By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Sunday night is primed to be one of the 2018 season's premier matchups. The 5-0 Kansas City Chiefs roll into Foxboro flying high, led by their dynamic young quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. The Patriots defense will have their work cut out for them unlike any other game this season.
There should be little concern that Tom Brady and the Patriots offense will find ways to move the ball and score on the Chiefs defense, which has surrendered a league-worst 1,715 yards through the air so far. The real key to the game will be how the Patriots defend Mahomes and the Chiefs offense - a group that is jammed with weapons, schemed by a creative offensive coach in Andy Reid, and led by one of the most electrifying young passers to come along in years.
We'll see how Mahomes does in year two, three, and beyond. But right now, he's playing as well as any QB in the NFL and has no shortage of options to deliver the football. And the scary thing about this offense is that it can attack you in a variety of ways. A look at the film from the past two weeks showed how the Chiefs offense can take different forms with Mahomes at the helm.
Throws In The Pocket
Mahomes' physical tools are impressive. Big arm, good footwork, accuracy. What makes him particularly eye-opening so far, though, is his ability to simply find an open receiver and deliver the football from inside the pocket. Bill Belichick and the Patriots often like to keep mobile-yet-inexperienced quarterbacks in the pocket, and force them to diagnose the defense and complete long drives. That may yet be the plan with Mahomes, but he's proven in his young career that he can make the simple plays as well as the more dynamic ones.
Here's a play from the Chiefs' 30-14 win over the Jaguars that was about as simple as it gets for this offense. Five receivers, five 15-yard curls. The Jags had seven dropped back in coverage, but still couldn't stop Mahomes from finding Tyreek Hill over the middle. The Patriots are likely to play a similar zone defense where they flood this area of the field, so plays like this are where pressure will be paramount.
At the end of the day, the Patriots would probably be OK with making Mahomes complete plays like this all the way down the field. But they certainly need to limit passes over 10 yards.
Throws OUT Of The Pocket
Mahomes can make a number of different throws, but what's made him particularly dangerous in the early-going is his ability to throw on the run. In the fourth quarter of the Chiefs' comeback win over the Broncos in Week 4, Mahomes repeatedly got flushed out of the pocket and was forced to throw downfield while running to his right. He made big throws at an absurd rate in these spots.
Most impressive was a 2nd-and-30 situation with the Chiefs still down 23-13. Watch below as Mahomes is forced outside the pocket, then slings it 23 yards to Demarcus Robinson. This thing is just outrageous:
He made yet another big throw on the run on the very next play, going 35 yards to Demetrius Harris. It's scary enough that Mahomes can make these throws in the first place; that he's willing and able to make them to his fourth and fifth options makes him that much scarier.
Belichick can probably live with Mahomes making throws while staying in the pocket. Allowing completions over 20 yards after plays break down and he escapes the pocket would be unacceptable.
Whole he's turned heads with the deep passing game, Mahomes is also smart enough to take what the defense gives him at times. The heart of Reid's offense is West Coast-inspired, featuring plenty of short passes with the intention of getting the ball quickly into the hands of the receivers in space. Expect plenty of quick screens in addition to pushing the ball downfield.
Hill may be the one guy Belichick wants to completely take away. His big-play ability is certainly at or near the top of the list of things to prepare for ahead of this game. If the Patriots aren't careful on defense, Hill can turn a quick screen like the below play into a massive gain. What's impressive about Mahomes on this play, however, is the quick head fake he throws to the linebackers. He draws all three to their left for just long enough to complete the pass to Hill on the opposite side and get the yardage he needs for the first down.
The Broncos covered this play well. Belichick almost certainly saw this as a way to show the defense how to smother the Chiefs on screens. It'll be key not to bite on Mahomes' play-fakes.
Yards After The Catch
The Patriots can't afford to have a poor tackling night against these Chiefs. That's especially true for whoever is tasked with covering tight end Travis Kelce.
Kansas City's own No. 87 may be annoying with his antics between the whistles. He may be a bit overrated nationally (really, Booger McFarland?). But as a receiver, Kelce is no joke. If and when he gets the ball in his hands, the Patriots need to wrap him up immediately, or else this will happen:
That's a five-yard gain that Kelce turned into 40 yards just by making one guy miss. The play design drew most of the coverage to the deep part of the field, which left Kelce wide open over the middle with lots of field to work with. Expect plays like this with Hill and Kareem Hunt, as well. Again, the Patriots would probably be fine with Kelce making short catches all night - so long as the defenders take a better angle than Barry Church did on the above play.
Deep Ball Accuracy
You already saw how accurate Mahomes can be on the deep ball with the 2nd-and-30 throw to Robinson. He can also be pinpoint down the field by design. Mahomes can't be serious with this little flick down the right sideline that drops perfectly into Kelce's bread basket.
Even more striking is that Mahomes made the throw with a defender bearing down on him. He hasn't been the most consistent under pressure (more on that later), but he's clearly capable of coming up with nice plays with a pass rusher in his face.
Of course, it wouldn't be an Any Reid-coached offense without a little razzle-dazzle. There will be plenty of pre-snap motion with some trickery mixed in. The Patriots will have to be prepared for Hill to get the ball out of the backfield, like the below play.
This run by Hill got called back due to a holding penalty, but he went for 15 yards before the spot of the foul and there was no guarantee of tackling him in the open field here. Mahomes directs Hunt behind him to the left for what looks like a quick screen, but it's actually a fake into a reverse to Hill, who takes it 40 yards. This was the first play from scrimmage, so the Pats should be ready for something like this right from the get-go.
The Patriots are a well-coached, disciplined defense that usually limit big plays when they play their best football. It's going to have to be a superlative effort against this glut of weapons in Kansas City.
How Can The Patriots Slow Mahomes Down?
Mahomes has been spectacular so far, no question about it. But he hasn't been perfect. Even his six-touchdown performance against the Steelers posted a not-quite-perfect 154.8 passer rating. So how the hell do you defend this kid, anyway?
Well, that's the thing. He's a kid. Mahomes isn't fully formed as a passer (a frightening prospect for the long-term), especially when it comes to reading defenses from the pocket. He tends to lock onto his first read on a play, and if you can hurry him he'll chuck it up to that first read even if he's covered.
The Broncos slowed Mahomes down for three quarters with complementary football, but mainly tight coverage across the field. Things started to fall apart once they let Mahomes run free outside the pocket and run some scramble drills. The big keys on defense will be to push the pocket back on Mahomes while keeping him in there, and do it with four guys at the most while everyone else drops back into coverage. And the coverage will have to be close to perfect.
If the Patriots can rush Mahomes to throw and stay close to the receivers in coverage, they can force errant passes. The Jaguars finally pulled that off last Sunday, becoming the first team to pick Mahomes off with two interceptions.
Of course, the Patriots don't have the defensive personnel that Jacksonville does. But they do have a coach known for confusing young quarterbacks. This game is as big for Belichick as it is for any of the players.
It's no disrespect to the Patriots defense to say that their talent doesn't quite match up with the Chiefs' offensive arsenal. Almost no defense can match what Kansas City is rolling out there. That's why it'll be on Belichick and Brian Flores to come up with schemes that force Mahomes to look for his second and third reads and do it quicker than he wants.
If they can't hurry Mahomes, the Patriots could have a long night. As you can see, there's a lot to get ready for with this offense. Belichick's preparation and the players' execution on defense will ultimately be the difference on Sunday night.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].