Take 5: Can Belichick slow Chiefs’ offense?
Bad Blake Bortles turned Week 5’s best game into a dud. Luckily, the NFL schedule brings another AFC showdown this week, this time in prime time when the Kansas City Chiefs visit the New England Patriots on Sunday.
No one will confuse the Patriots’ defense with the Jacksonville Jaguars’, but it’s a unit that is quietly much improved — 13th in yards per play (5.5) and eighth in yards per pass (6.1), up from 31st (5.7) and 20th (6.4), respectively, in 2017 — and we know Bill Belichick is one of the best at preparing for a specific opponent. But can he limit Andy Reid’s attack with his signature approach?
1. What will be the focus of Belichick’s defense?
The Patriots’ coach is known for game plans centered on taking away the opponent’s top threat.
But that’s hardly simple against the Chiefs, because Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are each so dangerous and unique. Complicating matters, both men often align in the slot (especially in empty sets) and attack vertically, making them more difficult to bracket with dedicated double-teams than an X receiver who lines up wide.
To combat both threats, expect Belichick to employ plenty of three-man rushes, which would open up a number of possible wrinkles. With eight in coverage, the Patriots could assign dedicated double-teams to both Hill and Kelce while still keeping a center field safety and playing man coverage elsewhere (Stephon Gilmore likely will follow former Bills teammate Sammy Watkins, as the two have similar body types).
Dropping eight also would give Belichick freedom to deploy a lurker — a free defender who simply reads the quarterback’s eyes — or a QB spy, or both on the same play at times. These tactics would help clog the middle of the field against Reid’s wealth of crossing routes while keeping a watch on Patrick Mahomes to limit his movement outside the pocket.
2. Containing Mahomes is more important than sacking him
A three-man rush wouldn’t hamstring the Patriots much anyway, as their pass rush (3.5 percent sack rate, 32nd in NFL) shouldn’t threaten the Chiefs’ O-line (3.4 percent sack rate allowed, second).
Instead, Belichick will be more focused on preventing Mahomes’ opportunities to escape, which a three-man contain rush is built to do. The Patriots also could employ stunts and twists with three rushers to flush Mahomes in the direction they want, with a QB spy waiting to close him down as he leaves the pocket.
New England’s dedication to coverage will open up lanes for Kareem Hunt — just as Denver’s did two weeks ago — but Belichick could mitigate the damage somewhat by employing “Bear” fronts, which place defensive linemen over the center and both guards. Belichick often uses this approach, which plays like a 5-2 front (five DLs, two LBs) or a 5-1 in nickel and dime, because it prevents double teams against his stoutest run defenders and can render zone runs — which the Chiefs favor — fruitless.
Even if most of these tactics work, Kansas City’s overwhelming offensive firepower will be enough to move the ball regularly against a famously bend-don’t-break defense. New England will look to win on third down and especially in the red zone, where Hill becomes a less dangerous receiver (and more of a gadget player) because of his tiny frame and less space in which his speed can stretch the defense.
Tom Brady & Co. should carve up the Chiefs’ last-place D, so New England’s defense simply must win a few battles rather than the war.
3. Cincinnati must protect to dispatch Pittsburgh
The Steelers have bullied the Bengals of late, winning the past six meetings, nine of the past 10 and 14 of the past 17 (including playoffs). Perhaps more surprising, Pittsburgh hasn’t allowed more than 21 points to Cincinnati in the past 18 meetings.
Cincinnati’s offense should break the latter streak if it can avoid what short-circuited the Atlanta Falcons in Pittsburgh: poor pass protection (six sacks, 13 QB hits).
Keeping clean pockets is especially important with Andy Dalton, whose inability to handle pressure has always been his biggest weakness.
The Bengals’ reconfigured O-line has been a major part of the team’s 4-1 start. Cordy Glenn rarely wows, but it’s often easy to forget he’s out there (a good thing for a left tackle). Longtime left guard Clint Boling has steadied some in pass protection this year, and Trey Hopkins has held up fine in the absence of first-round center Billy Price, who could return from a foot injury this week.
The right side, however, is more exploitable. Despite mostly steady play, right guard Alex Redmond and right tackle Bobby Hart have each been susceptible to bull rushes this season, with Redmond accumulating four holding calls and Hart racking up 5.5 sacks allowed plus two holds.
That could be trouble against Stephon Tuitt, whose burst and power routinely get him near quarterbacks, and T.J. Watt, who is tied for the NFL sack lead (six) and plays with a springy explosiveness. (Bengals fans probably hold a grudge against Tuitt for ruining Cincy’s 2015 season when he intercepted Dalton and the QB broke his thumb tackling the big man.)
Even without Tyler Eifert (ankle), Dalton has the weapons to carve up Pittsburgh’s leaky back end if given time. That’s the top priority as the Bengals seek a breakthrough against the Steelers.
4. Promising signs for Seattle’s offense
Brian Schottenheimer was hardly an inspiring hire as the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator, and early returns (including 0-for-10 on third downs in Week 4) were mostly discouraging. But glimpses of optimism have shined through, most obviously Sunday in a 31-point performance against the Los Angeles Rams.
Pete Carroll clearly wanted to return to the run-centric approach that defined the offense early in Russell Wilson’s career. The Seahawks have 105 runs over the past three weeks, but they aren’t just running into a brick wall over and over.
Schottenheimer has kept them efficient with a variety of man- and zone-blocking concepts and a ton of zone-read elements to occupy backside defenders. On Sunday alone, Seattle showed an option for Wilson to keep the ball on 19 of 32 runs, including Mike Davis’ 6-yard touchdown. The same tactic also produced Davis’ 20-yard score at Arizona and Chris Carson’s 5-yarder vs. Dallas.
More important, Schottenheimer has ramped up the play-action passing, one of Wilson’s greatest strengths. Against L.A., Wilson went 9 of 11 for 172 yards and three touchdowns off play-action. Two of those scores came on designer deep shots, one on a sluggo (slant-and-go) and another on a Yankee concept (deep crosser underneath a deep post).
Such designs are a great fit for Wilson, featuring his excellent deep accuracy and forcing him to deliver on time rather than hold the ball and burden his offensive line. Tyler Lockett’s speed and Wilson’s mobility make such plays particularly dangerous, like on a Week 1 design in which Wilson rolled right by design and threw all the way back left to Lockett for a 51-yard score.
The Seahawks probably remain too run-heavy — it’s a myth that you must run it well and/or often for play-action to work; just ask Jay Gruden — but Schottenheimer is building effectively off of the run-based identity.
Facing an Oakland Raiders defense that has been porous against run and pass, Seattle’s offense could be in for its most productive game yet, with friendly matchups against the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Chargers to follow.
5. Which Titans offense will we see vs. Baltimore?
Blaine Gabbert and a limited Marcus Mariota prevented us from seeing the full scope of new coordinator Matt LaFleur’s offense until Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles, when Mariota erupted for 344 passing yards and two scores (one INT), including the game-winner to Corey Davis in overtime.
That performance was particularly encouraging because of the Titans’ aggressiveness opening up the playbook. LaFleur, who has worked under both Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan the last two years, dialed up a number of downfield route designs out of condensed formations, using stack releases to free receivers and give Mariota defined reads and throws.
But last week’s flop in Buffalo was equally discouraging. Perhaps thinking they wouldn’t need many points to win, the Titans returned to a far more conservative approach and looked stuck in mud, totaling 221 total yards and just 129 through the air.
Setting aside a nice off-schedule play on Nick Williams’ brutal dropped touchdown, Mariota did little to inspire confidence. He often looked unsettled in the pocket, threw with spotty accuracy and, most worrisome, struggled to read the field against Sean McDermott’s zone-heavy defense.
That has quietly been a major recurring concern for Mariota, who should be much more comfortable reading defenses in his fourth year as a starter, and such issues could be exacerbated against the Ravens on Sunday. Under coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, Baltimore’s defense is as complex as any in the league, employing a wide variety of zone exchanges and blitzes to break down protections and fool quarterbacks.
LaFleur can help Mariota by bringing back the aggression from Week 4 and dictating to the defense with downfield designs, many of which feature extra protection built in. But it might not be enough if the former No. 2 overall pick doesn’t make significant strides on his own.
–David DeChant, Field Level Media