Patriots fans may not have the most respect for the Chiefs defense.
The Chiefs finished the 2018 regular season ranked 24th in points allowed (26.3) and 31st in total defense. They were 31st in pass defense (273.4 yards per game) and 31st in average run (5.0 yards per carry). And when the Chiefs came to Foxborough in Week 6, the Patriots blew the doors off their defense in a 43-40 victory.
But this is a case where the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Chiefs are stingy at home, play a multitude of complex coverage schemes, and have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.
“It’s a different group now than what we played against,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “This will be a huge challenge for us on the road.”
Let’s take a look at what to expect from the Chiefs defense this time around, and how the Patriots should attack it:
Coordinator: Bob Sutton (sixth season)
Key personnel: DL Chris Jones, DL Allen Bailey, LB Dee Ford, LB Justin Houston, LB Reggie Ragland, LB Anthony Hitchens, CB Kendall Fuller, CB Steven Nelson, S Daniel Sorensen, S Eric Murray.
Injuries/lineup notes: S Eric Berry, who missed the first game against New England, has missed the last two games with a calf injury, and his status is unclear. He is replaced by Sorensen, who was on injured reserve for the first game.
CB Charvarius Ward has replaced CB Ron Parker, who started 14 games this season but was released Tuesday. CB Josh Shaw played 22 snaps in the first game but was released in November, and is replaced by CB Orlando Scandrick. Houston missed the first Patriots game with an injury.
Some stats about the Chiefs defense
■ Allowed 18.0 points per game at home this season, sixth-fewest in the NFL. Add in the playoff game against the Colts, and the Chiefs have allowed 17.4 points per game at Arrowhead Stadium. The Patriots were 21st in road scoring (21.9 points per game).
■ Led the NFL with 52 sacks, and were eighth in sacks per passing play (7.6 percent).
■ Created 27 takeaways, tied for eighth-most in the NFL.
■ Had the ninth-lowest passer rating allowed with the blitz (81.9), creating 13 sacks and 4 interceptions. Most of their blitz damage is done on first down (3 interceptions), and only 21 percent of their blitzes came on third down.
■ Jones led the team with 15.5 sacks, Ford had 13, and Houston had 9 in 12 games. Ford also forced 7 fumbles.
■ Ranked 31st in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 72.4 percent of opportunities.
■ Had the fewest three-and-outs in the NFL (13.2 percent of drives).
■ The Chiefs went 3-3 when allowing a 300-yard passer and 1-2 when allowing a 100-yard rusher.
■ The four losses were by 3, 3, 1, and 7 points.
What happened last time?
The Patriots had 11 possessions and scored nine times — four touchdowns and five field goals. Punter Ryan Allen had a quiet night, as the Patriots’ other two possessions ended with a turnover on downs and a lost fumble on a strip-sack by Ford.
The Chiefs played Cover 1 defense for most of the night, putting an extra defender in the box to stop the run. But the Patriots still controlled the line of scrimmage, with Sony Michel rushing 24 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
Tom Brady was 24 of 35 passing for 340 yards and a touchdown, was sacked twice, and spread out his completions to seven receivers. Rob Gronkowski was the yardage leader with three catches for 97 yards, including a season-long 42-yard catch-and-run. Chris Hogan had four catches for 78 yards, and Julian Edelman had four catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. James White had five catches for 53 yards, including a nice 17-yarder on a screen pass. The big difference this time is no Josh Gordon, who had five catches for 42 yards.
The Patriots picked on Shaw for most of the game, and hit him for a 39-yarder to Gronkowski, but Shaw is long gone from Kansas City. The Patriots also took advantage when the cornerbacks gave big cushions at the line of scrimmage.
The Chiefs blitzed Brady just five times, and he completed three passes for 50 yards.
What to expect on Sunday?
The Chiefs defense is an interesting contradiction. On one hand, they have been porous against the pass, allowing the most 20-yard completions in the NFL (65). They also created the lowest percentage of three-and-outs in the NFL (13 percent).
But the Chiefs also make you earn your way down the field. They allowed the fewest “quick strike” points in the league (drives of four plays or fewer), with just two touchdowns. They blitz only 7.6 times per game. Opponents averaged 8.97 plays per scoring drive, the most in the NFL. And the Chiefs tied for the fourth-fewest points allowed outside the red zone (86). The longest pass they allowed all season was 49 yards, and the longest touchdown was 40 yards.
But once you get into the red zone, the Chiefs are the second-worst defense in the NFL.
In watching their 31-13 win over the Colts Saturday, and their 29-28 loss to the Chargers in Week 15, one aspect stands out: The Chiefs have one of the most varied and complex coverage schemes in the NFL.
Like the Patriots, they will play a multitude of coverages:
■ Cover 1 with the single high safety;
■ Cover 2 to take away the deep ball with two safeties;
■ Cover 3 with the cornerbacks dropping off into deep zone coverage;
■ plenty of man-to-man coverage;
■ and a healthy amount of man-zone combinations.
Their most common defense is the Cover 1, so they have an extra defender in the box to stop the run. But Sutton, the longtime NFL defensive coach, mixes up his coverages from series to series, or even snap to snap.
And the Chiefs do a ton of pre- and post-snap rotating to disguise their coverage.
Fortunately for New England, there isn’t much that Tom Brady hasn’t seen in his 17 years as a starter, and he does a pretty good job of sniffing out the coverage. But he has to be careful to read it properly, and be mindful of the linebackers and safeties patrolling the middle of the field.
The Chiefs defense really revolves around the secondary. They had six defensive backs play at least 80 percent of snaps against the Colts, and many of their skills are interchangeable. Sorensen can play deep center field, or come down into the box as an extra linebacker, or blitz the quarterback. Their cornerbacks do often give a healthy cushion at the line of scrimmage, which allows for big opportunities on crossing patterns.
The defensive front isn’t very complicated. They play either a four- or five-man line, and they don’t have to blitz much because their personnel is so good.
They blitzed the Colts just three times Saturday, allowing three completions for 18 yards.
The Patriots offensive line did a great job against Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but they will have their hands full with the Chiefs, especially in dealing with the crowd noise at Arrowhead Stadium.
Ford is a speedy edge rusher who won’t be easy to handle, especially with the Patriots having to use a silent snap count. Jones had a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season, had a strip-sack in the first Patriots matchup, and is a nightmare for guards and centers. He should get constant double-teams Sunday.
Adding Houston this time around will give the Patriots yet another challenge up front.
The Patriots passing game is much less dynamic now than it was in Week 6. Edelman and White are the workhorses, and everyone else is a complementary piece.
This will be another game in which the Patriots will have to rely on their running backs to control the ball and play keep-away from Patrick Mahomes. The Patriots have to dominate time of possession, and they can do that with another big game from Michel, lots of quick passes to White and Edelman, and the occasional screen pass to Rex Burkhead or end-around to Cordarrelle Patterson.
The Chiefs run defense has been suspect for most of the season. They allowed 5.0 yards per carry at home this year. And they were susceptible to big runs out of shotgun spread formations. The Colts’ Marlon Mack had a nice 20-yard run out of the shotgun last week.
And the Chargers’ Detrez Newsome had a few big gains out of the shotgun, as well.
There could be some nice opportunities for White on handoffs and screen plays.
The Patriots will have to play perfectly. They have to run the ball, convert third downs, hit a few big play-action passes, sustain long drives, and finish them off with touchdowns. And absolutely no turnovers.
Getting out in front of the Chiefs and scoring first is also crucial, because the Patriots don’t have the passing attack anymore to keep up in a shootout. The Chiefs averaged 4.1 touchdowns at home this season, while the Patriots averaged only 2.4 touchdowns on the road.
The Patriots can pull off the upset with a grind-it-out type of game. If they have to play from behind, they’ll be in big trouble.