Scouting Report: Can Defensive Mastermind Bill Belichick Stop Patrick Mahomes?

Chiefs face test against coach known for defeating young quarterbacks and a quarterback known for winning big game

Injury Report

It might be easier to name the Patriots not listed on the injury report this week. The team labeled nine players as questionable. All except one worked on a limited basis throughout the week, and wide receiver Chris Hogan sat out practice Thursday. That seems like Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is up to his usual tricks. The absence of quarterback Tom Brady from the injury report stands as the only thing out of character leading to this game.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski (ankle), wide receiver Chris Hogan (thigh), running back Sony Michel (knee), cornerback Eric Rowe (groin), defensive lineman Malcom Brown (knee), wide receiver Josh Gordon (hamstring), defensive lineman Geneo Grissom (ankle), defensive lineman Danny Shelton (elbow), and defensive end John Simon (shoulder) all listed as questionable. For comparison purposes, the Patriots listed eight players questionable last week and two did not play -- only Rowe and Grissom were inactive in Week5.

Chiefs safety Eric Berry is listed at doubtful for the game, still dealing with his heel injury. OLB Justin Houston is doubtful to play with a hamstring injury that has kept him out of practice all week. Safety Eric Murray is out with an ankle injury, as is WR De’Anthony Thomas, who is headed for the IR with a fractured tibia. OLB Tanoh Kpassagnon is listed as questionable with an ankle injury, but was able to be a limited participant in practice on Friday.

Key Offensive Players

#12 QB Tom Brady – Even though his supporting cast changes frequently, this offense still runs through Brady. Brady has 12 touchdowns and 6 interceptions on the season and averages 251.8 yards passing per game.

#26 RB Sony Michel and #28 RB James White – This two-headed monster is better than past years. Michel works more between the tackles runner, but possesses plenty of speed and elusiveness to do damage in the open field as well. Michel leads the team with 294 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. White poses more a receiving threat, but can run between the tackles as well. White leads the team with 32 receptions and four touchdowns catches while ranking second with 270 receiving yards.

#87 TE Rob Gronkowski – Gronkowski remains a staple in the Pats offense and leads the team with 308 receiving yards. He is their favorite mismatch and widely acknowledge as one of the two best tight ends in the NFL.

#11 WR Julian Edelman – Edelman is the most experienced receiver on this roster. He served a four-game suspension starting the season for violating the league's performance-enhancing substances policy. He returned to action last week against Indianapolis with seven catches for 57 yards. He plays a featured role in the short passing game as a favorite target of Brady.

What the Patriots Like To Do

The Patriots have plenty of options when it comes to running the ball. The prefer running from an I-formation with twin receivers to one side and an inline tight end opposite the receivers. The ball typically goes to the tight end side. Michel is very good young back between the tackles, but also excels at outside run plays and in the passing game. White is primarily used as an outside runner and as a pass catcher, but can also run inside and is the primary back in the red zone.

In the passing game, New England spreads the ball around with the focus on Edelman, Gronkowski and the running backs. Edelman excels in the short to intermediate area of the field. He has the awareness to find holes in zone and enough quickness to make it tough to cover him in man. Gronk is the mismatch weapon for this offense. He is size and strength make him too imposing for most defensive backs yet too fast for most linebackers. The Pats love to target him on play-action passes in the middle of the field. With the struggles the Chiefs linebackers have had in coverage, its safe to assume that the running backs will be featured heavily in the passing game this week.

Where To Attack Them

The tackles for the Patriots can be taken advantage of with speed rushers off the edge. They lack the athleticism in their pass sets to force the rushers wide, allowing defenders to get the edge, dip under the block attempt and hit the quarterback. The Chiefs need to get pressure on Brady to frustrate him and keep him out of a rhythm. A well-timed blitz from a cornerback may payoff big.

Brady has had a rough time throwing the ball deep this year. He has a 43.8 passer rating on passes more than 20 yards to the right side of the field, well below the league average of 76.3. Most of his deep shots are on the right sideline. or up the right seam. He has yet to complete a pass more than 20 yards to the left side of the field. The Chiefs should be ready to defend passes under 15 yards regularly.

The Chiefs defense needs to pay close attention to the alignment of the Patriots offense. Edelman mainly lines up in the slot, but he will move to the outside and motion back towards the ball and catch an easy screen. When Edelman lines up in a tight bunch with Gronk, he has a tendency to run an outside breaking route, using Gronk to shield off the defender trying to cover the route. Even the running backs will cheat their splits wider in the backfield to where they are lined up behind or outside of the tackles when running a route.

The Pats show a tendency to run plays in the direction of any player in motion. If the motion doesn’t cross the center, the play generally stays to the side the motion originated from. If the motion crosses the center, the play tends to go to the side of the motion direction.

Key Defensive Players

#54 LB Dont’a Hightower – Hightower doesn’t typically stuff the stat sheet, but he provides leadership on defense and makes an impact that doesn’t always show up in the box score. He is a smart, instinctive player used to stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback.

#23 S Patrick Chung – Another unsung heroes on this defense. He regularly lines man up on the tight end, but also remains a big player in the run game and as a blitzer.

#24 CB Stephon Gilmore – Gilmore easily ranks as the best corner on this team and tied for the team lead in interceptions with one. He isn’t a shut down corner, but the Chiefs need to choose their battles with him wisely.

#98 DE Trey Flowers – Flowers ranks second on the team with two sacks; only his backup Deatrich Wise has more, with two and a half. Flowers has decent speed off the edge and effectively sets up offensive tackles with a strong push upfield before using a quick inside move to defeat the block attempt. His power allows him to walk offensive linemen backwards quickly, but he doesn’t do this consistently.

Defensive Strength

Belichick remains the strength of this defense. He continues developing good strategies for taking away a team’s best player. Although his defenses aren’t flashy or exotic, they generally play with good technique and are able to execute the scheme very well.

The front seven of the Patriots play mainly with power and mental processing. The defensive line does a good job of controlling gaps and getting push up the field. They also run twists and stunts that allow rushers free shots on the quarterback. The linebackers don't have much speed, but they have good instincts, diagnose plays quickly and get in position to make plays. Both the defensive line and linebackers read screens and draws very well, making them not very effective play choices.

The secondary tries to be physical by jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, constantly grabbing and bumping them then hand-fighting all the way down the field. They do anything they can to disrupt timing and slow down their man. Gilmore and fellow cornerback Jason McCourty excel at this technique. Safety Duron Harmon shows great range when playing single-high or as the free safety in cover three.

Defensive Weakness

The pass rush for New England hasn’t produced good numbers so far this season. They have seven total sacks in five games. They use twists and stunts to break rushers free, but lack a pass rusher that can win one-on-one consistently.

The Chiefs can attack in the run game behind the right side of the offensive line and off tackle to either side. Teams have had good success running behind right using the right guard to chip the nose tackle and then proceed to block at the second level. The defensive ends usually crash inside hard on run plays too, opening up the off-tackle runs. Kansas City has the speed to run some toss and sweep plays as well.

If the Chiefs can get tight Travis Kelce matched up on safety Devin McCourty in man, Mahomes should target him. McCourty doesn’t have the size to man up on Kelce. Chung normally mans up on the tight end, but when the tight end blocks, he often comes on a delayed blitz. Kansas City can use Kelce to block for a second, then release on a route, putting Chung in poor positioning.

Kansas City can look to use play action to hit intermediate passes over the linebackers but under the safeties. If Mahomes reads cover three when surveying the defense, he can also attack the intermediate area because the linebackers lack awareness and depth in zone coverage. They can also use empty sets to try to get Hightower matched up on anyone in man because he struggles in coverage.

The secondary for the Patriots tries to play physical at the line of scrimmage to make up for the speed deficiency, which should be an advantage for the Chiefs receivers. Tyreek Hill can beat press coverage with his lateral agility and speed, and Watkins lines up as a bigger receiver that can push through the press before using his speed to leave the slower corners in the dust. Nickel back Jonathan Jones mainly line up in the slot, and that's a matchup Mahomes should look to exploit. Jones struggles to control his man at the line of scrimmage, and he resorts to holding to avoid getting beat while he turns his hips to run.

Special Teams Notes

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski stands 7-of-8 on field goal attempts this year, his lone miss from over 50 yards. He is a career 87.6 percent kicker and 99 percent on extra point attempts. Just 11 of his 28 kickoffs have been returned for an average of a little more than 19 yards per return.

Punter Ryan Allen averaging 47.29 yards on 21 punts this season with five downed inside the 20 and 11 returned for an average of 7.15 yards.

Edelman returned two punts for 20 yards in his season-debut last week. He is extremely elusive and dangerous with the ball in his hands. Edelman doesn’t try to juke and dance around much, he just gets up the field in a hurry to maximize the yardage gained.

Kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson has six returns this season, averaging 26.17 yards per return with a long return of 45 yards. His speed and instinctive return ability generated five career kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career, including four more than 100 yards long.

Wide receiver Matthew Slater is the special teams ace for the Patriots with seven-straight Pro Bowls from 2011-2017, first-team All-Pro honors in 2016 and second-team All-Pro selection in 2017 on special teams. He regularly leads the team in special teams tackles.