Super Bowl LV: Slowing down the Kansas City Chiefs remains the NFL’s ultimate quest

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Mark Schofield
·9 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

I still do not have an answer.

I have spent more hours than I care to admit trying to come up with a way to slow down Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and the rest of the Kansas City Chiefs offense. I have poured through books about the sports, flipped through every single defensive playbook I can get my hands on, and spend many a night simply pacing around my office trying to come up with a plan.

Recently, during a phone call with Doug Farrar I started to walk through some options about “taking away what they do best” and “making them fight left-handed” when Doug had a simple response that stopped me in my tracks:

“But their left hand is Travis Kelce.”

Still I forge on, pouring through notes and film trying to find an answer. A student of history and a fan of the “Indiana Jones” films, I envision myself as a younger Henry Jones, pouring through scrolls and ancients texts trying to find the Holy Grail:

Of course, when I find myself just staring at this for hours:

I feel less like Henry Jones, and more like Charlie Day:

“Look, if you’re plus-one in the box, you get a double-team on both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and have an athletic nose tackle who can spy Patrick Mahomes, you can do this.”

Again, it seems like there are simply no easy answers.

But it does not mean the search is over.

A reading from the book of Belichick

(David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

Every time I tackle this question my mind drifts northward, towards where I grew up. I think of the New England Patriots, and defensive genius Bill Belichick. Belichick has grappled with this same question multiple times over the years, with mixed results. He was able to beat Patrick Mahomes and company twice back in 2018, first in the regular season and then in the AFC Championship game. But he has lost to them each of the past two meetings.

In the two wins, Belichick’s defense allowed 40 and 31 points respectively. It was not a complete shutdown, but it was enough.

In the regular season meeting back in 2018, Belichick’s focus seemed to be tight end Travis Kelce. We all know the Belichickian line of “take away what they do best,” and the Patriots seemed to focus on stopping Kelce in that meeting. Take this interception thrown by Mahomes near the end of the first half:

The Patriots in essence use three players on Kelce. First linebacker Dont’a Hightower chips him off the line of scrimmage – no free releases right? – and then the Patriots use an inside-outside bracket on him between Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. Mahomes gets flushed from the pocket (by none other than Hightower who remains such a core component of Belichick’s defenses) and Mahomes’ late throw is intercepted.

Of course, any time you dedicate this much attention to a single player, it might cost you. As it did Belichick and the Patriots later in the game:

On this play from the explosive fourth quarter of their meeting in 2018 New England again dedicates three players to Kelce. Hightower drops in his direction off the snap, and both Jason and Devin McCourty bracket him off the line.

That leaves Duron Harmon in the middle of the field with Tyreek Hill running a vertical route right at him, and it ends as you might expect. With Hill in the end zone and Belichick throwing his Microsoft Surface Table and then slamming the phone.

The Hill touchdown might be one of the reasons why in recent years Belichick has used more zone concepts, robber concepts and matching elements in how he handles the Chiefs’ passing game. This interception of Mahomes from the 2019 regular season is a great example of one such design in action.

Kansas City runs a crossing route concept, with Hill and Demarcus Robinson racing by each other from opposite sides of the field, but it is J.C. Jackson who comes down with the interception:

How did this come about? The Patriots use a 1-3-7 package – more on sub packages in a moment and leave Stephon Gilmore on an island at the top of the screen against Sammy Watkins. Then they implement a Belichick/Nick Saban coverage known as 1-Cross, which is a Cover-1 coverage that uses a safety — in this case Devin McCourty — as a robber right at the first-down marker:

What is the impact of this coverage on the play? When Mahomes drops he sees Hill racing across the field from right to left toward Devin McCourty, with Jonathan Jones in coverage. He then assumes that Hill is going to run into a manufactured double coverage, so his eyes come to Robinson in his crossing route working from the left, with Jackson in single coverage:

There is one more twist coming. Because Jones, instead of running with Hill as Mahomes expects, simply passes him off to McCourty and peels back to become the robber. This creates the double team, but not the one Mahomes expected:

Now, Jones stays over the top of Robinson, which allows Jackson to cut underneath the receiver and make the interception.

That, plus simply playing soft zone coverage and forcing checkdowns, is the latest evolution in Belichick’s recipe for slowing down the Chiefs:

There is one other element to this, as alluded to in the mention of sub packages.

Force them to run.

Dusting off the legendary script

(Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY NETWORK)

Your eyes are not deceiving you. This is Thurman Thomas from Super Bowl XXV.

Of course, the New York Giants and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick won that game, 20-19. It might be remembered as the “Wide Right” game, but for Giants fans, it is remembered for Belichick’s defensive gameplan. One that resides in Canton. Part of that plan? Letting Thomas run for over 100 yards. Belichick stood in front of his defense, a unit that prided itself in stopping the run, and told them the best way to win was to let Thomas have a big night.

His players did not immediately buy in.

“I thought it was a collective brain fart, like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” linebacker Carl Banks said a year later, via Michael Eisen of nyfootball.net. “I think because we were a team that prided itself defensively on not giving up hundred-yard rushers, not even giving up 100-yard games for a total offensive rush stat. But he said it, we are all in an uproar, and we’re thinking Bill is just conceding that Thurman is just this good of a football player that we won’t be able to stop him. And then he reeled us back in and kinda gave us a method to the madness.”

But Belichick’s game plan did have a method. As he said later:

“Thurman Thomas is a great back. We knew he was going to get some yards. But I didn’t feel like we wanted to get into a game where they threw the ball 45 times. I knew if they had some success running the ball, they would stay with it. And I always felt when we needed to stop the run, we could stop it. And the more times they ran it, it was just one less time they could get it to [Andre] Reed or get it to [James] Lofton, or throw it to Thomas, who I thought was more dangerous as a receiver, because there’s more space than there was when he was a runner.”

There indeed was a method to the madness. If the Bills kept the football on the ground, then they were not letting Jim Kelly carve them up in the passing game with quick throws, or hitting them over the top on deep shot plays for quick scoring drives. Better to grind the game out, and to do so dare them to run the football. Dare we call Belichick the grandfather of “running backs don’t matter”? Perhaps Belichick was well ahead of his time. The passing game is more explosive, and more dangerous. Let them run. The more times Kelly turns to hand the ball off, the less likely they are generating explosive plays in the passing game.

That is another way to approach the Chiefs. If the job is to take away what the Kansas City offense does best – which is pass the ball – then dare them to run. Force them to run. Hell put just two defenders in the box. Better to see Patrick Mahomes turn and hand the all off than it is to see him drop back to throw.

This is something that Belichick has done before when facing Andy Reid and the Mahomes-led Chiefs. How? By employing a 3-2-6 defensive package. Even in the red zone. Even on the goal line.

Even on 3rd-and-1.

This play is from their regular-season meeting a few years ago. Kansas City faces short yardage, and the Patriots come out with a 3-2-6 defensive package, using safety Patrick Chung as a joker-type player, dropping him down into a linebacker’s alignment. Up front they use a 4i-0-3 defensive formation, and they bring Kyle Van Noy down over the tight end. Once more, provided the players up front are disciplined, they can stop the run. Here, Van Noy strings out the toss play to Tyreek Hill and then gets help from the boundary player, and the run is stopped for no gain.

Dare them to run.

From that same game:

This is a 2nd-and-goal play. The Patriots employ a 3-3-5 package on this snap, even in the red zone, and they use a 4i-0-4i defensive front. You can see how the players up front attack their gaps and force Kareem Hunt to cut in the backfield, where he runs into Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Van Noy keeps his outside leverage, which forces Hunt back into the hole, and Roberts fills the hole for the stop.

Dare them to run.

Of course, they might take you up on that dare. As we have seen this year, they can hit you for big plays on the ground. More on that later this week.

So, the task remains daunting. Thankfully for me, all the machinations I can scheme up in my brain do not matter in the end. I’m just a guy pacing in his office and slowly driving himself insane.

Todd Bowles, however? He faces this challenge this week. For real. Will he implement the matching concepts in the secondary? Will he dare Patrick Mahomes to hand the ball off? Will any of it work?

Or is the best way to beat Mahomes to hope that Tom Brady has some magic left over from that 2018 season?

That’s not a bad Plan B.