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How the Patriots are preparing for the Chiefs’ big-play offense

Tyreek Hill (left) and Kareem Hunt torched the Patriots in last year’s meeting.ED ZURGA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

FOXBOROUGH — There’s a drill the Patriots’ safeties have done in practice this week as they get ready to play the Chiefs. It’s pretty simple.

They line up deep, and practice squad quarterback Danny Etling chucks the ball as far as he can.

The point of the drill is to track the ball and, more importantly, to stay in your lane.

“This isn’t the game where you can make up for somebody else and run over there and do his job and your job,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “If you do that . . . with all the fast motions, their misdirection where you start one way and a reverse with Tyreek [Hill], one wrong step and these guys are gone.”


Gone. Gone like the 75- and 78-yard touchdowns Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt scored in last year’s meeting. Gone like the 58-yard run by Hunt, also from that game. Gone like an increasing number of big plays taking place around the NFL this season.

To be clear: This is not the chuck-it-and-hope era of offensive football, not by a long shot. League-wide completion percentage went up every year from 2013-16, with just a small step back from 63 percent to 62.1 last season, largely because offenses have prized efficiency. Another phrase for efficiency is short completions.

But the next step in this offensive boom might be more big gains. Through Week 5, 255 plays had gained 30 yards or more. Through Week 5 of last year, there were 219 such plays; 232 through Week 5 of 2016.

There were more big plays in the years 2012-15; far fewer in the four years before that. The sample sizes aren’t huge, but that rise and fall roughly mimics the passing explosion starting around 2011, then the tightening embrace of quicker, more efficient gains after that. The educated guess here is that the cycle is trending up again.


Because of rules changes that disadvantage defenders and an infusion of young, aggressive, offensive-minded play-callers scheming things up, chunk plays are easier to come by. Quarterbacks are throwing to wide-open receivers — those with 3 or more yards of separation from their nearest defender — on 42.2 percent of passes, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s a significant jump from last year, when they did so on 38.7 percent of plays. The figure for 2016 was 36.6 percent.

Those throws to open receivers aren’t all deep, but a higher percentage of them probably are, since targets need time to get open and because there’s simply more space available away from the traffic of the line of scrimmage.

As it happens, the Chiefs are very good at this.

“I think more than anything for me is you see an expansion of the playing field,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth. “You see almost 20 percent more coverage that a defense has to play because of [Patrick Mahomes’s] ability to scramble around and throw the ball 60 yards down the field, and Tyreek Hill’s speed.”

Which brings us back to Etling hurling footballs at the safeties with all his might.

Again, it’s not so much about ball skills as it is assignment discipline. Don’t chase a ball out of the area you’re responsible for. Trust your teammate to be where he’s supposed to be.

“[The Chiefs] take advantage of one guy being misaligned, doing the wrong thing,” said Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower. “You’ve seen that with [fullback Anthony] Sherman catching that [36]-yarder on the sideline, all those guys have big-play ability so everybody’s just got to be in their spots.”


There should be a rule that when the fullback burns you deep, the game is over.

On Sunday, the Patriots’ defenders will want to stay out of foot races against the Chiefs’ offensive players, who are much faster.

The Patriots could, and likely will, play a lot of zone defense to avoid doing so. If it works, it will force the Chiefs to put together long drives and give the Patriots opportunities to stiffen in the red zone. If it doesn’t, it’ll be ugly. Whether it works or not hinges on everyone knowing where to be.

“This is a very, very slow defense,” said former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. “So they are going to have to play smart. They are going to have to make sure they are more positioned.”

This offers a good test for cornerback Stephon Gilmore. When the Patriots play man-to-man defense, he’s likely to shadow Hill. But when the Patriots are in zone, it will test how far he’s come in their defense since this time last year, when he was often part of communication breakdowns that led to big gains, such as Hill’s 75-yard touchdown.

Gilmore had a good second half of 2017 and, as Bill Belichick said Wednesday, has been “way better” this year. Sunday offers a good opportunity to keep it going.


“You’ve just got to key your keys and make them earn everything,” Gilmore said. “Try not to give it to them in one play.”

That test is by no means Gilmore’s alone. If the Patriots’ defense is going to continue to succeed, as it largely did last year, by forcing opponents to put together long drives and trying to get turnovers and red-zone stops, it needs to show the NFL’s high-powered offenses that they can’t get chunk plays on them easily.

It’s worked in the past.

“When I was with Indy one year, we went up there in 2004, same type of situation, and they gave us one look the whole game,” said former Colts coach Tony Dungy, who is now with NBC. “We ran the same running play 12 times in a row, and ran the ball down there and Edgerrin James fumbled it at the 2-yard line and it was a perfect series for them. They took away what we did best, took away the explosive throw. They gave us some things. We ran the ball and made yards but we didn’t score, and I think you’re going to see the same type of plan to somehow slow down that explosive passing game.”

That’s the idea, but it’s not 2004 anymore. If this defense has enough discipline and coordination to stop the Chiefs from running all over the field Sunday night, it will tell a lot about its ability to stop the best offenses in the NFL.


Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.