example, while the aforementioned Kelce and Hill give Kansas City two dangerous vertical threats, the offense will also stretch the field horizontally, forcing the defense to defend sideline to sideline with a dizzying array of screens, sweeps, crossers and other plays designed to attack the perimeter of the field. However, if you go too light to counter their quickness around the edge, the Chiefs can punish you up the middle with power rushing schemes using a fullback and multiple tight ends. Regardless of what they ultimately wind up running, they often use misdirection to suck defenders out of position, weakening whatever area of the field they plan to attack.

Kelce is extremely dangerous in the passing game
While Hill is their most dangerous weapon, Travis Kelce also offers game breaking potential from the tight end position. Easily one of the best athletes in the league at his position, Kelce is a natural receiving threat with the long speed and run after the catch ability to create big plays. While he lines up in a number of spots, Kelce sees a good chunk of his snaps split out, often as a big slot target. The Chiefs will give him some screen looks to take advantage of his ability to create yards after the catch, but Kelce is most dangerous when using his speed to attack the defense down the field. He generates plenty of big plays on seam and post routes, which the Chiefs like to set up with play action. He's also a nightmare to catch up with on crossing routes, which the Chiefs use to punish softer cushions in coverage. It is worth noting that Kelce was limited in practice earlier this week with a calf injury, but he's expected to be a full go for Thursday night.

Hill and Kelce figure to be Alex Smith's primary targets in the passing game, as the Chiefs lack noteworthy passing game weapons beyond those two. Hill will be joined in two receivers by Chris Conley, who is now two seasons removed from being a 2015 third round pick. At 6'3" and 2015 pounds, Conley has the frame of a big outside receiver, but the athleticism to be a downfield threat. He's flashed potential at times throughout his two NFL seasons, but has yet to show the consistency to become a significant part of the game plan. Still, his physical talent has him in the starting lineup over Albert Wilson, a solid if unspectacular slot type who will play in three receiver packages.

In the backfield, the rookie Hunt is expected to step into a feature role following a season-ending injury to last year's starter Spencer Ware. A third round pick from Toledo, Hunt was expected to cut into Ware's workload even before his injury, as he showcased an impressive every-down skillset in the preseason. At just over 200 pounds, Hunt isn't nearly as big as the 227 pound Ware, but he runs hard with excellent pad level and balance that helps him to overcome his lack of prototype size. Expect him to be the guy on the majority of early-down and power situations, when he'll often be assisted by fullback Anthony Sherman, one of the league's better lead blockers. Hunt will also get blocking help on plenty of run plays from Demetrius Harris, the second tight end who plays more of an in-line role than Kelce. While Harris is primarily used as a blocker, he also offers a big (6'7") target for Smith in the red zone.

While Hunt will be the "lead" back in this committee, veteran Charcandrick West could get a few series to keep the rookie fresh. West is less of a between-the-tackles pounder than Hunt, but he brings speed around the perimeter and receiving chops to the table. The same can be said for third back CJ Spiller, a former first round pick who was once a star before injuries derailed his career. I'd expect these two to be used more in passing situations, where they could be used on screens, quick checkdowns to the flat or even on draws.

Another aspect of the running game that must be accounted for are the legs of Alex Smith. Smith is hardly a "run first" quarterback, but his 33 year old legs still have more than enough juice in them to hurt defenses that give him a lane to escape. While most of his runs come in situations where the pass rush vacates enough space for him to escape, the Chiefs will also throw in the occasional designed run for him, often using misdirection to try and get him around the edge of the defense.

Keeping Smith in the pocket will likely be part of the Pats game plan
Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defenses have always been hyper aware of quarterbacks with that escapability, particularly with regards to the pass rush. I would not expect this to be a blitz heavy game plan at all. Instead, expect a steady diet of three and four man rushes, with rush lane discipline being essential. That will especially be true on the edges of the defense, where defenders will be trained to keep Smith in the pocket, rather than rushing to far wide or upfield and leaving Smith that escape lane. Don't get me wrong, there will still be passing downs on which the Pats scheme to create pressure, but that will more likely come from games along the defensive front regarding who is rushing and dropping back into coverage.

The offensive line protecting Smith is solid but a noticeable notch or two behind the league's best. They were better at run blocking than pass protection last year, thanks largely to the development of center Mitch Morse and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif as a nice, young interior duo. With veteran Mitchell Schwartz returning as one of the better right tackles in football, the right side of the line is set. The left side is more of a question mark. With last year's opening day starter Parker Ehinger still sidelined from last year's torn ACL, the starting left guard will be veteran journeyman Bryan Witzmann, who surprisingly beat out better known players such as Zach Fulton (now their top interior reserve) and veteran Jah Reid, who was eventually released. Left tackle is manned by former number one overall pick Eric Fisher, who has developed from "complete bust" to "mediocre starter". Fisher's top notch athleticism still stands out on film on outside runs, when he gets out on the edge to lead the way and take out defenders in space, but he can get bullied by power-based pass rushing moves. Chiefs fans will still be desperately praying for his and Schwartz's health, as the swing tackle is former Browns first round pick and massive bust Cameron Erving. Erving played every offensive line position in Cleveland, but was beaten like a drum regardless of position everytime he got on the field for the Browns. Look for the Patriots to target him relentlessly with their pass rush should injuries or other circumstances force him onto the field.

Coverage-wise,  I'm expecting a mix of different schemes, based on game circumstances and personnel. Timing is essential to the short passes that make up the bulk of the Chiefs West Coast offense, so there could be a good deal of bump and run man matchups in this game. The toughest individual matchup on the Chiefs is Kelce. The Pats have used Patrick Chung on him in the past, often bracketing the coverage with a safety over the top. I'm sure we'll see some of that tonight, but it wouldn't shock me to see Stephon Gilmore or even Eric Rowe on him at times, as the Pats can treat him like a big receiver when he's split out. Both Gilmore and Rowe have the size and length to handle Kelce's size. In fact, this could turn into more of a Rowe assignment, as the big corner has taken lots of reps in the slot this summer. That would leave Gilmore to eliminate Conley, with Butler tracking Hill with safety help over the top.

While the Pats personnel favors man coverage in most games, zone also offers plenty of benefits against the concepts the Chiefs rely on heavily. For example, take the shallow crossing route they like to use to get Kelce free. In man coverage, the Pats would be rolling the dice on a coverage defender (likely either Chung or Rowe) being able to keep with the freakish Kelce in a footrace across the field, with little help coming to make the tackle should Kelce win that race. Instead, against zone, Kelce can run freely across the field, but the Patriots should always have defenders in position to make the tackle against him, as Kelce would merely be running his route into another defenders zone as he moves from sideline to sideline.

Zone will also help to prevent the home run play. With Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, the Pats boast two safeties who can reliably take away the long ball from a deep centerfield position. The Chiefs haven't attacked vertically too often under Reid, but Hill, Kelce and Conley all have the talent to make those deep shots count when they do take them. If they can establish the run early, it will only help to make play action more effective. Kansas City likes to use play action to set up those deep shots, making it all the more imperative for the defensive front seven to bottle up Hunt and the ground game early.

Running more zone coverage will make tackling space a major key for the defense's success (or failure) this week. The rationale behind zone is simple: keep the Chiefs weapons in front of you and "let" them have short completions, as long as you make your tackles in space before the sticks. The one danger is how costly a missed tackle can be in said defense, as that can allow an explosive athlete like Kelce or Hill to run freely in space. That's when a big play, the kind that can undue play after play of strong defense, can happen. Tackling has traditionally been a strength of this Patriots secondary, which will likely use its three safety "big nickel" package (McCourty, Chung, Harmon, Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler) a lot against a Chiefs team that doesn't use a ton of three receiver sets. The onus will be on those secondary players, particularly the deep safeties McCourty and Harmon, to make their tackles and keep the Chiefs dink and dunk plays from turning into something more dangerous.

Kansas City defense vs New England offense

The story of stopping the Patriots offense has long been the same. Mix up your coverages, hit Brady early and often, and hope that they're on an off day.

The Chiefs, at the very least, have the horses to affect the game with their pass rush. The front seven is deep and possesses pass rushing threats both on the edges and the interior. If the Patriots offense struggles for stretches tonight, it will likely be because Kansas Cities guys are getting it done up front.

Lets start with the edge rushers, a formidable group even with mainstay Tamba Hali stashed on the reserve/PUP list for the first six games. The leader of this group is Justin Houston, who claims to be finally healthy after spending the past two seasons hampered by injuries. The last time Houston was relatively healthy was in 2014, when he racked up a record-challenging 22 sacks. A torn ACL shut down his 2015 season prematurely, while soreness in the knee limited him to five regular season games and one playoff appearance last season. Houston has had no limitations in camp and was not listed on the team's injury report this week. If he's healthy and back to his old self, he'll represent a major season opening test for right tackle Marcus Cannon.

On the other side, Nate Solder figures to see plenty of Dee Ford. A 2014 first rounder, Ford spent his first two seasons largely stuck behind veterans Houston and Hali, but injuries to the two of them allowed him to break out for 10 sacks last season. While Houston brings imposing power to the edge, Ford is more of a pure speed rusher, boasting an explosive get off from the line of scrimmage. He'll also represent a major challenge for Solder, who didn't see a single snap of live preseason action.

Depth on the defensive edges is rounded out by veteran Frank Zombo and second round rookie Tanoh Kpassagnon. Zombo is a journeyman who has done enough to stick around but has never been a major impact player, while the raw Kpassagnon has the physical talent to turn into a force with proper coaching. At 6'7" and 290 pounds, Kpassagnon has borderline defensive tackle size, but the frame, explosive athleticism and long arms of an edge defender.

The Pats will first and foremost need both of Solder and Cannon to stay upright during this game. Presumed third tackle Cameron Fleming is questionable with an ankle injury and will likely have his already below average foot speed limited even if he is able to suit up. If either starting tackle goes down, the Chiefs will have a major mismatch to attack against either a banged up Fleming or veteran LaAdrian Waddle. With everyone healthy, this matchup looks like a draw on paper. If the Pats tackles can play these guys to a draw on the field, it will be a win for a Patriots offense that will be hard to stop as long as Brady has adequate time to throw.

Jones is a disruptive presence on the interior
With the strength of the Patriots line protection-wise being on the edges, the more troublesome matchup here might be second year Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones. Jones was considered to be a first round caliber talent by many draft analysts, and he played like it in an impressive rookie season. Equally adept against the run and pass, Jones has explosive quickness for a man of his size, which he combined with his standout power to flash dominance as a rookie. With a year under his belt, he'll represent a tough assignment for the interior trio of Shaq Mason, David Andrews and Joe Thuney, each of whom have had their occasional struggles with power in protection.

Jones is clearly the best pass rushing threat from the interior rotation, which is otherwise made up of solid veterans. Former long-time Eagle Bennie Logan remains a presence against the run from his nose tackle spot, while veteran Alvin Bailey is a solid gap plugger, particularly on early downs. There's proven veterans for depth in this rotation too, with former Jaguar Roy Miller and journeyman Jarvis Jenkins offering depth at the nose tackle and 3-4 end positions respectively. Second year man Rakeem Nunez-Roches rounds up the interior rotation. Those guys will be taking a committee approach to replacing Dontari Poe, a former fixture on the line who took his gap plugging prowess to Atlanta as a free agent.

The Chiefs will be counting on those guys to win the battle up front. While their starting inside linebacker duo of Ramik Wilson and Derrick Johnson looks great on paper, there is little in the way of proven depth behind them. However, with Johnson set to turn 35 during this season and Wilson still relatively inexperienced, theres legitimate concern even with the top of this linebacker depth chart. Those concerns were masked by the team's success last season, but Kansas City was quietly a mediocre run defense; only eight teams gave up more yards per attempt than the 4.4 they surrendered last year.

While Johnson is obviously the bigger name, Wilson is arguably the more intriguing player going into this year. A fourth round pick in 2015, Wilson was actually waived at this time last year and stashed on the practice squad following a nondescript rookie season. He was called back up to the active roster in early October and never looked back, starting the final 11 games of the season while earning impressive marks from ProFootballFocus. As by far the younger and more athletic of the starting linebackers, Wilson figures to factor in on third downs more than Johnson, who has remained an effective player despite being in the twilight of a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. The Patriots should attack Johnson when they can in coverage, where they have a number of backs (Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead) capable of creating mismatches against nearly any linebacker in coverage, let alone a 34 year old with a torn achilles in his medical history. Wilson, on the other hand, could be vulnerable on running downs, where his lack of bulk (he's listed at 237 pounds) could be exposed.

Despite their individual flaws, the Chiefs will be in major trouble if either Johnson or Wilson goes down. They recently traded for Reggie Ragland, a 2016 second rounder who was no longer a fit under a new regime in Buffalo, but the former Alabama thumper appears unlikely to play this week due to his continued recovery from a 2016 torn ACL and being behind on the playbook. That leaves them with just Kevin Pierre-Lewis, Terrance Smith and fifth round rookie Ukeme Eligwe behind the starters, with the veteran options being undersized athletes whose career contributions have come largely on special teams.

Peters is a ballhawk at corner
The secondary boast two studs in Pro Bowl corner Marcus Peters and safety Eric Berry, but some question marks beyond that. While Peters has emerged as one of the league's best during his two seasons, projected bookend Steven Nelson was placed on injured reserve with a core injury. Nelson is expected to be brought back from IR later in the year, but for now the teams depth will be tested, with Terrance Mitchell moving into Nelson's role and Philip Gaines expected to guard the slot. Mitchell, a 2014 seventh round pick who spent the majority of his career bouncing around the league, performed admirably after injuries forced him into action late in the season, earning a positive coverage grade from PFF. Gaines, a third round pick in that same 2014 draft, struggled last year in his first year returning from a 2015 torn ACL. Kenneth Acker, a veteran from that same 2014 draft (sixth round) and last year's sixth round pick DJ White round out the largely unproven depth chart behind Peters.

It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs attempt to counter the Pats weapons with this group. Will they use Peters, who usually prefers to stay on the left side, to track Brandin Cooks? If so, I'd expect Brady to test Peters, who has earned a reputation as an aggressive gambler, with play action and possibly even a double move with the speedy Cooks, who has the wheels to burn even the Pro Bowler if they can get Peters to bite on a fake. Of course, Brady will have to choose his spots wisely against Peters, who has proven to be one of the league's most dangerous ballhawks in his first two seasons. If the Chiefs stick to sides and don't track Cooks, the Pats will be able to use their formations to dictate matchups and create mismatches. Gaines will be an obvious target following his down 2016 and Mitchell, who originally fell in the draft due to concerns about his speed, could be targeted deep by Cooks, Chris Hogan or even new acquisition Phillip Dorsett, all of whom have deep speed to burn. It's worth noting that Mitchell was listed on the injury report with a hamstring; while his practice participation was never limited, it might be worth testing the hammy by sending one of the deep threats up the seam against him early.

The Chiefs will be extra vulnerable to the deep ball if veteran free safety Ron Parker is unable to go. An underrated contributor as a reliable deep safety, Parker was limited in practice early in the week with an ankle issue, but his full participation yesterday suggests he'll be out there tonight. Parker's versatility (he can move closer to the line and even handle cornerback duties if need be) could be key for the Chiefs as they attempt to handle the Pats loaded stable of weapons without Nelson.

Berry will likely be tasked with checking Gronk in man coverage
His presence on the backend also frees them to use star Eric Berry closer to the line of scrimmage. Having Berry at strong safety is almost like having an extra linebacker on the field against the run, and his ability to match up against opposing tight ends in man coverage is invaluable to this Chiefs defense. Of course, that man coverage will be tested by Rob Gronkowski, who appears to be fully healthy and ready to go for tonight's showdown. Berry vs Gronk figures to be one of the top individual matchups of the night, with Berry's ability to limit Gronk's contributions absolutely crucial to the Chiefs' chances.

If Parker is surprisingly unavailable (or becomes unavailable during tonight's action), Daniel Sorenson will be thrust into a bigger role. An undrafted rookie from 2014 who's gradually worked his way up the depth chart, Sorenson was rewarded this spring with a contract extension after having a nice season in the "Duron Harmon" third safety role. Sorenson can play either Parker's deep safety or Berry's strong safety role effectively. He could be in for a larger early season role as the Chiefs could turn to Patriots-esque "big nickel" (three safety) packages to account for their lack of cornerback depth.

It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs injuries to their secondary affect their schematic approach. Last season, the Chiefs played more man coverage than anyone else according to PFF. If they go with a man heavy approach with this group, the Pats receivers should feast. Not only do they have a decided talent advantage, but the Pats offense relies heavily on man-beating concepts such as crossers and pick plays. Even Peters and Berry, the two superstars of this Chiefs secondary, could have trouble trying to man up against Cooks and Gronk. Asking the likes of Mitchell and Gaines to check Hogan and Amendola in man could be disastrous for the Chiefs.

Which again, leads us back to where we started, with the pass rush. Kansas City's chances of defensive success hinge almost entirely on the ability of their front seven to wreak havoc early and often enough to throw Brady off of his rhthym. If the likes of Houston, Ford and Jones particularly are able to dominate up front, Kansas City could be on the way to following the Texans and Giants approved game plan of making Brady look mortal. If not, I'm expected a vintage performance from the GOAT.

Special teams

The Chiefs have long had one of the league's top special teams units under coordinator Dave Toub and that figures to continue in 2017, even with Hill's role expected to be scaled back. Hill averaged an absurd 15.2 yards per punt return in 2016, bringing two to the house while adding a kick return touchdown as well. Hill remains listed as the top punt returner on the depth chart, with diminutive dynamo De'Anthony Thomas stepping in as the top kick return option and Hill's primary backup on punts. Thomas' explosiveness in the return game made him a household name in college, with his speed making him a threat to take any touch to the house if given a lane. Between him and Hill, the directional punting skills of Ryan Allen will be put to the test, as it will be on him to limit their opportunities to make a game changing play. He might not have the support he normally has either, as top gunner and special teams captain Matthew Slater is questionable with a hamstring.

The Chiefs have also been consistently good at covering kicks, which was certainly the case last season. Only six defenses enjoyed better field position than the Chiefs in 2016, as opposing offense started their average drive at the 27 yard line. They were particularly impressive covering punts, as they held opponents to a measly 5.2 yards per return over 30 opportunities (157 total yards). To compare, the Chiefs had 10 more punt returns than their opponents but turned them into 592 yards, over three times the yardage of their opponents!

While Stephen Gostkowski faces some questions following a subpar (by his lofty standards) year, his KC counterpart Cairo Santos has proven to be a steady reliable kicker in a league short on those. The Chiefs can just about bank on getting three out of any drive that gets them within a 50 yard shot. Veteran punter Dustin Colquitt remains as effective as ever as he enters his 13th year on the job for the Chiefs, with his directional punting contributing to the Chiefs aforementioned success covering punts.

Ned Brady 9/07/2017 12:11:00 PM Edit
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