The New England Patriots aren't strangers to hostile environments, but Monday Night Football at Arrowhead Stadium will certainly be a test of a young team's mettle. A sea of red awaits, crashing down on the ears of the visiting with a cacophony of sound.
An offensive line that has struggled in the best of circumstances will not have it easy. Bill Belichick certainly will have a plan to mitigate the home-field advantage, but he has an intriguing Kansas City Chiefs football team to deal with in addition to the crowd.
Here is what New England needs to do to continue its winning ways.
Patriots Defense vs. Chiefs Offense
The Patriots could very well be 0-3 without amazing performances by Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones and the opportunistic defensive secondary. They'll have to be at the top of their game again this week.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith doesn't have a lot of weapons to stretch the field vertically—Donnie Avery and the shell of Dwayne Bowe are his starting receivers—but he has a lot of talented players who can make plays with the ball in their hands.
Tight end Travis Kelce should be a focal point of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's game plan. Kelce has speed to burn, so don't be surprised if Devin McCourty or even Darrelle Revis is tasked with covering him when he is on the field.
Knile Davis and Jamaal Charles are two running backs who can make you pay in space. Getting multiple players to the ball and sound open-field tackling are going to be of paramount importance.
The Chiefs offensive line has been even more porous than the Patriots. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), they have given up 50 total pressures compared to New England's 47. Look for Hightower, Jones and Rob Ninkovich to get in Smith's face early and often. That said, if they get sloppy with their contain, Smith will make them pay with his legs.
Patriots Offense vs. Chiefs Defense
Tamba Hali and Justin Houston—two of Kansas City's rush linebackers—have to be salivating watching tape of the Patriots' disjointed offensive line.
Nate Solder hasn't been able to keep up with quicker defensive ends—see Cameron Wake and Khalil Mack. Other than Sebastian Vollmer, the rest of the line has been jumbled around each week, with Ryan Wendell, Josh Kline and Bryan Stork all seeing time with Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon.
If offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can give the line enough help with his tight ends and running backs staying in to block, Tom Brady should be able to pick on the Chiefs secondary. Former Miami Dolphin Sean Smith has been their most consistent performer, but he isn't quick enough to stick with Julian Edelman. Safety Eric Berry is an immense talent, but his availability for the game is in question.
Look for New England to try to take the steam out of the Chiefs' pass rush and aggressiveness with some early screen passes and draws to Shane Vereen. Once the defensive linemen are on their heels, Brady can use the extra time to spring some receivers down the field.
Aaron Dobson or Kenbrell Thompkins—whomever is given the go for the active roster—needs to stretch the field. They don't specifically have to make long receptions, just present enough of a threat to open things up for Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola underneath.
What They're Saying
Via Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald, Patriots fans were treated to some timely words of wisdom from former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia:
Scarnecchia doesn’t want to get involved [in fixing the Patriots line], not even on a consulting basis. He wouldn’t interfere with DeGuglielmo, his replacement. Plus, he’s happy in retired life. The man they call Scar, however, offered a little of his wisdom based on more than four decades of coaching experience.
“They’re trying to build cohesiveness. That’s what they’re trying to do. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it will happen if they’re patient,” Scarnecchia said, trying to explain why the line is having so much trouble keeping Tom Brady upright, not to mention open holes for the running game. “They’re trying to get guys in the right spots. To do that, it does take time.”
Scarnecchia knows DeGuglielmo is in a tough spot, both with the fans and the players. He offered nothing but supportive words.
“Dave’s a good coach, a real good coach. Those are good coaches there. They’ll get it right. And the players want to get it right. And it’ll happen,” Scarnecchia said. “But it’s going to take time. I hope it happens this week. I sincerely hope it happens this week.’’
If it doesn't happen this week, there are a couple of Kansas City defenders—Hali and Houston—who will be right there to take advantage.
Tale of the Tape
It would have been ludicrous to call this a competition five years ago, but Smith and Brady have both had up-and-down seasons through three games. Whomever gets better protection will likely have a better game on Monday.
Charles is probably the best running back in the game when healthy, but his injury lets Stevan Ridley and Vereen gain the push here. Ridley had his big game against the Minnesota Vikings, but Patriots fans are still waiting for Vereen to break out.
Other than Julian Edelman, this group isn't too exciting. Dwayne Bowe, A.J. Jenkins, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson have all the talent in the world, but their production hasn't matched their expectations.
Tim Wright has flashed at times, but he hasn't been a consistent force yet as a complement to Gronkowski. Kelce and Anthony Fasano, however, have been one of the few bright spots for the Chiefs' passing game.
Can both teams lose a category? Neither offensive line has lived up to expectations this year. The Patriots have a slight advantage with their run blocking, but the potential for using silent counts may negate that.
Dontari Poe and Vince Wilfork are each having good years. Allen Bailey has also been disruptive at times for Kansas City. Rookie Dominique Easley could push the Patriots over the top if he can use his quickness to get into Smith's field of vision.
With Jones and Hightower facing off against Houston and Hali, you will be watching four of the top rush linebackers in the league. Add in Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo, however, and the Patriots have an advantage with Derrick Johnson out for the year.
I'm not sure any defensive backfield can compete with Revis, McCourty, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and Patrick Chung at this point. With Berry a little gimpy, this is a clear win for New England.
Stephen Gostkowski just continues to be dang near perfect, while the unproved Cairo Santos has Chiefs fans on the edge of their seats on extra points. Ryan Allen and the unflappable Dustin Colquitt are both excelling in 2014. Look for Edelman or Joe McKnight to make a play in the return game.
Overall: Patriots 5-1-3
On paper, the Patriots have a clear advantage once again. However, the Oakland Raiders proved that a team is only as good as its offensive line. If New England can't block, this game could come down to the wire.
Wednesday's Injury-Report Analysis
Since the game takes place on Monday night, the first practice report won't be released until Thursday. While the Patriots may be without Sealver Siliga, who missed a portion of Week 3 with an injury, all eyes will be on Berry and Charles for Kansas City. They each have ankle issues but may be ready to go, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN.com:
Reid said Monday that Berry and running back Jamaal Charles, who also missed the game at Miami with a high ankle sprain, "most likely" will return to practice on Thursday when the Chiefs being preparations for their Monday night game against the New England Patriots this week.
If Berry is out, look for Brady to attack further down the field.
Stats and figures courtesy of NFL.com.