AFC East

3rd-Down Tactics and Execution Helped Patriots Offense Beat Chiefs

The Patriots Offense dominated the first half. If not for a terrible Tom Brady interception on the Chiefs’ 1-yard line, they would have entered halftime with a 21-0 lead. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels’ intent was clear from the beginning. They wanted to attack the Chiefs with their running game. And attack they did.

The Patriots came out in “22” personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) on the very first snap. They spent the majority of the first three quarters in sets with 2 wide receivers or less, mixing in “21” (2 RBs, 1 TE) and “12” (1 TE, 2 RBs) personnel.

They threw all elements of their running game at Kansas City. We saw gap blocking, inside and outside zones, sweeps, leads, powers, and draws. We even saw a fake Jet-sweep toss and a shovel pass (which is technically a pass but functions as a run). New England ran out of straight I-formations, offset I’s, and single-back. They ran to the strong side and they ran it weak.

The Patriots were able to control the line of scrimmage with their physicality, but the diversity of their run game also made it difficult for the Chiefs to anticipate what was coming and maintain gap responsibility. This gave New England linemen great blocking angles.

Additionally, the early commitment to the run got the Chiefs’ defensive line playing back on its heels. This was one of the things that impacted their ability to get a decent pass rush against Brady. The other reasons were the design of the passing game and Brady’s quick decision-making.

Here is where we get into the real story of this game – and of the Patriots Offense. It isn’t the big plays that make this unit click. Instead, it is their ability to sustain drives. THAT is what this offense is all about.

The running game helps with this. It keeps the Patriots in manageable 2nd and 3rd-down situations. For instance, the Patriots faced 19 third downs against the Chiefs, and 12 of them were from 3rd-and-6 or less. Tom Brady is very tough to defend in those situations.

Games are decided by how defenses choose to match up against New England on 3rd down, and by how they combat the things that the Patriots like to do to manufacture positive plays.

You can try to get to Brady via the blitz. But you better make sure the coverage behind it forces him to hold the ball long enough for the pass rush to get there. On the 3rd-and-7 below during the Patriots’ opening drive, the Chiefs did not. Here, you can see Julian Edelman aligned as the #3 inside receiver. Look at the defenders over him.

wk20 neokcdrecap_1

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

If this was man coverage, the only defenders that cold realistically take Edelman were a defensive end, a linebacker, and a deep safety. All mismatches that Brady would target. What was more likely was that this indicated to Brady that the coverage against Edelman would be zone. Either way, Brady knew he would have Edelman in a favorable situation.

1_Edelman 3rd and 7 first drive.gif

Notice that 5th pass rusher coming from 4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He had no chance of getting to Brady in time considering Edelman would not be disrupted running his route. The decision to bring him from that depth was basically the equivalent of removing a player from the field. He wasn’t in coverage and he had no chance to get home as a part of the rush. 1st down Patriots.

On the Patriots’ second drive, they faced a 3rd-and-2 from the Chiefs 10-yard line. Kansas City was playing man-to-man across the board here. Julian Edelman, aligned as the #3 inside receiver again, motioned across the formation. Cornerback Charvarius Ward followed. The motion was designed to keep Ward from being able to get his hands on Edelman at the line of scrimmage. But Ward didn’t help his cause by dropping 5-yards beyond the first-down marker.

2_3rd and 2 second drive.gif

That’s way too easy on 3rd-and-2. Why did he play with so much cushion? Especially at his own 10-yard line. It’s not like he had to worry about getting burned for the deep ball down there.

Additionally, if you aren’t going to play to the situation and the first-down markers, this offense will take first down after first down until they’re in the end zone. This particular drive happened to be an anomaly because Brady threw an interception in the end zone a few plays later. But that’s not something you can count on as a part of your defensive strategy.

Later in the game, the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-4. Keep an eye on running back James White in the backfield and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett at the bottom of the screen. The Chiefs were playing man coverage again. The Patriots responded with a pick-wheel play. White ran a wheel out of the backfield and Dorsett ran inside to pin his defender, safety Daniel Sorensen (#49).

3_3rd and 4 to James White.gif

A better throw might have yielded a bigger play. Still, Sorensen was in a lose-lose situation. He could have gone underneath Dorsett, which is not what you’re taught because you risk allowing a big play deep. Instead, he went over the top of Dorsett, leaving White open for an uncontested catch on 3rd down. This was yet another way the Patriots tried to deter the Chiefs from using tight man coverage in those 3rd-down situations.

In the 4th quarter and overtime, the Patriots faced several more pivotal 3rd-downs, and they attacked with their assortment of personnel and schematic weapons.

On this 3rd-and-5 below (the play after Dee Ford lined up in the neutral zone nullifying a game-sealing interception), the Patriots aligned tight end Rob Gronkowski on the perimeter to the left. He had 1-on-1 coverage against safety Eric Berry. The Chiefs were playing man-free, so the only help over the top was a deep safety in the middle of the field. Brady went after the matchup.

4_Gronk on 3rd down.gif

Tough to defend a tight end who can pick a ball off the safety’s shoulder pad in tight coverage.

In overtime, the Patriots faced 3rd-and-10 from their own 35-yard line. At the top of the screen you can see Julian Edelman motion-to-stack behind Phillip Dorsett. This was, again, to keep anyone from getting their hands on him. The two defenders over Dorsett and Edelman, cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Kendall Fuller, were playing their releases. Both corners initially went with Dorsett, and Edelman was left wide open.

5_OT throw to Edelman - blown coverage.gif

This was the most critical play of the season at that point, and the Chiefs somehow blew the coverage, leaving Brady’s favorite target wide open in the middle of the field on 3rd down. That is simply inexcusable considering the situation and the fact that the Patriots use this concept so often. But we’ve seen the Chiefs bust their coverage in pivotal moments this season when playing receivers’ releases. Just think back to the final play of their Week 15 loss to the Chargers.

On this next 3rd-and-10, the Patriots once again motioned Edelman to a stack. The Chiefs were playing 2-man (man-to-man with 2 safeties over the top). The motion-to-stack got Edelman another free release. The initial separation was created by the traffic from the front receiver’s release. This was all Brady needed before he fired an absolute on-the-money dart into Edelman’s chest.

6_edelman motion to stack

There was no help in the middle of the field because the Chiefs put their two help defenders (the deep safeties) over the top. Another questionable approach considering the Patriots live to attack the middle of the field.

Even as we say that, the Patriots can make it difficult for the defense to provide help in the middle by aligning Gronk and Edelman on opposite sides of the field. On their next 3rd down, again a 3rd-and-10, the Patriots did exactly that.

You can see below that Gronk was aligned on the perimeter and Edelman was the #3 inside receiver on the opposite side of the field. You can also see that safety Daniel Sorensen was splitting the difference between the two. He could have been helping out on Gronk or Edelman. Brady wouldn’t know for sure until the ball was snapped.

wk20 neokcdrecap_3

Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

As it turned out, Sorensen was primarily trying to help with Edelman’s in-breaking route. Brady saw this and chose to target Gronk’s big body on a slant as a result.

7_gronk 3rd down

Another first down. A few plays later, the Patriots were on their way to Atlanta.

The Patriots are not easy to defend. They know that the best way to make Brady hold the ball is to jam receivers at the line. So they make that difficult to accomplish.

Ultimately, the AFC Championship was won by the Patriots’ ability to combine scheme, diversity in their pass-catching weapons, and Tom Brady’s ability to make quick, decisive, and accurate throws on 3rd down.

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