FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick made it a point for the Patriots to run sprints on the steep grass hill by the back corner of the practice facility, a routine often reserved for the dog days of training camp.
It’s not uncommon for Belichick to use the grueling conditioning exercise throughout the season and it’s not surprising he incorporated it into practice before the Chiefs visit Gillette Stadium Sunday.
Kansas City has an explosive offense with speedy playmakers, plus a surplus of depth at wide receiver and tight end that are rotated swiftly into the offensive scheme — something that could tax the conditioning of the Patriots’ defenders.
“We ran the hills today,” Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said. “A motto we say here is we’re just depositing it into the bank each week. [Conditioning] is not something that’s set in stone, it’s just ongoing and you always have to be working.”
The Patriots’ defense played a season-high 83 snaps against the Colts last Thursday after playing just 49 the week before against Miami. The Chiefs’ offense, meanwhile, has run at least 70 plays in each of their last three games.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce are the dangerous 1-2 punch of the Chiefs’ passing offense. Hill has registered the two fastest plays of the season, according to NFL’s NextGen stats, reaching a top speed of 21.95 and 21.78 miles per hour — which came on a 55-yard touchdown reception and a 91-yard punt return, respectively.
“You know he’s fast when you turn the film on and he’s just jumping off the screen,” McCourty said. “We need to know every play where he’s at and how he can hurt us.”
Kansas City also added Sammy Watkins in the offseason to round out the passing attack, but the Chiefs also have come up with creative ways to get the most out of their depth. Hill and Kelce are almost always on the field and have hauled in six of Patrick Mahomes’s 14 touchdowns. Seven players have accounted for Mahomes’s other eight, including two by Chris Conley.
“Their whole receiving core is fast,” Patriots defensive back Duron Harmon said. “We know they have great depth there. No matter who is in there is a home run threat.”
Despite being on the field for 70 percent of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps, Conley only has 18 targets. He’s caught 11 of them for 79 yards and the two scores.
De’Anthony Thomas, meanwhile, has played just 35 offensive snaps and no more than 10 in any of the Chiefs five games. In Week 1 against the Chargers, Thomas played only seven offensive snaps but was effective when he took a 1-yard shovel pass for a touchdown.
“I think as you go throughout the course of the game, you start out and you have good technique, but when they start bringing in different players and you get drained is when the bad technique shows up,” Jason McCourty said. “You have to make sure you’re not sacrificing your technique when you get fatigued.
“A team like this, snap, one play and it’s 7 points on the board. You can’t afford to have those lapses.”
The Patriots haven’t been called for roughing the passer this season, an impressive feat despite the sharp spike in such penalties. It’s been called 50 times in the first five weeks — 21 more times than it was called at this junction in 2017.
The NFL issued a clarification last month about the penalty, and more particularly relating to the point of emphasis that pertained to defenders landing on the quarterback with their body weight. Related to the clarification, executive vice president Troy Vincent said it was to “ensure consistency in officiating the rule.”
Players and coaches throughout the league have voiced their displeasure with what they’ve considered questionable roughing the passer fouls, but Belichick refused to acknowledge the trend that’s ruffled his counterparts.
“There’s not any new rules that I’m aware of,” Belichick said. “I mean, the rules are the rules. So, I mean, I hope you’re not implying that we’ve been coaching something that was illegal and now we’re changing the way we’re coaching it, because that’s simply not the case.
“We’ve coached the rules as they’ve been written and as we’ve received them. So, whatever the emphasis is the emphasis is, but that doesn’t change the fundamental of the rule. I’ve never taught anybody to hit a quarterback above the shoulders or hit him below the knees or body slam him or lead with our helmet and spear him — like we’ve never taught that. So, I’m not really sure what you’re referring to.”
Hoyer’s got the look
Each week the Patriots prepare for their opponent with a scout team that mimics the opponent’s scheme.
There are always challenges that arise due to personnel differences. This week that means finding ways to portray the unique athleticism Mahomes brings or the explosive speed of Hill.
“I’d say there’s probably not too many people in the league that can mimic what Mahomes does,” Harmon said.
“He is a special, special talent. A really good quarterback, a really good football player, and we know we won’t see what we’ll see on Sunday during the practice week.”
“But our best bet is to watch enough film and familiarize ourselves with him that way. [Brian] Hoyer is doing a good job of doing the Mahomes look so we’re appreciative of that.”
The NFL flexed the Chief-Bengals game Oct. 21 into the “Sunday Night Football” slot, rather than the originally scheduled Rams-49ers game. It didn’t have any impact on the Patriots-Bears game, which remains at 1 p.m. This week’s Sunday night game will also mark the Patriots’ second consecutive prime-time game and third in four weeks. They’re scheduled for the maximum of five this season, with two more in Weeks 8 and 9 against the Bills and Packers . . . The Patriots re-signed running back Kenneth Farrow to fill their empty spot on the practice squad – which brings the 25-year-old back to the team after he was released Sept. 20 . . . The Chiefs put guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (broken left leg) and safety Armani Watts (groin) on injured reserve and signed linebacker Frank Zombo . . . Plenty of special guests have come through the bowels of Gillette Stadium, but it was still odd to see Paul McCartney, in town for a special event, whizz by on a golf cart after the team’s media availability.