The Kansas City Chiefs defense has been one of the best in the NFL of late, allowing just eight points a game over their last five contests. They haven’t allowed more than 22 points since week four, and have grown to be one of the best at forcing turnovers.
However, their next matchup against Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions will be their biggest test yet. Kansas City will count on their defense to limit New England, as the Chiefs offense cannot keep up with Brady in a shootout. How they handle these five aspects of the game will likely determine their fate.
How will the Chiefs slow down TE Rob Gronkowski?
The Pro Bowl tight end hauled in 11 touchdowns on the year and led the league with 1,176 yards receiving. For comparison, star Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce caught five touchdowns and 875 yards receiving. Gronkowski is the Patriots No. 1 weapon in the red zone, as his 6’6" frame and physical style of play demand multiple defenders. He’ll get his fair share of catches no matter what the Chiefs do, but limiting the damage will be key. Kansas City needs to jam up front to prevent the full head of steam streaking down the field and have a safety over the top at all times. This keeps Gronkowski from outrunning a line backer off the snap and gives the safeties enough time to blanket his route. He’ll still reel in catches, but this puts the secondary in a favorable stop to make the sure tackle and eliminate a costly big play.
How will the Chiefs slow down WR Julian Edelman?
The Patriots have almost abandoned the traditional run game all together after numerous injuries to leading backs, and instead use short passing routes to the likes of Edelman as their safe run game. Edelman possesses the biggest mismatch for the Chiefs, as even if the pass rush beats their man, Brady has Edelman as a quick dump-off pass to avoid the sack. The Chiefs have to stop the out routes and quick slants if they want to give their pass rush enough time to get to Brady. Edelman seems to find open pockets in the zone scheme and the Chiefs don’t have a corner that can keep up with him man to man. A hybrid of these strategies might be the best way to limit his catches, and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will need a creative game plan like that to stop the Patriots top weapon, especially on third down.
How will the injured Chiefs pass rush perform against a weak offensive line?
When 100 percent healthy, the Chiefs pass rush lead by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali can be matchup problem for any team. Added with the emergence of Jaye Howard, Allen Bailey, and a healthy Dontari Poe, the Chiefs front seven is their strongest unit. However, they’re not all healthy as Houston has a massive brace on his knee and remains questionable, while Hali is probable but rarely played at all against the Texans or Raiders. The Patriots offensive line is very inexperienced and riddled with injuries, but they do get rid of the ball quickly which is a problem for even the best pass rushes. Kansas City will need all hands on deck to get to Brady and it starts on the outsides with Houston and Hali. If they can show some of their early season life, they’re presence will force Brady to step up in the pocket where Poe, Bailey, and Howard can pounce. If healthy, it could be a long day for Brady and a good sign for the Chiefs chances overall.
Can the Chiefs force New England turnovers?
Brady threw 36 touchdowns on the season, most in the NFL, and threw only seven interceptions, good for second best in the NFL. The Chiefs defense on the other hand, hauled in 22 interceptions total, which was also second best in the NFL. Which side wins in this category will have the severe upper hand overall. Last time the Chiefs and Patriots squared off, Brady threw two interceptions, lost a fumble to Tamba Hali, and totaled only 159 yards. Kansas City will need a similar game this time to not only keep Brady off the field, but set up the Chiefs offense with some short fields. Winning on third down will also play a big role, as the Chiefs are third best in the NFL on stopping third down conversions, while New England ranks 11th.
What will Bob Sutton’s strategy be?
No one knows what Sutton’s plan will be, as there is no real blueprint to stopping the Patriots. Multiple strategies have worked, but what’s the best fit for the Chiefs? Will they focus more on stopping Gronkowski or Edelman? Will they employ zone or man coverage? What exotic schemes will be used to create a better pass rush? It very well could be an entirely new strategy used against the Patriots, as Sutton has had success before with the Jets and last year against New England. This is the playoffs and serves as the toughest challenge to date, and how he chooses to attack Brady and the Patriots will be scrutinized win or lose.
The Chiefs will need their defense to shine against New England, and creating pressure, turnovers, and stopping Edleman and/or Gronkowski will go a long way in helping the Chiefs pull off the upset. It’s not an easy task, but in the playoffs it’s the best vs. the best. It’s time for the Chiefs defense to prove if they belong.
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