You couldn’t ask for a better matchup on Sunday Night Football. The Chiefs enter Foxborough for what could be a preview of this year’s AFC Championship Game. The chess match that will play out on the field between Andy Reid’s high-octane offense and Bill Belichick’s defense is certainly the marquee matchup. No one has been able to stop Pat Mahomes yet this season. So how do we expect the Patriots to at least try and slow Kansas City down?
It’s tough to say Belichick has had one defensive approach his entire career. After all, he is known for his ability to gameplan week to week and find different ways to make the opposing offense play left handed. But Belichick’s tendency, especially against versatile passing attacks, has been to avoid sacrificing men in coverage.
The Chiefs have so many weapons that it would be surprising to see Belichick leave his defense short-handed defending the pass. Instead, he’ll try to win by disguising coverage and confusing KC’s young quarterback.
One thing the Patriots have been very good at in the early stages of the 2018 season is disguising where the help is coming from in man coverage. We’ve seen the Patriots play man-free (man coverage with one deep safety) with many variations. Sometimes, the extra defender will “rob” or move late into the underneath middle of the field. In that case, the help is coming inside at the intermediate levels.
Other times, we’ve seen the Patriots rush 3, play man across the board, and drop linebackers into coverage. In this case, the help is coming from both the deep safety over the top and the linebackers underneath.
Sometimes, the extra defender will move into position after the snap to help out on one particular matchup and provide a true double-team.
We’ve also seen the Patriots play plenty of 2-man (man coverage with two safeties over the top). In that look, cornerbacks normally play with a “trail” technique on the receiver. This means they keep themselves between the receiver and the quarterback by playing inside and underneath. The help is coming over the top from the 2 safeties in this case.
One particular disguise the Patriots used in Week 5 against the Colts stood out to us. This was on 3rd-and-9. The Patriots appeared to be aligned in 2-man (Again, that’s man-to-man coverage underneath with 2 deep safeties over the top).
Normally with this type of coverage, the deep safeties drop at the snap to help out on any throws over the top as illustrated below.
On this particular play, though, you can see that the safeties did not move at the snap. They stayed flat.
Pay attention here to the underneath coverage. Those 3 yellow circles below show true man-to-man.
But notice cornerback Jonathan Jones in the slot at the bottom of the screen. He’s playing off coverage and with outside leverage on his receiver. That’s not traditionally a true 1-on-1 man look.
This was not an accident. As it turned out, the 2 deep safeties were not dropping over the top. Instead, they were both providing help inside.
The Pats were trying to bait Andrew Luck. The idea was to make that slot receiver look open just after the snap and entice Luck to throw the ball there. The result would either be an interception, an incompletion, or a quick completion with two defenders ready to make the tackle short of the first-down sticks.
Luck did not take the bait. Instead, he attempted a low-percentage pass 25 yards downfield. You can see the entire play unfold below.
The point here is to show you the mindset of Belichick and the Patriots defense. This is what they do. They disguise their intentions in an effort to delay the quarterback’s decision-making process. Belichick wants to keep the quarterback from trusting what he sees. Hopefully he makes a big mistake. If not, he’ll either attempt a low-percentage pass in a critical moment (perhaps a throw downfield away from the clutter and disguise) or hold onto the ball long enough so that the Patriots’ pass rush can get to him.
Expect the Patriots to try and confuse Mahomes with coverage variations like this all night. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Andy Reid counter by using lots of motion, misdirection, and even no huddle to keep the Patriots from being able to dictate the action with their disguises. Either way, this figures to be one of the more intriguing matchups of the regular season.