New England Patriots: W2W4 AFC Championship Game vs Kansas City Chiefs
By Hal Bent
NE RUSHING OFFENSE vs KC RUSH DEFENSE
The New England Patriots proved last week against the Los Angeles Chargers that they have become a true power-rushing offense in 2018, mainly behind first-round draft pick Sony Michel and multi-purpose running back James White. While the rest of the NFL chases passing gurus and tries to create an “Air Raid” clone on offense, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels “zig” while everyone else “zags” once again.
Michel led the way on the ground with 24 rushes for 129 yards and three touchdowns. White led the way through the air with 15 receptions on 17 targets for 97 yards. Even Rex Burkhead got into the action, gaining just 12 yards but getting into the end zone.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves using Burkhead, as the offense does not tip off the defense like it does with White (pass) and Michel (run) in the formation. McDaniels started the game with Burkhead and White both in the backfield. This “Pony” backfield puts pressure on opposing defenses, especially when New England has tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen on the line. Even with just one running back and fullback James Develin on the field together, the Patriots have been able to run at will in recent weeks.
Quite simply, New England needs to run to win. The Patriots are 9-0 in the regular season (and now 1-0 in the playoffs) when they rush for 100 or more yards on the ground. When they rush for less than 100 yards, they are 2-5.
Of course, against the Chiefs and their quick-strike offensive attack with so many dynamic play-makers, the Patriots can be a big help to their defense just by keeping the Kansas City offense standing on the sidelines.
Kansas City finished the regular season ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 5.0 yards per attempt. They were better last week against Indianapolis, holding the Colts to just 87 yards on the ground. The Colts rushed 14 times and passed 39 times, almost a 3-1 ratio. The Chiefs’ aggressive front made a few stops in the backfield early in the game, and once the Colts fell behind 17-0 and then 24-7, they had to abandon their run game altogether.
That happens often against the Chiefs. The Chiefs are usually playing with six or seven defensive backs, playing with a lead, and not worrying about an occasional running play. They allowed 19 rushing touchdowns (29th in the league) and were 27th in rushing yards allowed (2,114 yards), but for the most part hardly cared. Counting the playoffs, the Chiefs only allowed five teams to rush for less than 100 yards, but they were still 4-1 in those games.
Chris Jones is a beast against the run or the pass, and he blows up numerous rushing attempts single-handedly by penetrating into the backfield; how he fell to the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft seems ludicrous now when accounting his production. Dee Ford and Justin Houston are pass-rushers first, but they are not afraid to mix it up with the opposing tackle and set the edge if need be as well.
Big-bodies Derrick Nnadi, Xavier Williams, and Allen Bailey are a huge part of Kansas City’s run defense, and all three need to be able to keep the opposing offensive linemen from getting to the second-level. At that second-level are linebackers Anthony Hitchens, Breeland Speaks, and Reggie Ragland. This trio are often responsible for cleaning up the ball carriers who get past the front four. Watch to see if the Patriots go heavy formations to keep the linebackers on the field for favorable match-ups for their running backs.
Just like last week, look for the Patriots to test the lighter back seven of the Chiefs with multiple tight-end sets, adding Dwayne Allen as a blocker and fullback James Develin as the hammer against these weak-against-the-run linebackers or lighter safeties and cornerbacks in nickel and dime looks. New England should bring back their physical approach on offense to force the Chiefs’ defense out of their comfort zone, which might lead to chunk plays from Sony Michel running the football.