The first Thursday Night Football of the year produced a classic, as the Chiefs and Pats duked it out in Massachusetts, and the underdog Chiefs ultimately pulled ahead, handing the reigning Super Bowl champs an 0-1 record to start the season. Senior NFL Writer Nick Dunkeyson looks at what happened, and why.
It’s three days after Christmas 2014. The San Diego Chargers head to Kansas City knowing that both teams have a chance of getting to the postseason – a win will guarantee it for San Diego; Kansas City need to rely on other results. However, the Chargers are poor and the Chiefs, who are superior and lucky, triumph. It’s a win highlighted by their one touchdown: Dwayne Bowe fumbles the ball into the end zone, Travis Kelce recovers for the touchdown.
Yet that luck also confers a special kind of implied offensive incompetence on Kansas City. For the entirety of the 2014 season, no wide receivers on the team have caught a touchdown pass. None. That’s an NFL first. It’s in these dark days that smart alecks like me are making jokes about the Chiefs being unwatchably dull on offense, and Alex Smith being the world’s least joyous quarterback. Now back to the present.
The Story Of The Game
Two years of NFL games later, and the Chiefs – and that same Alex Smith – are unrecognisably dynamic and fun on offense. Smith throws four touchdown passes (including, fittingly, just one to a wide receiver) and the Chiefs rush for two more.
It doesn’t start easily, as New England ease downfield on their first drive and go 7-0 up. They edge to 17-7, as the Chiefs struggle to sort out coverage assignments and the Patriots O-Line holds up well early. But momentum shifts over the course of the game – Kansas City get a couple of fourth down stops, and start to break off some big runs, which open up passing lanes. And how they are used! Alex Smith completes 80% of his passes, including 3 of 4 on passes travelling more than 20 yards. Two of those deep passes go for long, game-shifting touchdowns. Where early the Chiefs struggled to stop the Pats, now the Pats could no longer stop the Chiefs.
Chiefs win, 42-27. Let’s look at how and why that happened in a bit more detail.
Being picked in the third round isn’t an impediment to being a successful running back. Ask David Johnson or Jamaal Charles. Still, you don’t expect a third-rounder to explode for 246 scrimmage yards and 3 touchdowns (including a 78-yard deep pass TD) on his debut. I mean, that’s an NFL record for a debut. Hunt demonstrated the value of having an every-snap, every-down back. He got into a rhythm and showcased his power, vision and elusiveness regularly. Add in to that receiving chops and you can see the difference he makes to this Chiefs team. If he can play every down, the Chiefs have a fuller playbook when he’s on the field. This forced the Pats to gameplan on the hoof extensively, which is never easy.
Kareem Hunt had a record-breaking debut (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
It’s a lovely story, given he fumbled in his very first possession (having never lost a fumble his entire college career at Toledo), and that he was only the backup behind Spencer Ware prior to Ware’s season-ending injury. Compare and contrast with the Patriots. Among their four good running backs, only Rex Burkhead is used in an every-snap basis. When the Patriots swapped running backs, the Chiefs had to adjust but generally knew what they had to adjust to. The Patriots never got that luxury with Hunt, and it showed.
New England’s Lack Of Targets
Kansas City were able to put up 42 points despite struggling to involve Travis Kelce. New England, meanwhile, had to involve all their receiving options and still struggled to move the chains as the Chiefs adapted in coverage.
It’s funny how things turn out – the Patriots’ plethora of targets was seen as a massive strength all offseason. Now, with #1 and only true go-to wide receiver Julian Edelman out for the season, and would’ve-been breakout candidate Malcolm Mitchell following, everything looks a bit thin. Chris Hogan, playoff hero, was abysmal. Brandin Cooks offered his usual deep threat promise but is in no way a comfort-blanket receiver. Danny Amendola was fine but is limited, and is now also injured. Eric Berry basically removed Rob Gronkowski from the game. Even recently traded-for Philip Dorsett was thrust into action, a sure sign things look peaky in New England. When Brady needed reliable weapons to keep up with the Chiefs, his final six pass attempts instead went incomplete.
The Power Of Pass Rush
This goes for both interior and exterior pass rush, but the Patriots were bereft, and outside of Trey Flowers, struggled to get pressure on Alex Smith despite the Chiefs only having two ‘very good’ linemen – RT Mitchell Schwartz and C Mitch Morse. This gave Smith time to throw unleashing his renowned accuracy with unexpectedly longer passes. The Chiefs, predictably, had fewer troubles. On the inside, new tackle Bennie Logan often broke through the line. Outside, the terrifying Justin Houston found more success as the game wore on, getting home for two sacks and two tackles-for-loss. It’s no coincidence Brady started strongly and struggled latterly – this mirrored the increasing success the Chiefs’ pass rush had. And twice when the Patriots needed confidence, the Chiefs stopped them twice on fourth down, and confidence went the other way.
Cohesion (and Cambria)
Only three first-year Chiefs played more than 10% of offensive or defensive snaps on Thursday night. Kareem Hunt, on 58% of offensive snaps, and Bennie Logan, on 54% of the defensive were most prominent. Elsewhere, defensive tackle Roy Miller played 16% of snaps. That’s pretty impressive! Admittedly it’s the sort of thing people often chastise Mike McCarthy or Marvin Lewis for, but still. Is it any wonder players steeped in the system had chemistry during week 1?
Compare that with the Patriots. Brandin Cooks played 82% of offensive snaps, and had some, but not lots, of chemistry with Brady. Stephon Gilmore played 100% of defensive snaps and was mostly good, but for a blown assignment on Tyreek Hill’s deep TD (a pretty big but, in fairness). But it’s the number of new players playing 20-50% of snaps which is telling here. Let’s look: Mike Gillislie (30%), Philip Dorsett (22%), Dwayne Allen (33%), Cassius Marsh (35%), Lawrence Guy (38%), Deatrich Wise Jr (26%), Adam Butler (30%). This isn’t to denigrate involving new players – you need to refresh your roster! But the issues with offensive chemistry, the issues with holes appearing on defense where they shouldn’t be, that’s what you get with 9 new players playing multiple snaps. Of course, it’ll only take a game or two to build that cohesion. Still, in Week 1, differences in cohesion are important factors.
When You Get Bad Luck With Injuries
How do you adjust? Both teams had injuries to key players during this game, it’s just the Chiefs lost Eric Berry in the fourth quarter when they were on a run. The Patriots lost Danny Amendola early (hence Philip Dorsett getting snaps) and Dont’a Hightower in the third. Pretty much as soon as Hightower went off, Andy Reid managed to isolate replacement Cassius Marsh (sidenote: why bring on an edge rusher in place of a middle linebacker) in coverage against Kareem Hunt, which led to Hunt’s 75-yard TD, and really shifted confidence for both teams.
Eric Berry, tackling Rob Gronkowski here, will be a huge miss for Kansas City (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Of course, the difference in the long-run will be the full-on elite Berry is out for the season. And that his likely replacement Daniel Sorenson is, shall we say, not elite. Meanwhile, Hightower might be back for Week 2 and Amendola may not be far behind.
Does Any Of This Mean Anything?
Not really. Like I said, these are two very good teams. They’ll be up amongst higher seeds when the playoffs come around. The Patriots will get better as fill-in role players become hidden gems, become breakout stars. Brandin Cooks will end up worth that first-round pick. Gronk will find himself covered by less talented players than Eric Berry.
The Chiefs will hope the loss of Eric Berry doesn’t weaken their defense. Kareem Hunt won’t have many more 200-yard+ scrimmage games. But Travis Kelce won’t have many sub-50-yard games.
Mostly though, it’ll just end up being a welcome entertaining start to a season after the dross of last year’s Thursday slate. So…that’s good!
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