Somehow it seems the New England Patriots have got better, even after their record breaking Super Bowl victory against the Atlanta Falcons. The acquisition of Brandin Cooks gives quarterback Tom Brady yet another weapon (as if he needed another) and the NFL’s biggest mis-match tight end Rob Gronkowski stated he feels better than ever before. It therefore seems a foregone conclusion that the Patriots will cruise to an opening night victory over the Chiefs and start their journey towards another ring. But it really isn’t that simple. Below is how the Chiefs could spring an upset and destroy Belichick and co’s attempt at a perfect season in 2017.
The Most Dangerous Man in Football
The Chiefs own perhaps the most dangerous player in the game right now, and their tactic is actually to limit how often he touches the ball. Don’t expect Tyreek Hill to line up on kick offs this season (more on that later), but he will be making defenders miss through the air and on the ground. He proved last year he was a do-it-all player with 593 receiving yards and 267 rushing yards.
The Patriots may be known for their trick plays and their misdirections, but on Thursday night it will be the Chiefs who utilise Hill in every aspect of the game. I’m fully expecting some play action jet sweeps to confuse the inexperienced Patriots defensive line. The Chiefs will utilise the threat of Hill busting off a long run to open up some Run Pass Options (RPO’s) to make use of Hill’s dangerous speed, QB Alex Smith’s athleticism and to scheme open tight end Travis Kelce or one of the Chiefs WRs.
Travis Kelce is no Gronk, but he has sure been a priority target for many fantasy owners this drafting season. Kelce is Alex Smith’s safety blanket, the man he always looks to, to get him out of trouble. After a 1,100 yard season where he averaged 70 yards a game, it feels like the only way is up for the fourth year man from Cincinnati.
He may be 6”5 and 260lbs, but he is also the fastest man at his position. The NFL’s Next Gen Stats clocked Kelce at 21.25mph in 2015 and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. Between Hill and Kelce, the primary targets on this offense can get vertical very, very quickly. This should open up Kansas City’s smaller targets over the middle and outside the numbers as safeties have to defend the deep ball.
These were the words uttered by linebacker Justin Houston when asked how to beat Tom Brady. He isn’t wrong. But saying it and doing it are two very different things. Brady gets the ball out of his hands so quickly that getting to him is very difficult. Adding to the challenge is that the Chiefs need to pressure Brady with just four players, with the rest dropping into coverage. Any open spaces will be exploited by Brady and his stable of receivers so the likes of Chris Jones, Allen Bailey and Houston will need to get home quickly to give the ball hawking secondary opportunities for takeaways. Jones and Bailey need to get penetration up the middle to prevent Brady from being able to step into his throws. Historically this is where teams have achieved the most success flustering Brady, pressure up the middle will be key for Kansas City.
I don’t think there is a better ball hawking secondary in the entire NFL. Marcus Peters has 14 interceptions in his first two years, a feat only achieved by five other men during the Superbowl era. Eric Berry may only have 14 interceptions in his career, but he has a nose for the endzone scoring on 5 of those. Despite this, taking the ball away from Brady is a very hard thing to do with only 9 INTs in the last two years. Still if anyone can, this secondary can.
No.2 cornerback Philip Gaines will likely be tested early and often as the Patriots will look to avoid Peters. Gaines was a ball hawk during his time at Rice but has not played a full season during his first three years in the NFL. His performance will be one worth monitoring Thursday night.
The Third Phase
The Chiefs have the best special teams in the NFL. Bar none. Tyreek Hill may not be fielding kick offs anymore, but his replacement De’Anthony Thomas is a more than capable replacement; he broke off a 95 yard return for a touchdown in the preseason. Hill will still be on punt duties and for good reason; he averaged 15.2 yards per punt return in 2016. The unit can also make plays when they’re giving the ball back to the opposition. Last year they led the league in special team’s takeaways. Under the tutelage of special teams guru Dave Toub, this unit can change the game in an instant.
Exploiting the Flaw
It is impossible for anyone in the NFL, even Bill Belichick, to create a perfect roster. The Patriots biggest weakness is their front seven, with very little depth behind their starters. They have failed to replace Rob Ninkovich and Kony Ealy just wasn’t able to fill those shoes. Kansas needs to be able to establish a running game in order to truly utilise the downfield threats of Hill and Kelce. They also need to play at a fast pace, using some no huddle offense, so the Patriots are forced to make some personnel changes. Three of the second string players in the front seven are rookies whilst two are in their sophomore year. Getting these guys onto the field and exposing them could be key to moving the ball.
Justin Houston said in his interview that playing at Foxborough is like playing in a playoff game, and that will be very true come Thursday night. The Patriots are the best team in the league at taking advantage of other teams mistakes. The Chiefs have to stay disciplined and execute in all three phases of the game. Whatever happens, this will be an excellent to kick off the 2017 NFL season.