When it comes to the performance of the Patriots’ defense in the 42-27 loss to the Chiefs on Thursday night, let’s start with the good news.
For starters, the Patriots simply can’t coach or play any worse than they did. We all know about how it was the most points and yards allowed by a Bill Belichick Patriots defense. Not sure if it was quite that bad, at least physically.
I don't buy into the chatter there's a talent problem on this defense. Maybe they’re not great in certain spots (linebacker, for starters) or thin (edge), but this was not a case of the Patriots being pushed around or outclassed physically on the field. To my eyes, the debacle started in the preparation and then was doomed with poor communication on the field (and both are probably related).
Andy Reid, offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, and the Chiefs coaches simply prepared their team much better than Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia did. The Chiefs, especially in the first game of the season, are one of the toughest teams to prepare for. Kansas City is hard to defend unless you have film to prepare with. The Patriots obviously were caught off guard by many of the things the Chiefs did, especially in regards to motion. Reid, being a dedicated old-school West Coast coach, is not normally a huge motion guy. Sure they do it for effect, but not as much as they showed against the Patriots. And instead of just being window dressing, this time Kansas City used motion to dictate the Patriots’ coverage, and then, the Chiefs took advantage.
Probably the biggest problem in this game was communication. It started with middle linebacker Kyle Van Noy and trickled down to the secondary. It will certainly get better as the season goes along, but the Patriots looked like they had never played together. Van Noy wasn’t exactly Jerod Mayo or Dont’a Hightower when it came to keeping the trains running on schedule. Right up until just about every snap, New England players were turning their heads and communicating, and it did not yield good results. Van Noy will be fine in that role against teams that don’t do as much as the Chiefs, but the coaches probably erred in giving him that role against this opponent (it should have been Hightower). Van Noy was out of his depth, and that shaky foundation brought the defense crumbling down.
The coaches continued their poor opener by thinking that Jordan Richards was ready to be a linebacker against a complicated team like the Chiefs, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore was not where he needed to be in terms of reacting to plays either.
Too many changes for an opening game against a smart opponent. Should have gone with experience and smarts instead of being caught up in matchups. That led to three huge plays for the Chiefs. No one wants to hear it, but it you eliminate the three big plays, the Chiefs had 326 yards on 62 plays (5.3 yards per play). Not that terrible, and shows all is a long ways from being lost.
Here are the positional ratings against the Chiefs:
Defensive line (2.5 out of 5)
This unit was not that bad in this game, especially if you don’t count Alan Branch, who may have had his worst game as a Patriot. It was a bad sign that on the first play of the game, Branch got double teamed and shoved 5 yards out of his gap and onto the ground. That was just a taste of what was to come. Four times Branch got bullied out of his gap, including on a touchdown run. That just can’t happen. Branch keys the entire front of the Patriots’ defense. If he’s getting shoved around, then that means other people are going to be exposed. Branch had one stuffed run in this game. That was the extent of his positive contributions to the game. Not good enough. … DE Trey Flowers (1.5 sacks, 3 hurries, 4.5 total QB pressures) was very good in this game, and that’s a great sign for this defense going forward. They do not have to worry about the right side of the line. …. Rookie DLs Deatrich Wise (3.5 total QB pressures in 18 snaps) and Adam Butler (2 pressures in 21 snaps) had strong debuts and gave the Patriots the kind of pressure on passing downs that they’re going to need going forward. … Malcom Brown (stuff, hurry) was too quiet. He needs to make a few more plays in his third season. …. Lawrence Guy was OK. His gap integrity was better on film than it looked in person. … Dont’a Hightower was invisible before leaving midway through the third quarter with an injury. If that’s going to happen on the line, you might as well put him back in the middle of the defense. Another person who didn't get enough (any) practice in training camp.
Linebackers (0.5 out of 5)
If it wasn’t for Jordan Richards forcing a fumble on the first play of the game, this group would have been a complete wasteland. … Starting with Van Noy, this group was thinking way too much and not playing, which caused them to be a step or two slow on everything. That comes because of poor preparation on the part of the coaches. … Kareem Hunt’s 75-yard TD was a carnival of errors at all levels. First, Jordan Richards decided it would be a good idea to rush against LT Eric Fisher, and it took him 10 years to get off the block and find a path to the QB. Then Cassius Marsh didn’t re-route Hunt as he went out into his pattern. Then Van Noy peeked at the QB and stopped helping Marsh. It took Smith 3.96 seconds to get rid of the ball and there was still no one around him. Nobody can cover for that long. And with Harmon rotating down on Hill’s motion, Eric Rowe was supposed to become the deep safety. Only he didn’t come close to doing that. Very poor all around. … Richards does nothing well at this point. He might get better in time with more reps, but not sure the team can wait that long. … Elandon Roberts finally got into the game, brought some aggression and made a great read to get into the hole, and then missed the tackle for a loss. It was that kind of night.
Secondary (1 out of 5)
Probably the most concerning thing in this game -- but it can be corrected with coaching -- is that new CB Stephon Gilmore was consistently late and poor in run support. His side of the defense was very soft. The Patriots count on their cornerbacks to be an integral part of their run defense. New England wants to spill or funnel the ball carrier wide. Often, especially against a team with a read-option threat, the cornerbacks are the force or contain defender. Malcolm Butler is a very good force corner, and so was Logan Ryan. Gilmore was terrible against the Chiefs and that will be a big problem until it is cleaned up. …. Butler has had some issues in pass coverage this year, but he certainly still has his elite burst. Fantastic play to come up and tackle the dangerous Hill short of the sticks on third down to end Chiefs’ first possession of second half. … On Hill’s 75-yard touchdown, the Chiefs had a terrific design aimed at the Patriots/Tampa (cover) 2 coverage, which they often use on passing downs. TE Travis Kelce ran a post to mess with the split safeties, and then the receivers ran mirror out-and-ups on either side that were both wide open. Both Gilmore and Butler played them the same, like typical Tampa 2 coverage. So either they were both wrong, or both were right. Gilmore and Devin McCourty looked to be both at fault on the touchdown. McCourty’s hips were towards Kelce, which gave him no shot at Hill, and Gilmore could have carried Hill further with no threat of an underneath pass into the flat (his responsibility in that coverage). … McCourty had big-time problems in this game, and they were likely caused by poor and late communication throughout the defense. He and Gilmore obviously had a long ways to go in terms of understanding how each will react on combination routes. … Rowe struggled when he was playing inside. This is something to monitor and might cause Butler to play even more inside. … In general, the Patriots looked like a team that had recently changed out two players. After an entire camp together, there’s really no excuse for that. That’s on cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer.
DE Trey Flowers: Did his job bringing pressure and being imposing on the right of his line. Too bad so few others did.
DL Deatrich Wise: Having 3.5 total QB pressures in just 18 snaps is very good work. Now the Patriots just have to figure out how to get opposing offenses into more passing situations.
DL Adam Butler: Not many other candidates, so we'll take his two pressures in 21 snaps.
LB Kyle Van Noy: You'll notice a pattern with all three of these players — they're all in the middle of the defense, and that's a huge problem. Van Noy couldn't get the unit on the same page (that might not be all his fault), and was run over by Chiefs blockers.
DT Alan Branch: If Branch is getting consistently shoved out of his gap in the middle of the line, the Patriots don't have much of a chance to slow down the opponent.
S Devin McCourty: Had a few nice plays, but factored into two touchdowns and had issues in coverage on crossing patterns.