Right from the start, it was clear what Bill Belichick’s intentions were in the AFC Championship Game. He wanted to neutralize the speed in Kansas City’s passing attack by being physical and jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. For most of the night, it worked.
Below, you can see New England defenders on multiple occasions getting their hands on Chiefs receivers. On this first play, watch the slot defenders at the top of the screen.
Pat Mahomes was looking in that direction initially. Because he was forced to hold the ball, New England’s pass rush had time to get to him.
Below, you can again see the Patriots trying to be physical at the line. This time it was cornerback J.C. Jackson on tight end Travis Kelce (#87) on the left side of the formation.
Even on the few occasions when the Patriots played zone, they still were able to disrupt Chiefs receivers by re-routing them. Check out the game of pinball their DBs played with K.C. receivers at the top of the screen.
It is possible to disrupt routes in zone coverage. And because the Patriots did it here, Mahomes was again forced to hold onto the ball longer than he wanted to. New England’s pass rush did the rest.
The other tactic Belichick employed to limit the effectiveness of Kansas City’s passing game was rolling safety Devin McCourty over top of Tyreek Hill on almost every passing play.
You can see that the idea here was for the corner covering Hill (#31 Jonathan Jones for most of the night with #35 Keion Jones filling in occasionally) to play with a “trail” technique. This allowed him to get inside and underneath Hill. With safety help over the top, Hill would get no easy completions. The design of this coverage also helped prevent Hill from running across the field where he could use his speed to separate from both defenders.
Belichick felt comfortable devoting so much attention to Hill because he is the game-changer for this offense. As good as tight end Travis Kelce is (especially in the red zone), and as talented as Sammy Watkins is, Belichick clearly seemed more than okay with Kelce being locked up by cornerback J.C. Jackson, and Watkins being taken away by Stephon Gilmore.
New England was able to hold Hill to 1 reception for 42 yards. Belichick forced the Chiefs to try and win without their most dangerous weapon. He took away what they do best (stop us if you’ve heard this before).
From a pass-rush standpoint, the Patriots brought a lot of 5-man pressures. They attacked Mahomes with 2 and 3-man stunts inside. Their edge rushers complemented those stunts with mush-rushes on the outside. This means that as those edge rushers attacked Mahomes, they didn’t rush further upfield than the depth of his drop. This left no escape lanes for Mahomes, except for behind him. And that’s exactly how he lost 46 yards on 4 sacks.
The most critical sack Mahomes took came with the Chiefs finally mustering some offense and threatening to score in the 2nd quarter. On this 3rd down below, you can see the Patriots rushed five. As we mentioned above, the three inside rushers ran a stunt, and the outside rushers ended up no deeper than Mahomes’ drop.
Also notice the man coverage across the board. Stephon Gilmore (bottom of the screen) got his hands on Watkins (the point man in the trips-bunch formation), and the safety rolled over top of Tyreek Hill again.
Mahomes lost 14 yards and knocked the Chiefs out of field goal range. This was a huge mistake in retrospect, and it came on the heels of one of the biggest plays of the game. Just two snaps before the sack, Mahomes missed a wide-open Damien Williams for a touchdown.
The Patriots were again playing man coverage with the deep safety cheating to Hill’s side. Andy Reid had Williams run a wheel route out of the backfield and tight end Travis Kelce pin his defender inside with a pick (or a block).
Williams was clearly open, his defender was pinned inside of Kelce, and there was no safety help over the top to his side. Mahomes should have planted his back foot and started his throwing motion at this exact point.
Instead, he didn’t. He took three (three!) additional hop steps, and then ended up making a jump throw because the pressure was closing in on him. The result was a wildly inaccurate pass.
From the end zone angle, you can see that Mahomes never set his feet. This prevented him from being ready to throw with his body under control. His feet kept moving, and when your feet don’t stop moving, it’s hard to throw with a solid base. Mahomes held the ball too long as he drifted back in the pocket. This enabled the pass rush to become a factor in the throw.
This was a great example of how raw of a passer Mahomes still is. There was no reason for him to drift in the pocket like he did. Who knows what happens in this game if the Chiefs score there? Maybe they settle down and are able to take advantage of New England’s defense a little earlier than they actually did. Maybe they’re on their way to Atlanta instead of the offseason.
Still, the Chiefs did eventually find ways to take advantage of the Patriots devoting so much attention to Tyreek Hill.
On their first touchdown drive, Mahomes made a Tecmo Super Bowl throw off of a scramble on 3rd-and-2. This play happened because of Mahomes’ talent, and because there was no safety in the middle of the field. One play later, Mahomes found Travis Kelce on a skinny post for a touchdown. Safety Devin McCourty, who started in the middle of the field, again cheated towards Hill, opening up the window for Kelce.
Andy Reid also started taking advantage of the Patriots’ man coverage by utilizing running back Damien Williams out of the backfield. The Chiefs set up their second touchdown with another route concept designed to pin the defender covering Williams inside. This time, the Chiefs did it with the traffic of their receivers running routes across the middle of the field from the play side.
Williams gave the Chiefs a 21-17 lead in the 4th quarter on a designed throwback screen pass. This time, Chiefs receivers ran their defenders in man coverage away from the direction of the screen.
The idea of both these two big plays (and the missed TD pass by Mahomes) was to take advantage of the Patriots’ man coverage by either running defenders away from the play or creating rubs and picks. The Chiefs utilized another pick play to get Sammy Watkins wide open on the Chiefs’ final touchdown drive.
Here, Watkins was the #2 receiver on the left side of the formation.
Call it a pick, a natural rub, or a straight up block. Either way, it’s an effective concept against man coverage, and it was one that the Chiefs successfully utilized in the second half.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, it took a little too long to get their legs underneath them on offense. Perhaps a few more pick-plays or quick-hitting man beaters early on would have helped sustain a few more drives. Perhaps Mahomes could have taken the shorter throws more frequently instead of looking for the home run quite as often. While Kansas City’s defense might have regrets about how they couldn’t get off the field down the stretch, the Chiefs will be thinking about their missed opportunities in the first half all offseason.
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