In their Week 6 matchup in New England, Pat Mahomes was making just the 7th start of his career. Bill Belichick aimed to take advantage of that. He threw what seemed like every look he had in his playbook at the young QB, mixing man and zone coverage almost 50-50. Belichick used a lot of 0-man coverage specifically. That means man-to-man with no deep safety. The aggressive approach helped keep the Chiefs out of rhythm during the first half.
New England’s aggressiveness coupled with disguise gave K.C. trouble early on. The below play is a great example. This was in the first quarter, and the Patriots were playing 0-man (again, no deep safety). They were showing a blitz look as well.
After the snap, the Patriots still looked to be bringing six pass rushers. Those defenders all looked to be rushing for a good second before three of them bailed.
What appeared to be 0-man blitz ended up being a 3-man rush. The Patriots were able to get a free runner in with only 3 true pass rushers. Mahomes was forced to get rid of the ball quickly in response to the look and the quick pressure. The result was a mere 2-yard gain.
This gave the Patriots the best of both worlds – the benefit of breaking down the Chiefs protection with 6 pass rushers, while still dropping 8 into coverage. For those of you who aren’t good at math, 6 + 8 = 14. We’ve heard analysts joke that you need more than eleven defenders on the field to have a fair chance against Mahomes and the Chiefs Offense. Belichick did his best to make it seem like there were 14 players on the field on this play.
The Patriots showed an almost-identical look later in the first quarter on a 3rd down. Mahomes again had to rush his throw in response to the pressure, and he missed an open Travis Kelce as a result.
We anticipate Belichick throwing several looks like this at Mahomes again to get him out of rhythm.
The Patriots also spent a lot of snaps double-teaming Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill (and sometimes both). Mahomes threw an interception in the red zone at the end of the 2nd quarter when New England was doubling both Kelce and Hill. Below, you can see the matchups.
Kelce was also re-routed at the line of scrimmage by linebacker, Dont’a Hightower. With both Kelce and Hill taken away by the double-teams, and Hightower closing on Mahomes with his delayed pass rush, Mahomes fled the pocket and tried to make something happen. He forced a terrible throw for an interception.
Mahomes actually missed quite a few throws in this game, in addition to forcing a few passes like the interception shown above. It goes without saying that those mistakes can’t happen Sunday if the Chiefs want to have a chance.
It’s tough to anticipate how exactly Bill Belichick will want to match up in this game. He seemed to be comfortable in Week 6 with cornerback Stephon Gilmore taking away Sammy Watkins, and then using double-teams to handle Kelce and Hill. With Kareem Hunt no longer in the mix, maybe we’ll see even more doubles.
In that first matchup, we also saw some snaps with Kelce 1-on-1 against safeties Patrick Chung or Devin McCourty. We saw Belichick mix cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones on Hill. We saw the occasional Gilmore-Hill matchup, and we also saw safety Devin McCourty on Hill a few times when he was aligned in the slot. Belichick didn’t want to tip his hand on what the coverage would be, so he mixed his man matchups in that Week 6 contest. This contributed to some of the uncertainty we saw in Mahomes’ performance, as it was tough to decipher what exactly New England would do on each play.
Still, there were enough instances of Tyreek Hill being left in favorable 1-on-1 matchups or given free releases off the line in zone coverage. The Chiefs capitalized on these situations.
The below 3rd-quarter touchdown came with safety Devin McCourty on Hill in the slot. Hill ran a deep over. With the deep-middle safety paying extra attention to Travis Kelce, Hill was left 1-on-1 against McCourty. He also had a free release, which enabled him to easily create separation for an easy touchdown.
We’d be surprised to see too many snaps with a safety (even one as good as McCourty) in true man on Hill in the AFC Championship Game.
Andy Reid set Hill up in this game, like has all season, with routes giving him the opportunity to run away from defenders (like crossers and over routes). The speed Hill has is unique, and Reid knows how to use it in ways that create big-play opportunities against man coverage. He also knows how to take advantage of defenders not always accounting for Hill in zone. The latter is exactly what happened on Hill’s 75-yard touchdown reception.
Below you can see the Patriots were playing cover-3 zone. Keep an eye on cornerback Jason McCourty at the top of the screen.
Tyreek Hill was running a deep-over route here, with Travis Kelce running a comeback against McCourty.
McCourty thought that Kelce was the only route challenging his deep third zone. He was not aware of Tyreek Hill, who was coming from the other side of the field. Even a couple of seconds into the play, Hill was still on the hashmark on the opposite side of the field.
This is how Reid uses Hill’s speed to his advantage. Hill is so fast that he was able to still challenge the deep 3rd vertical zone on the opposite side of the field from where he was aligned. But since he was coming from the opposite side of the field, and was patient in attacking McCourty’s zone, McCourty was not even aware of him. The result was a wide-open Hill.
Belichick will try to find ways to make sure Hill is not running free through his secondary on Sunday. In that first matchup, we saw Belichick have his defenders hit Kelce and Hill at the line of scrimmage when the opportunity presented itself, even if they weren’t covering either player. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Belichick have his defenders do the same thing to Hill more often to slow him down (similar to what Belichick did to Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl XXXVI).
We anticipate the Patriots being aggressive again with their man coverage. It was by using man coverage that the Patriots were able to disrupt K.C.’s passing game and force turnovers. Belichick likely won’t want to sit back in zone and let Mahomes pick his defense apart.
On the other side, expect Andy Reid to have Tyreek Hill in motion often. This will help ensure free releases for Hill, and it will help influence the defense in order to open up opportunities for other players. However, once the Chiefs get in the red zone, we anticipate more of New England’s attention being devoted to Travis Kelce, similar to their Week 6 matchup.
No matter what happens, the back-and-forth between two heavyweight coaching minds should be fun.
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