Patriots vs. Chiefs: Complete Week 4 Preview for New England
At 2-1, the New England Patriots remain in fine position to take their sixth consecutive AFC East title and earn a first-round bye for the fourth straight season.
Nonetheless, that has not calmed the furor enveloping Foxborough, where narrow escapes over squads like the moribund Oakland Raiders often feel like losses. It is indisputable that the Patriots are a flawed team at the moment, far from the potential juggernaut many expected during the preseason.
Of course, New England prides itself upon peaking in the regular season's second half, and it is important to remember that the narrative on the 2014 Patriots is far from complete. Playing at Arrowhead Stadium on Monday Night Football is nearly as difficult an environment as one could conjure, but it also provides the Patriots an opportunity to take an important step toward stabilizing a roller-coaster start to the season.
Though battered, the Kansas City Chiefs demonstrated resiliency with their authoritative win in South Beach—the same locale where the Pats melted away two weeks earlier. The Chiefs' exemplary pass rush places a glaring spotlight on New England's greatest current weakness, while Andy Reid's time-tested West Coast scheme creates matchup problems even without All-World running back Jamaal Charles.
Thus, despite the vast disparities in ostensible talent, this contest is far closer to a coin flip than many might imagine. Diving deeper into the Patriots' first prime-time contest, here are the players, matchups and factors that will hold the greatest bearing on the game's result.
Patriots Week 3 Recap
After glimpses of progress in Week 2, the Pats offense took a significant step back last Sunday. Josh McDaniels attempted to crack open a slightly larger section of the offensive playbook, only to see his offensive line crater amid three- and four-man rushes from Oakland.
Consequently, expect rookie Bryan Stork to remain in the lineup at center, with Jordan Devey sitting on the bench and Dan Connolly sliding over to right guard. Stork was generally steady apart from a solitary pressure conceded off a miscommunication. The Patriots appeared ready to insert Stork into the starting lineup before a camp injury derailed his development, and given the interior disarray thus far, it might be time to place their faith in the fourth-rounder.
However, it is the tackles who will be under the microscope this week. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer have had subpar seasons thus far and now must face one of the league's elite edge-rushing duos in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the two have combined for 18 pressures, second-most of any 3-4 outside linebacker duo (behind Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace of the New York Jets).
Defensively, the Pats linebackers will face another stiff test after covering underrated Raiders fullback Marcel Reece last week. Kansas City's woeful wide receiver corps has forced the Chiefs to turn to their backs and tight ends in the passing game. Subsequently, the likes of Knile Davis, Travis Kelce and Joe McKnight have enjoyed intermittent spikes in production, stressing opposing linebackers with their speed (and in Kelce's case, size).
Therefore, the trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins will be crucial to stifling Alex Smith's safety valves. If the linebackers hold up, expect the pass rush and secondary to overwhelm the Chiefs' shoddy offensive line and wide receivers, respectively.
News and Notes
Gronk Ready for More
Much like last season, Rob Gronkowski's acceleration back to full speed has been a painfully gradual process. But after finally crossing the 50 percent threshold in terms of snaps played last week, the tight end appears close to 100 percent, per the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe:
Gronkowski said he '(doesn’t) feel limited at all' and is ready for more responsibility. During the past two weeks, the Patriots have given him an apparent first-half pitch count to save him for the second half. Maybe it’s time to relax the restrictions.
'Obviously. I’m a football player,' Gronkowski said. 'I don’t want to go out to the game and be limited, so I always want to play as much as I can because I like being out there.'
When on the field, Gronk's timing with Tom Brady has shown signs of rust—the two had a pair of near-misses last week, once off a play-action fake and another in the end zone. Indeed, Gronkowski has caught just 11 of 21 targets this season. His 52.4 catch rate sits well below the 60.9 percent rate he posted last season.
A fully healthy Gronkowski would significantly goose New England's running game and red-zone production, both of which have struggled this season. If Kansas City's All-Pro safety Eric Berry misses another game with a high ankle sprain, Gronk should enjoy a favorable matchup as he moves up to the 75-80 percent snap range.
Hightower at All-Pro Level?
Dont'a Hightower has arguably been New England's biggest breakout star of the first three weeks. It's no secret that Hightower has enjoyed a more rush-oriented role in 2014, and as NESN's Doug Kyed highlights in his always enjoyable film review, the third-year linebacker has been one of the league's best all-around linebackers:
The New England Patriots’ starting linebacker has taken a major leap in 2014, and he’s been the team’s best defensive player through three games. Hightower has been spectacular as a pass rusher, in coverage and with stout run defense. He had another stellar game Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, recording a quarterback hit and two hurries as a pass rusher, allowing four catches for zero yards on five targets in coverage and making seven tackles.
Besides the two sacks, Hightower has also accrued nine other hurries and 10 total run stops. When lined up at outside linebacker, his pass-rushing productivity (per-snap pass-rushing production) ranks first among all 3-4 outside linebackers.
Indeed, by reducing his coverage responsibilities and turning him into a forward-moving player, Hightower has been invaluable in attacking everything from the interior A-gap to the perimeter C- and D-gaps. Along with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, Hightower has given the Patriots more viable edge-rushing options than they have enjoyed at any point under Bill Belichick.
Whereas optimism reigns on defense, the offensive line's woes have paralyzed the New England offense and incited panic among the Foxborough faithful. In brainstorming potential improvements, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss suggested an intriguing shake-up at two positions along the line:
Communication is a big part of playing offensive line and one could make a case to stick with the same five and give them a chance to work things out and see things through the same set of eyes. If the Patriots elect for a change, this would be our suggestion for a starting five: Left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Josh Kline, center Bryan Stork, right guard Dan Connolly and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Stork figures to stay in the lineup after Belichick inserted the rookie in crunch time against Oakland, which illustrates the coach's trust in the fourth-rounder and exasperation with struggling right guard Jordan Devey. I advocated for Kline as a potential starter this summer after an impressive cameo as a spot starter last year, but the second-year guard has been inactive the past two weeks.
Regardless of who the Patriots decide on, Reiss' first sentence is the most important point. That New England still has not identified a stable starting five is perturbing, but continuing to shift the lineup is only going to exacerbate the current issues.
If a clearly superior starter existed on the roster, he would have emerged by now. At this point, developing chemistry is the simplest route toward rectifying the offensive line's early-season issues.
|Sealver Siliga||DT||Short-term IR|
*All injury information via ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss.
Siliga was placed on short-term injured reserve this week, meaning that he will be eligible to return to the lineup in eight weeks.. Given his status as New England's only true nose tackle behind Vince Wilfork, Siliga provides important (if unglamorous) depth.
Dennard remains the biggest question mark, as all the other starters on this list suited up against Oakland. After undergoing shoulder surgery this offseason, it's a bit troubling that the third-year corner has seen an apparent reaggravation of that same injury. Nonetheless, New England's excellent depth at corner, which will receive a boost with Brandon Browner's impending return in Week 5, has minimized the impact of Dennard's absence.
The Patriots have been fortunate on the injury front this season; the MMQB's Andy Benoit highlighted the Pats as one of the three luckiest squads on the injury front thus far. The law of averages suggests that such felicity is only temporary, but it has provided New England a significant advantage so far.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer vs. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston
Across most positions, the Chiefs are the inferior team on paper. But Hali and Houston, two of the league's premier edge-rushers, represent potentially equalizing factors who could take over this game if New England's tackles continue to flounder in pass protection.
Both Solder and Vollmer possess track records that would suggest imminent improvement, but their struggles over the first three weeks are worthy causes for alarm. That applies especially to Solder, whose 93.4 percent pass-blocking efficiency ranks 56th out of 63 qualified tackles.
Vollmer has improved after Cameron Wake throttled the big right tackle on opening day. Still, Houston, who primarily rushes from the left side of the defense, is a similarly well-rounded power-speed rusher whose relentless motor could give Vollmer issues.
Improved protection is the surprisingly simplistic key toward the offense experiencing noticeable improvement. While other units have underperformed as well, the tackles could paralyze the entire offense if the Chiefs' Pro Bowl edge-rushing tandem wins their matchups.
Center vs. Dontari Poe
Kansas City's greatest strength coincides with New England's most glaring weakness, so it is no surprise that we are doubling down on the offensive line in highlighting key matchups. It's unclear who will start at center, but rookie Bryan Stork held up well over 15 snaps last week, which figures to send the struggling Jordan Devey to the bench.
One hidden variable could be Ryan Wendell's potential return, though the veteran has been hampered by a knee injury. Moreover, Wendell has struggled against larger defensive tackles, and the mammoth Poe (6'3", 346 lbs) would likely overwhelm the undersized (6'2", 300 lbs) veteran.
Arrowhead's hostile environment is not exactly the ideal locale for the rookie to debut, but Stork's mauling power as a run-blocker gives the Pats the best chance to stymie Poe. While the Chiefs' front seven appears to hold the edge in the trenches, battling Kansas City's All-Pro nose tackle to a draw would be an enormous victory for the Patriots, which could neutralize much of that advantage.
Patrick Chung vs. Travis Kelce
The Chiefs are not exactly overflowing with impressive offensive skill position weapons, but the second-year tight end Kelce is an underrated weapon. Although plodding veteran Anthony Fasano is still technically the starting tight end, Kelce has seen his snaps gradually rise, as he has played 19, 32 and 47 snaps over the first three weeks.
Thus far, Kelce has averaged 16.6 yards per catch on 10 receptions, illustrating his viability as a vertical threat down the seams. Given the Chiefs' propensity for two-tight end 12 personnel (2 WR, 1 RB, 2 TE), Kelce often enjoys the luxury of a matchup against a lead-footed linebacker.
Considering that the Patriots are likely to spend much of the game in their one-gapping 3-4 base, expect Patrick Chung to draw primary coverage responsibilities against Kelce. Chung has been a pleasant surprise in his second stint as a Patriot, playing 62 percent of the snaps and allowing just two catches for eight total yards on five targets.
Chung was helpful in Week 2, bracketing Minnesota's rising tight end Kyle Rudolph, and a similar strategy could be in store for Monday. If Chung and the linebackers can contain the intermediate middle of the field, Alex Smith will have an extremely difficult time exploiting New England's corners on the perimeter.
X-Factor: Shane Vereen
Though Vereen and Stevan Ridley are generally seen as co-starters, the latter has assumed a heavier share of the workload recently. Over the past two weeks, Ridley has played 80 snaps and received 45 touches, while Vereen has accrued just 17 touches over 50 snaps.
However, given Kansas City's strength up front, this could be a week where Vereen re-establishes himself as a lead option. According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs have conceded a 49.6 percent DVOA against running backs in the passing game (which means that RBs produce a success rate 49.6 percent better than they would against the average defense), which ranks 29th in the league.
Thus, this looks like a juicy matchup for Vereen to exploit, especially given Kansas City's lack of a viable cover linebacker following Derrick Johnson's season-ending injury in Week 1. Expect plenty of screens and "Texas" routes for Vereen, allowing him to rack up yards after the catch against overmatched linebackers like Josh Mauga and James-Michael Johnson.
The first quarter of the Patriots' 2014 season has borne an eerie resemblance to that of the 2013 campaign. New England was similarly plagued by offensive stagnation but managed to compile wins due to a stout defense and a soft schedule.
While the Chiefs showed life last week, Kansas City's injury-depleted roster appears ill-equipped to stop most of New England's top weapons. Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Chandler Jones and Darrelle Revis are among the numerous Patriots facing favorable matchups on Monday, and the defense in particular should limit the Chiefs to a plethora of checkdowns and ill-fated runs.
Yes, there are matchup issues, and the Hali-Houston rushing tandem possesses the big-play potential that could create game-changing turnovers, much like Cameron Wake did in Week 1. But while significant, that advantage does not necessarily trump New England's general across-the-board superiority.
The Patriots do not yet possess the firepower to route competent teams, and the Chiefs will stay close if they play as well as they have over the past two games. Still, so long as the Pats remain turnover-resistant, they appear to hold a clear upper hand.
Prediction: Patriots 22, Chiefs 18
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).