As unpredictable and effective as Bill Belichick’s rush-and-cover schemes can be — there’s a reason the New England coach is known as a defensive mastermind — there is a common theme to his approach over a 19-year span in which he’s led the Patriots to five Super Bowl titles.
Belichick is known for trying to take away an opponent’s best player, whether it’s an explosive running back, a speedy receiver or a frisky quarterback, and working his game plan from there, to which followers of this year’s Kansas City Chiefs might respond: “Yeah … good luck with that.”
The Patriots and Chiefs will meet at sundown Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium for the AFC championship, and if the Patriots are to advance to the Super Bowl against the Rams or New Orleans Saints, they’re going to have to find ways to slow the NFL’s most prolific and heavily armed offense.
The Chiefs have a dynamic young quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, the 23-year-old wunderkind and son of a former major league pitcher who threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns in his first season as a starter.
With a deep and speedy receiving corps led by Tyreek Hill, one of the game’s best tight ends in Travis Kelce and a dual-threat running back in Damien Williams, Kansas City led the NFL in both points (35.3) and total yards (425.6) per game.
Protecting Mahomes and clearing lanes for Williams is a seasoned and accomplished line that is led by All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, the former Pacific Palisades Charter High School standout who has not missed a snap since he entered the league in 2012.
“When you have that many weapons, it opens up so much for your offense,” Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said this past week. “A guy like Tyreek can get deep from the backfield.
“With a tight end as good as Kelce and [Sammy] Watkins and [Chris] Conley on the outside, they don’t really put a receiver on the field that runs slower than a 4.3 [second 40-yard dash]. With that type of speed and those types of weapons, everything in an offense is available for them at any given time.”
Conducting this aerial orchestra is Mahomes, who has dazzled teammates, opponents and fans with his creativity and eye-popping athleticism, his vast array of arm angles, release points and across-the-body throws, his ability to extend plays with his legs and his cannon for an arm.
Mahomes racked up nearly three miles passing this year, and while he’s not in Lamar Jackson’s class as a runner — he ran 60 times for 272 yards — he can wear out pass-rushers and wear down those in coverage with his scrambling ability.
“At times you have kind of a clock in your head of when the ball’s coming out or when the rush will get there, you just kind of know, you have a feeling on plays,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty, Jason’s twin brother. “Against Mahomes, it’s a little different. That ball might not come out. He might run backwards 10 yards, he might go back across the field.
“Usually, if a guy is on one side of the field, he kind of cuts off the other half, but if you watch him, he makes throws across his body that get to the receiver. It’s more of an awareness of understanding … that the whole field is still alive because of his arm strength and athletic ability to buy time.”
The Patriots, who are playing in their eighth straight AFC title game, will try to pressure Mahomes and keep him in the pocket with their usual assortment of un-scouted looks and disguised blitzes.
They’ll want to make him as uncomfortable as he appeared in the first half of a Week 6 game at New England, when Mahomes was 14 of 23 for 164 yards and two interceptions. Mahomes completed nine of 13 passes for 188 yards and four touchdowns in the second half of New England’s 43-40 win.
“We played the first half the exact way wanted to,” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “We were able to mix things up, keep those guys guessing, keep them on their toes and let those guys make big plays.
“But with an offense like that, you give [Chiefs coach] Andy Reid any kind of time and he’s able to draw up a couple of things, and that’s something we learned in the second half, that we’ve got to play a full 60 minutes.”
The Patriots’ best defense may be to keep their ball-control offense, which is heavy on screen passes and check-downs from 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady to running back James White, high-percentage passes to sure-handed slot receiver Julian Edelman and up-the-middle runs by rookie Sony Michel, on the field as much as possible.
Otherwise, the defense will have to contend even more with Hill, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound receive who is nicknamed “Cheetah” but is no longer just known for being the fastest player in the NFL.
Hill, more of a return specialist and occasional deep threat as a rookie in 2016, has become even more dangerous this season with his improved route-running and catching abilities. He caught 87 passes for 1,479 yards and 12 touchdowns, including an NFL-leading 22 catches of 25 yards or more.
“His ball skills,” Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman said, when asked Friday what part of Hill’s game is most overlooked. “He’s fast enough to get there, but the way he tracks the ball, jumps at the right time and comes down with it … we’ve seen him make some crazy catches through two, three defenders. It’s pretty special.”
If Hill was stationary before the snap, if he always lined up wide or in the slot, opponents would try to jam him with one or two defenders at the line. But Hill often goes in motion and is a threat on jet sweeps, shovel passes and reverses.
Hill took a pitch about 10 yards behind the line last week, raced around left end and turned up field for a 36-yard scoring run in the first quarter of a 31-13 divisional playoff win over Indianapolis. Hill has burned the Patriots for 275 yards and four touchdowns on 14 catches in two games.
“Everyone knows he’s fast — it’s on the scouting report, it’s on the film — but he’s still able to make plays, he’s still able to run by guys,” Devin McCourty said.
“They do a great job of using him at the No. 1 [receiver position], the two, the three. He’s in the backfield, he’s going on speed-motion, so it’s very difficult [to defend] the way they use him.”
The Patriots could use their best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, in man-to-man coverage on Hill. They could have Jason McCourty, their No. 2 corner, cover Hill with top-side help from the safeties.
But focus too much on Hill and Kelce, who caught 103 passes for 1,336 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and leads all tight ends with 2,714 yards after catch since 2013, will burn you.
Or Watkins (40 catches, 519 yards, three touchdowns) and Conley (32 catches, 334 yards, five touchdowns) will have more room to roam.
Or Williams, who has 476 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns in his last four games, will be more of a pass-catching option out of the backfield.