The Kansas City Chiefs undoubtedly took a step back this offseason.
Jeremy Maclin, the team’s primary receiver, was released. Dontari Poe, the team’s starting nose tackle, left in free agency. Spencer Ware, the team’s starting running back, has been ruled out for the year because of a knee injury. 34-year old inside linebacker Derrick Johnson spent his offseason returning from a torn Achilles. Cornerback Steven Nelson is on IR, though he may return midway through the season, and disgruntled edge rusher Tamba Hali will be begin the season on the PUP list.
Only Kareem Hunt is expected to make a significant contribution from the team’s draft class and Bennie Logan was the biggest free agent who was brought in.
Expecting the Chiefs to take a leap forward in 2016 feels irrational. The peak of this roster was a few seasons ago when Hali was still in his prime, Johnson hadn’t suffered multiple major injuries, Poe didn’t have back issues, Jamaal Charles was still one of the best running backs in the league and the receiving corps had at least one proven player at this level. It should be a season of transition in Kansas City as the Chiefs move towards Patrick Mahomes as their starting quarterback.
Week 1 pits the apparently-declining Chiefs against a New England Patriots team that has reanimated its roster despite winning the Super Bowl seven months ago. Stephon Gilmore, Brandin Cooks, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and David Harris are amongst the new names in New England. With Julian Edelman out for the year because of a torn ACL, the Patriots project to be a very different team from last season.
The Chiefs are set to be the latest team used as fodder for the reigning champions celebrations on opening night.
Yet despite the obvious mismatches on the field, there is still a reason to be intrigued by this matchup. Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has faced Tom Brady only twice in his career. Sutton led the defense that shut Brady down during that infamous regular season meeting in 2014. Brady completed 14 of 23 passes for 159 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in that game.
Sutton and Brady faced off again during the playoffs the following season. This time Brady’s stat line was a lot better. He completed 28 of 42 passes for 302 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Patriots won the game, fending off a late comeback attempt from the Chiefs, but Brady didn’t have it as easy as the numbers suggested.
Brady has aged so well as a quarterback because of his ability to diagnose alignments before the snap. He puts himself one step ahead of the coverage, one step ahead of the pass rush and allows the impact of his acumen to compensate for the limitations of his physical skill set. He hits windows when they are at their widest and gets rid of the ball early enough that he doesn’t have to absorb big hits. When a team such as the Pittsburgh Steelers rolls in and decides to play the same zone coverages over and over while rushing only three players after the quarterback, Brady is unchallenged.
Sutton isn’t Mike Tomlin or Keith Butler. He won’t concede the mental game to Brady. He won’t be passive with his coverages and cautious with his pass rushers. A staple of Sutton’s career in Kansas City has been his willingness to be aggressive.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to emulate Rex Ryan. He won’t send six and seven players after the quarterback in an attempt to blow up the pocket. Instead he will disguise his coverages, often only rushing four players but moving pieces around before and at the snap so that it’s difficult for Brady to figure out exactly where he wants to go with the ball.
Now, Brady is so good that he’s still going to figure it out most of the time, but Sutton knows he can’t contain the Patriots offense completely. His goal will be to create turnover opportunities. That is exactly what the Chiefs defense managed to do during that playoff game in 2015.
On the opening drive of the game, the Chiefs got Brady and the Patriots offense into a Third-and-10 situation. This isn’t a blitz. It’s only a four-man pass rush. This is something Sutton relies on a lot. Atypical pass rushes where the defense’s best individual rushers aren’t going after the quarterback, instead he relies on deception to attack blocking schemes. Brady’s protection is set to the right side because he recognizes that his inside slot receiver is going to be matched up against an inside linebacker or outside linebacker.
Regardless of who comes and stays on that side of the field, Brady has a matchup he likes. The linebacker never focuses on the receiver, instead he takes himself out of the play dropping with his eyes on the quarterback. Brady has it figured out and gets rid of the ball quickly for a first down.
A few plays later, Sutton sent a slot blitz (the cornerback was the fifth rusher) with two defensive linemen and two linebackers after the quarterback. There was a communication breakdown here. One of the linebackers or the cornerback wasn’t supposed to go after the quarterback. Danny Amendola was left wide open. He could wait to catch the ball, turn around cross the first down line and still take a step before being confronted by a defender.
Brady was two-for-two early.
Sutton’s first victory of note came early in the second quarter. He used a play concept that the Patriots themselves used regularly to great effect last season.
With Justin Houston on the field, you always have to be concerned about what he is doing. Houston is the most well-rounded linebacker in the NFL when fully healthy. He is an explosive, refined pass rusher who can beat the best offensive tackles in a variety of ways. He is also comfortable dropping into different coverage roles. He’s not going to press a slot receiver and cover him through multiple phases of a play, but he can easily execute underneath zone responsibilities.
Brady expected Houston to come off the edge on this play. Houston, number 50, is lined up as the left edge rusher. He is in a pass-rushing stance but drops backwards when the ball is snapped. Brady looks directly at him and pauses for a moment before realizing that he won’t have anywhere to go. He brings his eyes back to the opposite flat, assuming that if the left rusher dropped the right rusher would be coming.
Instead of the opposite edge rusher, Sutton sent a linebacker up the middle with his three interior linemen. That linebacker wasn’t picked up. He got a clean route to Brady but couldn’t reach the quarterback before he released the ball. Still, all Brady could do was check down for two yards to a covered Steven Jackson.
That play set up Third-and-8 which led to a Patriots punt on fourth down.
Bill Belichick hasn’t had standout individual pass rushers to rely on over recent seasons. Since trading Chandler Jones they have lacked a primary rusher. Chris Long, Rob Ninkovich and Trey Flowers were effective all-around players but not necessarily intimidating assignments for opposing tackles. Belichick regularly rushed four while dropping both edge rushers and sending a linebacker unblocked up the middle. Brady was quick enough mentally to react and get the ball away cleanly, most quarterbacks aren’t Brady though.
Another element of Sutton’s aggressiveness is his willingness to embrace Marcus Peters’ gambling. Peters has more combined interceptions and pass deflections through the first two years of his career than any cornerback in NFL history. He gives up plays by being aggressive, jumping routes, and was even beaten on a double move early in this game, but Sutton hasn’t attempted to take that out of his play to this point.
In the above gif you can see the first play of the fourth quarter. Peters jumps the out route and undercuts the receiver to make a play on the ball. He was unfortunate not to come away with an interception.
Peters was responsible for two of Brady’s interceptable passes. The other one came on the following drive when Brady used a pump fake to try and bait him on a double move. Peters sat back from the start and anticipated the play to put himself between Edelman and the ball. He couldn’t pull it in but he was the only player with any realistic chance at catching the ball.
That play in his own endzone from Peters forced the Patriots to settle for a field goal, which meant Charcandrick West’s touchdown run later in the quarter put the Chiefs within one score of the Patriots.
Since the Chiefs are chasing the game, Brady is likely anticipating an aggressive play call. The Patriots themselves are being aggressive throwing on Second-and-12 when they could just run some clock before punting. Sutton’s play calling over four quarters had clearly thrown Brady off slightly because he did something he never does. He stared down his receiver and looked through a defender who was always in his passing lane.
Fortunately for Brady, Tamba Hali was playing that game with a cast on his hand. Even though the ball was thrown straight into his stomach, Hali couldn’t hold onto it. The ball bounced off of Hali, hit Gronkowski’s helmet and somehow found its way to Edelman at the first down line.
The Chiefs probably don’t have the pieces to keep pace with the Patriots offense. Unless Justin Houston and Chris Jones are so dominant upfront that Brady is being harassed on every play, the quarterback should be able to pick apart the secondary even without Edelman on the field.
Regardless of the available talent, Sutton’s risk-reward approach with Brady is the only way to play him. You have to at least make him work mentally rather than relying on the pieces around him to drop enough passes or not execute on running plays to put him in obvious passing situations.