Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
This season’s AFC Championship Game will take place in Kansas City as the Chiefs will face the New England Patriots. Here’s what to watch for:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS EXPLOSIVE
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken many forms over the years. While in Philadelphia, the passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick became more vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith it was more conservative.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center, it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to the MMQB’s Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. Running backs Spencer Ware and Damien Williams are good receivers out of the backfield, and the offensive line is led by Pro Bowler Eric Fisher and the solid Mitchell Schwartz.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the slot and in the backfield. He is joined by the similarly speedy but injury-prone Sammy Watkins to give the Chiefs a lethal combination who can beat anyone deep.
Tight end Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is also able to align in different ways in the formation. Athletic and a strong route runner, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers.
Reid has usually lined up both Kelce and Hill at the slot positions this year when the Chiefs go with an empty backfield to get a clear advantage at the line of scrimmage – Hill with his speed, Kelce with his size. Look for this to continue on Sunday.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE ON THE DECLINE
Over the last several years the Chiefs’ defense has been conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. Sutton’s system is similar to his former boss Rex Ryan’s in that it operates out of a base 3-4 and predominantly features man coverage and matchup zones. It’s also notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where.
During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City, the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit. However, since 2016 it has taken a nose dive. This year it has bottomed out, finishing the regular season second-last in the NFL in total and passing yards allowed, 24th in points allowed and 27th against the run. But their saving grace is that they tied for first with the Pittsburgh Steelers in sacks.
The Chiefs aren’t without playmakers. Defensive end Chris Jones has an excellent combination of quickness and strength, and is extremely underrated. Justin Houston and Dee Ford make up one of the NFL’s best pass rush tandems, and when safety Eric Berry is healthy – which he hasn’t been for most of this season – he is an elite player. Cornerback Kendall Fuller is on the rise, and linebacker Reggie Ragland is a thumper against the run.
PATRIOTS TO ATTACK THE BILLS IN A MYRIAD OF WAYS
Brady has played in a bunch of different types of offenses in his career. From a power-running team featuring Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon in his early years, to a spread, pass-happy team with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, to an offense revolving around tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Brady has seen and done it all with fantastic results.
While their passing game is built around concepts and using formations and motioning to create favorable matchups for their inside weapons – check out Chris B. Brown’s excellent piece about it here (http://grantland.com/features/how-terminology-erhardt-perkins-system-helped-maintain-dominance-tom-brady-patriots/) – recently it has become one that has had a good mix of vertical and horizontal plays. New England’s premier pass-catchers are slot receiver extraordinaire Julian Edelman, who is still as quick and shifty as ever, and running back James White, who also excels in the screen game.
Gronkowski – by all accounts the league’s best at his position – can do it all, including blocking at a high level, and can run almost any route and catch any ball that Brady throws to him. However, the wear and tear of nine NFL seasons, plus a myriad of injuries (notably a back issue that has dogged him throughout his career) has slowed him down this year.
New England’s offensive line is made up of Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. This unit might be the most under-appreciated line in the league, as it is capable of providing push in the running game and can protect Brady with ease.
Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Hogan are good in the intermediate and deep parts of the passing game. Josh Gordon, one of the NFL’s most talented players, has been suspended for the fifth time in his career and his playing days are likely over. Running back Sony Michel has also provided a shot in the arm on the ground, giving the Patriots 931 yards and six scores behind a power-blocking scheme that is reminiscent of the Pats’ ground game utilized earlier this century.
One such old-school running play that the Pats have been utilizing to great success this year is Power-O – a man-blocking play which features double-teams at the point of attack with a guard pulling towards the side of the play. Michel has picked up a lot of yards from this, and the Pats also succeed with play-action off of the same scheme. Pulling guards in play-action can influence linebackers’ coverage responsibilities, and New England could certainly apply it on Sunday.
NEW ENGLAND’S DEFENSE NO LONGER MULTIFACETED
Early in Belichick’s tenure in New England, his defenses were versatile and unpredictable, with intelligent veterans carrying out his voluminous schemes. But it has done a complete about-face over the past decade.
According to Benoit, “(Belichick’s) Patriots were known for being a certain defense one week and a totally different defense the next. They could run any coverage, play out of any structure – be it 4-3, 3-4 or a blend – and disguise pressures and post-snap rotations like none other.
“Belichick’s defense is, and has been for roughly 10 years, a simple bend-but-don’t-break unit….. They play a lot of straight man coverage, often with one safety deep and the other robbing over the middle. They blitz rarely….. Their defensive line does little stunting and slanting after the snap, and even presnap disguises can be few and far between. When the Patriots do get aggressive is usually when the offense approaches scoring range. That’s the ‘don’t break’ part.”
Heady veterans Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Devin and Jason McCourty, Stephon Gilmore and rookie J.C. Jackson hold down the fort on the back end, while Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are their starting linebackers. Trey Flowers is New England’s only proven pass rusher, and Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise make up the rest of their front four.
With such an inept pass rush, the Patriots counter this weakness by using six and seven defensive backs on the field more than any other team in the NFL. According to Football Outsiders, last season New England dropped at least eight men into coverage a league-high 23.7 percent of the time.
Lately, the Patriots have gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks by rushing six players with stunts as twists when opposing offenses show a five-man protection scheme – often with man-coverage across the board and no deep safeties (also known as Cover Zero). They used it against the Chiefs in their previous matchup in October and they likely will show it again on Sunday.
The Pats also triple-teamed Kelce in the red zone in the prior matchup – with Hightower chipping him at the line of scrimmage before he rushed and two safeties picking up the All-Pro tight end further down the field. It would make sense for Belichick and company to do it again this week.
THIS AND THAT
- Chiefs president Mark Donovan worked for eight years with Reid in Philadelphia as Vice President of Business Operations.
- Rick Burkholder, the Chiefs’ Vice President of Sports Medicine and Performance, held the same position with Reid in Philly from 1999-2012.
- Brett Veach, Kansas City’s general manager, was a longtime colleague of Reid’s with the Eagles going back to 2004.
- Toub, Chiefs secondary coach Al Harris, wide receivers coach Greg Lewis, quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka and offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy have all either played for or coached along with Reid in Philadelphia.
- Multiple Patriots coaches and front office members either attended or coached at John Carroll University, including offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski, tight ends coach Nick Caley and director of player personnel Nick Caserio.
- Kafka spent the 2013 offseason as a Patriot when he was an active player, and Lewis spent the 2009 offseason in New England as well.
- Chiefs offensive line coach Andy Heck played for the Chicago Bears from 1994-98 while Pats running backs coach Ivan Fears was Chicago’s wide receivers coach.
- Pats offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has been on New England’s sidelines since 1982 (except from 1989-90 and 2014-15) and Fears has been a colleague of his twice – since 1999 as wide receivers coach and from 1991-92 in the same position.
- McDaniels and Pats special teams coach Joe Judge both worked for Nick Saban – Judge from 2009-11 as assistant special teams coach at Alabama and McDaniels in 1999 as a grad assistant at Michigan State.
- Sutton was defensive coordinator for former Pats defensive coordinator Eric Mangini when the latter was the Jets’ head coach from 2006-08.
- Harris played for the Rams while McDaniels was offensive coordinator in 2011.
- Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly, wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea and Bieniemy were colleagues in Minnesota from 2006-08 until Daly and O’Shea joined the Patriots. Daly also coached with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with the Rams in 2011.
- Lewis was a player for the Vikings from 2009-10 while Bieniemy coached running backs.
- O’Shea was assistant special teams coach and a volunteer assistant in Kansas City from 2003-05.
- Chiefs defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas was a Hall of Fame cornerback for Kansas City and was on their two Super Bowl teams in 1966 and ’69. He also coached defensive backs with former Pats defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in Kansas City from 2010-12 and was on the same staff as former Pats offensive coordinator Charlie Weis in ’10 while Weis was coordinating the Chiefs’ offense.
- Chiefs director of player engagement Ramzee Robinson played for Reid in Philadelphia in 2009.
- The Patriots are hoping to advance to the Super Bowl for the 11th time in franchise history, and for the ninth time during the Belichick/Brady era. Conversely, Kansas City is looking to reach the Super Bowl for just the third time ever, its first appearance since 1969 and Reid’s second appearance as a head coach (2004 with Philadelphia).